Prime minister: Coalition with Center a healing one

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Kaja Kallas at Friday's Reform Party convention. Source: Mati Leet

Prime minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) says that after a difficult birth, trust within the Reform-Center coalition has improved and the political landscape is being prettified. Much is to be done in the coming months, however, both in the ongoing fight against the pandemic and despite falling rates, and in implementing financial discipline at the state level – even with the unexpected economic growth which seems to be accompanying that fall in coronavirus rates.

Speaking at a Reform Party convention Friday, Kallas said: "To put it bluntly: It was a difficult start".

"The Center Party did not trust us and we did not trust them. But today the situation in the Cabinet has changed. There is a working and goodwill relationship between the ministers. We have tried, as far as possible, to take each other's interests into account," Kallas added.

"What makes our relations more difficult? Humanly, it is perfectly understandable that the government to which the leader of the Center Party gave his heart was the previous government, not the current one. Looking to the future, it would be best if the leader of the governing party were also a member of the Cabinet. In politics, there is nothing extraordinary about such a change of positions," she went on.

On the upcoming presidential election and in the same week that Jüri Ratas, Kallas' predecessor as prime minister and leader of Reform's coalition partner, Center, said he would not run as president, Kallas said that a consensus candidate would be ideal.

"We are looking for the best possible president for Estonia, and we know that an agreement broader than the coalition is necessary with the opposition to get the president elected," she said.

"I would venture to guess that today's coalition and today's opposition listen to each other much more than the previous coalition and opposition. I believe that under the current governing coalition, Estonia's political climate will be healed and we will be able to defend values that we consider to be European or simply humane," Kallas added.

While Ratas may have had difficulty as a presidential candidate in obtaining the required 67 votes at the 101-seat Riigikogu to become president – with no guarantee that all Reformists would have voted for him by any stretch – he also had to weigh this up against party considerations given autumn also brings the local elections. Had he become president, Ratas would have had to have quit Center, since presidents may not belong to any political party, sparking a search for his successor as party leader

Kallas continued that: "However, even after reaching this target [of a unifying presidential candidate], there is no reason to celebrate. It raises the question: To what extent are the majority, who are not significantly threatened by the disease, prepared to give up their well-being? A balance has to be struck."

While Reform in opposition would have been strongly identified with Kersti Kaljulaid, current president and eligible for a second term, since entering office with Center, these links are less obvious. Kaljulaid has been called a polarizing force in Estonian society by some.

On the question of the coronavirus pandemic, Kallas said there were no easy answers.

"There are no universally applicable solutions to this pandemic. Almost all Eastern European and Baltic countries survived the first wave of the pandemic fairly easily, but almost all of them were hit equally hard by the second wave. Although their responses to the pandemic have varied widely. We have to admit that, to this day, our knowledge – including that of scientists – is still too limited to make choices that are the only right choices. However, I would hope that thanks to the White Paper we all now have more signposts to guide us."

Kallas said that there is, however, reason to be optimistic and believe that within a few months we will achieve at least 70 percent  vaccination coverage among the Estonian population, which is an essential prerequisite to overcome the pandemic.

She said that in the case of COVID-19, the upward inclination of the "R" value will not fall overnight; in finance it takes years to slow down a ship that has gained momentum she is reported to have said, mixing metaphors somewhat.

Other topics on the agenda were the state budget strategy and the austerity measures Reform is known for.

"The last few weeks have confirmed what is common knowledge: It is very easy to borrow one billion, but it is terribly difficult to save one million," she said, adding that a post-pandemic boom did not change that and in fact made it even more critical that state finances get examined.

"Last year, Estonia took out a record loan of €2.58 billion. The same amount will have to be taken this year and next. And we will take it, [but] we are [then] the country with fastest growing debt in Europe," she added.

"Let us remember this fact: according to the 2022 budget, the costs of the Estonian state will be €1.7 billion higher than in 2020. It is more important today to be aware of where we will be tomorrow, if we do nothing."

Kallas said that this summer, far from being a period of down-time, will be a busy one, given the urge to improve digital capabilities and to get more of the populace vaccinated, she added.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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