New preparedness law for crises in pipeline in case of bleaker future

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A COVID-19 department at the North Estonia Medical Center. Source: North Estonia Medical Center (PERH)

The preparedness law, which will be drafted under the leadership of the State Chancellery, will transfer the management of high-impact crises to the prime minister and the government, so that the situation where a small state agency (in this case the Health Board) has to manage a social crisis caused by the coronavirus will not be repeated.

The world is changing and laws must change alongside it, it is argued; more and more situations can and do arise where it is no longer possible to distinguish between a security and a civil crisis, Secretary of State Taimar Peterkop, who introduced the government's intention to develop a new preparedness law last week, says.

"So far, there have been two parallel worlds in Estonian legislation on how to prepare for crises: military crises and civilian crises. This stems from the constitution and has a long history. The two worlds must be brought together, given the security threats in today's world," Peterkop said.

Peterkop cited the current refugee crisis in Lithuania, which led the government in that country to declare a state of emergency.

"If a similar thing happened in Estonia, it would be a civilian crisis resolved under the Emergency Law, but in essence, it is a security crisis, how Belarus is trying to influence the decisions of Lithuania and the EU with such a hybrid attack. In today's crises, the asymmetrical aspect is very strong and it is reasonable to merge these two worlds," Peterkop said.

Peterkop also noted Russia's activities in Ukraine and Georgia, where what is happening can also be considered an asymmetric conflict: in addition to the usual military activities, there is also an information war. "And how are we looking for opportunities to take advantage of when there is a crisis somewhere?" Hypothetically: if the heating system in Estonia collapses in winter, people are freezing and then a friendly neighboring country will have to help us with their army. Without asking our permission. Such things are happening more and more in the world, and we must be prepared for a military threat at the same time, the COVID crisis," Peterkop said.

The burden of COVID fell on one government agency

The most important lessons have been learned from the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Emergency Act, dealing with the health care crisis had to be managed throughout the country and the Health Board, which obviously did not have and still does not have such an ability or resources, had to manage the whole crisis.

"It is clear that when it comes to society as a whole and the functioning of the state, such a small agency cannot take over the entire state. The Health Board is already overwhelmed with its own task. "The rest of society and the state - they do not have this capacity. In such crises, it is clear that it must be managed from the top political level and it must also be enshrined in law," Peterkop said.

The idea that will be put into law is clear: if it is a local crisis, it will be dealt with by the relevant state agency, if it is a national crisis, it will be dealt with by the government and the Prime Minister.

The preparedness law brings together the current National Defense Act, the State of Emergency Act and the Emergency Act. The new law will have a state of emergency, a state of emergency and a state of war. Peterkop said that there is currently a wrong premise in the law that crises as large as the coronavirus pandemic must be resolved at the official level. On the contrary.

"Last spring, a dormitory in Tartu was quarantined, the decision was made by the government. This decision should not be made by the government, it can be made by the Health Board. If it is necessary to quarantine all dormitories in Estonia or regulate school behavior, such decisions must be made by the government and the Prime Minister," Peterkop continued.

The involvement of the defense forces is likely to remain the same

The role of the prime minister in an emergency situation must also be clarified. Currently, the Emergency Act states that a civilian crisis is managed by a (relevant) minister. Peterkop said however that only the prime minister can manage the management of the nationwide crisis and it is necessary to write it into law.

"This is the responsibility that comes with such a serious situation - the lesson of COVID is that it can only be the prime minister," Peterkop said.

When merging the three laws, it must also be agreed how the involvement of the Estonian Defense Forces and the volunteer Defense League will be written in the new law. Peterkop said that he does not see the need for change. At present, the involvement of the EDF's requires the consent of the president in addition to the government's decision.

"Several authorities have said that this makes the procedure too long to exclude the president's consent. I personally do not support it, I think the president's consent is a very important balancing instrument not to be taken lightly," Peterkop said.

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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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