Jaak Valge: Ideological core conflict
I suppose that the Riigikogu has lost the role a parliament should have in a parliamentary country. It is not a place of wise compromises based on the will of the people, which parliamentarism suggests it should be, but one where legislation that pleases the coalition is passed using brute force, Jaak Valge writes.
Obstruction tactics were needed to arrive at an agreement concerning amendments to the Media Services Act that were passed in February after almost a year of deliberations. The Conservative People's Party (EKRE) filed over 200 proposals to amend the processing of which would have congested the parliament's work that forced to coalition to negotiate. But a compromise was found in the end.
While this is not how things should work (through obstruction), it is a fact that they do today. EKRE has treated several unacceptable bills the same way since then because there are no other levers for launching negotiations.
The coalition has its own ways for hindering normal parliamentary work. Gaps in the Riigikogu Rules and Procedures Act are used to shelve inconvenient bills. For example, an EKRE bill to give local governments the right to hold referendums has been stuck in the Riigikogu Constitutional Committee since October.
While these bills would be voted down on the floor, it is more convenient for the government to keep them out of there in the first place to avoid having to deal with unpleasant topics. It is just another example of obstruction, while the opposition has no remedy for it. Except resorting to its own obstruction tactics aimed at other pieces of draft legislation. All of it works to deepen the divide.
The current ideological conflict is most clearly reflected in the immigration issue. Recent years have seen immigration, mostly from eastern Slavic and Asian-African countries, outperform emigration by 4,000-5,000 people. While the 2021 figures are not in yet, preliminary data from Statistics Estonia suggests the magnitude is unchanged.
This means that with recent trends continuing, we would in ten years have enough new people to fill the city of Pärnu who would need to be integrated in a situation where a substantial part of the population is already of foreign background and we have more than enough problems with national language proficiency and social cohesion.
What is more, we have tens of thousands of so-called short-term workers some of whom surely plan to stay in Estonia. We need to keep in mind that every immigrant who arrives and stays in Estonia to work will eventually get old and have to be paid a pension.
Estonia's pension expenses are as high as they are largely because of past immigration. Eastern Slavic countries sport a lower birthrate than Estonia, with the pattern having made its way to Estonia, which it will continue to do.
People who came to Estonia as Soviet labor migrants have largely reached the retirement age by now, with non-ethnic Estonians making up 40 percent of 60-69-year-olds. Therefore, promoting immigration is happening at the expense of our future and is, in other words, a pyramid scheme. It will not dial back population aging but actually work to deepen it. Our Aliens Act has 18 exceptions, meaning that our immigration gates are wide open.
At the same time, data from the Unemployment Insurance Fund reveals that we have 45,000 unemployed but only around 6,000 vacant jobs. Tens of thousands of working-age Estonians are making a living abroad, mainly in Finland, and would return to Estonia in the conditions of faster salary advance. Our productivity is 76 percent of the EU average and is behind, for example, Czechia, Slovenia, Poland and Lithuania.
We have around 650,000 working people and boosting our productivity to the European average level would be akin to finding 205,000 new workers. That is the course we should plot, next to finding suitable employment opportunities for the elderly.
Use of cheap labor hinders growth of productivity as it holds back technological development and changes to economic structure.
"If cheap labor makes it possible to retain recently low productivity, why invest in technology and think about how to make more effective use of existing labor," economist Viktor Trasberg (formerly of the Center Party) suggests.
It is clear that use of cheap foreign labor is holding back salary advance and our people's return from Finland or, what is worse, is motivating Estonians to work elsewhere. Estonians' migration trend reversed in 2020, with more Estonians emigrating than returning home.
It has been the steadfast position of EKRE in this situation that immigration needs to be contained. A corresponding bill landed in the Riigikogu when the previous government still ruled in late 2020. The Center Party did not like, which fact might have been one reason for the three-way coalition's collapse.
EKRE has made two further attempts to dial back immigration since then. A bill put forward on January 17 is still in proceedings, while the first such attempt the coalition voted down on June 2, 2021.
This is hardly surprising as the prime minister sports a diametrically opposite view. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) told the Riigikogu on February 14 that Estonia's migration policy "has, in truth, been rather conservative, looking at how few people have come here from other countries." I kid you not and you can check for yourselves.
The government is moving to have even more foreign labor coming in. The bill that has been stuck in the Riigikogu Constitutional Committee since the previous government's day recently got a series of amendment proposals that allow short-term foreign workers to extend their stay beyond one year, lower their minimum salary requirement from 1.0 national average salaries to 0.8 and include a number of other concessions making it easier to hire foreign labor and for immigrants to stay in Estonia permanently, which is sure to deliver a spike in immigration.
Because the bill is in its second reading and amendment proposals by Riigikogu groups had to be registered more than a year ago, EKRE cannot use obstruction in this case.
Inevitable political collision
An unbridled demagogical campaign to justify immigration was launched before the war even started.
Enn Veskimägi said that the Estonian furniture industry employs a lot of seamstresses from third countries and asked: "In a situation where our seamstress makes €1,500-1,600 a month, what will they think to see the Ukrainian worker next to them make €2,300-2,400?"
First of all, a Ukrainian seamstress does not have to make €2,300. The Aliens Act provides that a foreigner who has a residence permit for the purpose of working in Estonia and so-called short-term workers need to be paid the previous year's gross average salary.
This is doubled in cases where the worker comes as a top-level specialist, meaning they will not need a permit from the Unemployment Insurance Fund that is issued when the vacancy cannot be filled with an Estonian or EU citizen or a foreigner living in Estonia based on a residence permit who meet the same qualifications.
But a seamstress is not a top specialist. And more importantly – if employer Enn Veskimägi paid Estonians as much as he claims to be paying Ukrainians, he would have more than enough Estonian or EU labor at his disposal.
Let us not forget that there are no limitations for hiring from EU countries, meaning that all of these concessions concern third country nationals. This suggests the goal is cheap labor.
The changes are sought regardless of the fact that Ukrainian refugees will completely change the situation on the labor market.
The European Union has decided to automatically apply the temporary protection mechanism to Ukrainian refugees, meaning they will immediately get a residence permit and the right to services and work on equal grounds. There will no longer be any extra salary requirement where the minimum salary will suffice.
The Estonian Trade Unions Confederation has already received multiple signals that Ukrainian refugees have been offered work for four time less than the locals are paid for the same kind of work.
Let us make some admittedly rough calculations. Estonians make up 69 percent of the population today. If we expect recent years' population trends to persist, a summary birthrate of 1.6 (last year) and a migration surplus of 4,000-5,000 people (data from 2019 and 2020 that is the most recent), we will become a minority in our own land in ca half a century.
If we presume that positive migration will double after the government's planned changes and Ukrainian refugees, we could hit that target in a little over two decades.
And finally, just as a mental exercise: if we keep bringing in the same number of refugees as presently (around 1,500 a day) and presume all will stay, we would be rendered a minority by the spring of 2023. But that will not manifest in real life, and we must give Ukraine all the help we can.
All of these changes are wholly unacceptable for EKRE, unlike for the government. We are dealing with a core ideological conflict. We will be launching obstruction because no grounds for compromise are on the horizon. Because it is impossible to present proposals to amend to the bill at hand, obstruction efforts will be that much more pronounced.
Negotiation and compromises are possible when base attitudes and core targets overlap at least to some extent. When the difference lies in methods and not goals. It is the goal of EKRE to protect the nation state, economic development and our people's salary advance. The government's policy proceeds from something else entirely, definitely not Estonia's interests. Therefore, a political collision is inevitable.
Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!
Editor: Marcus Turovski