Haapsalu, Lääne-Nigula to dispute Turba-Risti railway funding cut in court

Haapsalu Railway Station.
Haapsalu Railway Station. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

After dismissing its Center ministers, the Reform Party's minority government decided last month to cut EU Recovery and Resilience Fund money previously earmarked primarily for the construction of Tallinn Hospital, but also for the planned Turba-Risti section of railway in Northwestern Estonia. This Monday, the City of Haapsalu and Lääne-Nigula Municipality are taking the decision to court.

Anonymous sources connected with the dispute told investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress (link in Estonian) that there were several grounds for the appeal to be filed with the administrative court — including the matter of a government quorum, the right of an essentially resigned government to make big decisions as well as the question of whether the Center Party had been offered that if the party were to withdraw its bill on increasing child benefits, funding for the railway may have remained untouched.

Haapsalu Mayor Urmas Sukles, currently independent but previously a member of the Reform Party, essentially declined to answer questions about the matter, calling on the journalist to ask Eesti Ekspress where they had gotten such info but also citing that he was on vacation and saying that he had no comment.

"If you find more info from somewhere, then call again; I'd also like to know what's going on," he added.

Asked what Haapsalu's plans might be in connection with the railway, the mayor responded, "What plans can there be here? I still hope that the state will build that railway. It should be included in transport development plans, and as far as I know, Europe has approved it as well."

Lääne-Nigula Municipal Mayor Aivar Riisalu (Center), meanwhile, was not so tight-lipped.

According to Riisalu, Lääne-Nigula Municipality and the City of Haapsalu have retained PwC Legal attorney Indrek Leppik, who will be filing an appeal on behalf of the two local governments seeking to either overturn or void the government's decision.

"We have discussed this issue, and we are indeed seeking a legal assessment regarding the adequacy of the matter," he said. "Because a lot of hopes and — to be quite honest — incurred expenses are involved. Broadly speaking, this is a situation where Europe has authorized [the railway project], and I think there's some kind of downright concern about quorum with the government at the time."

Riisalu: This was revenge on Karilaid

The municipal mayor noted that they have discussed the matter with the City of Haapsalu and recognized that it would be reasonable to at least ask why this happened.

"This government crisis is so great that it's a problem," he said. "I'm not justifying absolutely anyone here either. Things happened that shouldn't have happened. This isn't cool in the current wartime. But nevermind, I'm not judging."

Asked what Lääne-Nigula and Haapsalu hope to achieve, Riisalu responded figuratively: "If I beat you up so badly that I break your ribs, then I can ask you afterward, 'But what do you hope to achieve with the fact that your ribs are broken and now you want to take me to court?' These ribs aren't healing, they'll heal over time and so on. This isn't an adequate question."

The two local governments want to know whether the government's funding decision, which has a significant impact on the region, was competent or not, he nonetheless continued.

"And if it wasn't competent, then a new situation will arise," he said. "Then the government will have the opportunity to reconsider it. It was clearly revenge on [Center whip] Jaanus Karilaid. I don't want some politicians settling their personal business via the people of Lääne County."

Asked why anyone had to take revenge on Karilaid, Riisalu declined to respond directly. "The sun is shining and we have some light clouds overhead, but we have little wind overall, and we're seeing beautiful summer weather," he said, sighing. "That's it. I'm not answering anymore."

Indrek Leppik, partner at PwC Legal and the attorney representing the two local governments, said that he is currently in the process of drawing up the appeal to be filed with the administrative court. He intends to file it on the last day possible, i.e. Monday.

He confirmed that part of the appeal is related to the matters of the government quorum and its capacity to make significant decisions at the time, but noted that other nuances were involved as well.

"In principle, the government has the right to make decisions," Leppik said. "Therein lies the government's margin of discretion. But when, based on the materials currently submitted to me, this has essentially been preceded by a threat to one party that if they don't withdraw a bill, then they will lose this funding, and if they do withdraw, then the Haapsalu railway will be funded — in that case it is an abuse of discretionary power and a manifest error of assessment and that is also one reason on the substantive side why this is unlawful. And there are even more nuances involved here."

€360.3 million decided by five ministers

On June 30, the Reform Party's minority government decided to withdraw support with funding from the EU's Recovery and Resilience Facility from several major projects, including the planned Tallinn Hospital, the Turba-Risti section of railway toward Haapsalu and the establishment of a medical evacuation, or medevac, helicopter capability.

The government's decision freed up a total of €360.3 million in EU funds, including €280 million from the hospital project, €34 million from the railway project and €46.3 million from the medevac helicopters project.

That day's meeting was led by Minister of Finance Keit Pentus-Rosimannus and also attended by Reform ministers Liina Kersna, Urmas Kruuse, Maris Lauri and Signe Riisalo.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and ministers Kalle Laanet and Andres Sutt were all absent.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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