The end of the hot summer must not mean an end to warm rooms, and we cannot accept a situation where people must choose between buying a loaf of bread and paying their energy bills, Riigikogu speaker Jüri Ratas (Center) said at the opening sitting of the Autumn Riigikogu session on Monday.
President of the Republic, members of the Riigikogu, Prime Minister, Government of the Republic, constitutional officials, Excellencies, Estonian people,
The beginning of autumn is different every year but, whatever the weather, the Riigikogu traditionally convenes for its autumn session on the second Monday of September. So, we are starting the last parliamentary term of the 14th Riigikogu today, and we are opening a chapter that we will be writing together over the coming six months.
We have been writing chapters into the Estonian democratic parliamentary history since April 1919, when the first representative body of the Republic of Estonia – the Constituent Assembly – convened for its opening session in the Estonia Concert Hall. After that, every parliament has had its own identity and has significantly contributed to Estonia's development – by standing on the shoulders of their predecessors and continuing to build our national independence.
Today, on September 12, we are celebrating the centenary of the Riigikogu Building, built in the heart of Toompea castle, where, without exaggeration, the most important hall of the Republic of Estonia – the session hall of the Riigikogu – is situated. The laws and resolutions that have been passed here since 1922 have become to form the basis for the organization of life in our country.
Members of the Riigikogu, we are facing great tasks both in our home country and abroad. A year ago, when opening our previous autumn session, I said that our work must be even more geared towards a dialogue with every person living in Estonia. This goal has not changed. We must continue a dialogue with the people of Estonia about how our people cope, about security, about both mental and physical health, education, economy, and the international situation.
Let us make more effort this year to reach every person, even in the issues that concern them most immediately. Being a small country gives us great advantages. We can reach every person – from Hiiumaa to Narva and from Haljala municipality to Rõuge municipality – if we only wish. The people are willing to have more say in the national decisions, and I think that, if we want to strengthen democracy, it is inevitable that the state turns its face more and more towards the people. Only in dialogue can we solve people's problems and prevent problems.
The Riigikogu as the legislature has the role of expressing the opinions prevailing in society and making fundamental decisions that carry the interests of the people in both the short- and longer-term perspective. Let us not be afraid to amend the issues that need changing in the light of new knowledge. The world around us is changing fast, and parliament must be the pioneer in the necessary innovations. We must act smartly and courageously both domestically and in the international arena.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Russia's devastating military action in Ukraine has been a painful reminder of how fragile freedom can be. In the early morning of Estonian Independence Day this year, something that we had been hoping never to see again became a reality. In the changed security situation, cooperation both domestically and at the international level is paramount, and I am glad that we have been abiding by the principle of consensus in foreign and defense policy. There is never too much security, and the war has forced us to contribute more to national defense and to have an active foreign policy.
I am taking this opportunity to thank all the members of the Riigikogu, committees, officials and all people in Estonia who have been working from their hearts so that our support for Ukraine can be felt, seen and heard. We will never leave Ukraine alone, and we will make joint efforts to help Ukraine win the war and restore its territorial integrity. We are all following Ukraine's progress in recent weeks, and we are hoping that it will soon be possible to completely liberate the occupied territories. We also continue to be ready to make long-term contributions to rebuilding Ukraine after the war.
The Riigikogu has been acting quickly and decisively since the beginning of the all-out war started by Russia. In March, we adopted a communication to the European Union and NATO member states and national parliaments to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and we called to immediately establish a comprehensive trade embargo and additional sanctions against Russia as well as Belarus who is a party to the aggression.
In April, we unanimously adopted a Statement on Russia's war crimes and genocide in Ukraine. With this, we recognized as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian nation the actions committed by the Russian armed forces and political and military leadership, and we urged other national parliaments and international organizations to do the same. The Estonian parliament was also among the first countries in the world to vote for the approval of the NATO Accession Protocols with Finland and Sweden.
We have affirmed our readiness to provide broad support to Ukraine on its path toward becoming a full-fledged Member State of the European Union, and we urged the parliaments of other Member States of the European Union to do the same.
Innocent people have suffered in the tragic events of the war started by Russia. Many Ukrainians have lost their lives; and fate has forced others to leave their dear homes when choosing between life and death. It is our duty to give them an opportunity to rebuild their homes. My deepest respect goes to all the good people of Estonia who have shown the greatest helpfulness and have made efforts to help Ukrainian war refugees feel at home in Estonia.
Everyone has been able to find the most suitable way to help – whether to help directly or to help the helpers, but the important thing is that we have stretched out a helping hand. If we teach Estonian to the people who have arrived here, provide places at schools for children and jobs for parents, and engage them in the cultural life, we can live happily together here. We are certainly hoping that Ukraine will take a decisive victory, and war refugees will soon be able to return to their home country, if they wish. Until then, however, it is our role and moral duty to offer the families who have fled the war a safe and supporting place to live. All people living in Estonia have a right to live in peace, a right to education, a right to be treated with dignity, and a right to equal opportunities.
Members of the Riigikogu,
In important issues, we have been able to show that, even though we may have different priorities and concerns, our main goals are still overlapping. This is how it will have to be also when we are taking life forward in Estonia. In order to stand together, we do not need to completely agree on everything, but we must have mutual trust to discuss difficult subjects, and a readiness to find common ground. If we do not debate disagreements and if we never so much as strive towards solutions, we will lack an important foundation for continuous development in any domain – be it social welfare, economy or education.
We, here and now, can and indeed must take care of the present and future of Estonia. We can build a stronger Estonia only if we care for it together. I believe we would all like to live in a country where people are well-off. Let it be our goal that no one feels sidelined in Estonia, because exclusion and powerlessness create disappointment, and we must not let that happen. Let us create a society where everyone has an opportunity to live a dignified life, to earn a fair wage, and to receive necessary healthcare and high-quality education.
The availability and sustainability of the public services necessary for the people has become even more critical due to successive crises. We must make sufficient contributions to healthcare, the social sector, to education, as well as to ensuring of internal security and national defense. It is the task and responsibility of the Riigikogu to ensure the revenue base and develop the tax policy necessary for this. We should not be afraid of a tax debate, but boldly speak out our ideas and proposals. In dialogue with the people we will be sure to reach the best solutions.
In this autumn season, as usual, we will discuss next year's budget, but most of it will remain to be implemented by the next Government. The greatest energy crisis of recent decades that is directly affecting the daily lives of all our people clearly needs more attention and a progressive solution. We must not forget here that both home consumers and businesses are waiting for help from the state to overcome the energy crisis. The well-being of our businesses in this crisis is of significant importance in order that the Estonian economy to stay strong and people to keep their jobs.
We must not address the impacts of the energy crisis only in their aftermath, and I hope that our efficient parliament can anticipate potential problems and thereby make the necessary decisions. The end of hot summer must not mean an end to warm rooms, and we cannot accept a situation where people must choose between buying a loaf of bread and paying their energy bills.
Already now, in too many cases, people with a lower income and the middle class have been forced to admit that, in the current price rises, they cannot make ends meet with just work and dedication. People of all incomes have had to find opportunities to economize – this is mostly done at the expense of food and convenience goods, as people generally spend a larger share of their income on these. Obviously, this is the hardest for low-income people. It is our duty to help those who need support most and to reduce social inequality.
I think we all agree that, over the coming six months, the work here in this hall will be made more lively by the elections of the Riigikogu upcoming next March. I wish you all success. However, I would like to call on all of us to maintain civility and a constructive approach in our debates, amid all the political goings-on. The expectations for the members of parliament are high, and we must live up to the trust of the people.
Long live Estonia! I wish the Riigikogu all the strength in its work.
Editor: Helen Wright