While confusion over an abortive regional investment proposal which saw over €6 million in state budget funds returned to the Ministry of the Interior has led to a further lack of trust within the coalition government, it is unlikely to collapse, Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets (SDE) said.
Appearing on ETV politics head-to-head show "Esimene stuudio" Wednesday evening, Läänemets said: It's a shame that we can't support Estonian children anymore, that decision was made," referring to the return of over €6 million in funds to his ministry which had been earmarked for schools and kindergartens, primarily in southeastern Estonia.
"The money is still there; it was placed where it shouldn't have been. We hadn't planned that it would be a budget entry relating to the Ministry of the Interior, until the end," Läänemets added.
"But it is now, and now I have to start utilizing it, as the Minister of the Interior. Naturally, we will place it into internal security, certainly towards the construction of volunteer command buildings, and to support the development of civil society - following the logic that this money should go beyond the big cities."
Since schools and kindergartens do not fall under the interior ministry's remit, the state budget funds were returned and the ministry instructed to reroute them to objects which it does have responsibility for.
However, Läänemets told "Esimene stuudio" host Mirko Ojakivi, it had seemed to come as no major surprise the Reform Party and to Isamaa, SDE's coalition partners, that the educational support had indeed been included in the budget line relating to the Ministry of the Interior.
"Both coalition partners knew about these issues and our proposals two months prior to this. The fact that at the last moment it was implied that this had come as some sort of surprise is … well it was not a surprise," Läänemets went on.
Läänemets said his party had already proposed to invest in small towns and rural areas during the coalition negotiations which took place in June and July.
He had not expected that the money intended for his proposals would be placed under the budget of the Ministry of the Interior, however.
"We agreed that we would make proposals on how to promote and aid Estonian life in various rural areas. There were some very important proposals there, and I am sorry that they were struck off in such a relatively thoughtless manner. For instance, now comes the risk that the Hiiumaa Vaba kool will cease operations next year , because operational support for this was also withdrawn," the minister said.
While this has further diminished trust inside the coalition, it will not break it up, Läänemets said, not least due to the current security situation.
"The Social Democrats now know that, next time, we must be more demanding from the outset But we will never give up on contributing to regional development," Läänemets, who became party leader in February and interior minister in July, continued.
He also conceded that the educational funding should not have been included under his ministry's remit, in the 2023 state budget – now passed into law – and agreed with Auditor General Janar Holm on this.
Läänemets said he had told both the cabinet and the Riigikogu's finance committee that the funds rightful place is in the Minister of Public Administration's remit (effectively the minister for the regions and a post held by Isamaa's Riina Solman – ed.). "We hoped that this would be done in the end - if not approved by the government … then at Riigikogu committee level. Well, that wasn't carried out, which is a pity."
The minister also noted that his party had not tried to conceal anything, adding that: "The principle that we should not leave people and children alone in such a difficult situation is an important one."
The decision to return €6.2 million to the interior ministry, which had been entered into the state budget act, was made Monday, two days before the state budget passed into law. The sums included €700,000 for two different kindergartens at Kastre and Tabivere, both in Tartu County, and sums in the hundreds of thousands for schools in Võru County and Tartu City, as well as the Hiiumaa Vaba kool noted above.
Läänemets said at the time that this funding had been placed in error under his ministry's state budget entry by then finance minister, now Estonia's representative at the European Court of Auditors (ECA) Keit Pentus-Rosimannus. The latter has stated that it was agreed during the coalition talks ahead of the Reform/Isamaa/SDE coalition entering into office, that the latter parties desire to allocate more money to support the development of regions and civil society would be taken into account.
The interior minister and the prime minister have also recently had a difference of opinion on who the candidate for the next head of the Police and Border Guard Board should be.
The general election takes place March 5, 2023; two changes in coalition government have taken place since the last Riigikogu election in 2019, while a further break-up would not achieve much with twelve-and-a-half weeks to go until polling day.
The Riigikogu breaks up for Christmas next Thursday and returns to work Monday, January 9, 2023. Government ministers do not sit at the Riigikogu, but regularly appear before it to answer questions and present policy, at the main debating chamber and at committee level.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael
Source: "Esimene stuudio", Mirko Ojakivi