When Estonian heads of state travel abroad, the host country sometimes pays for their expenses, according to representatives of the president, prime minister and foreign minister, as well as the chair of the Riikikogu's Foreign Affairs Committee. The issue of travel expenses has been a heated topic in EU institutions, as a number of incidents involving host-paid expenses have come to light.
"The budget of the Government Office covers the expenses associated with the prime minister's official trips. Travel costs for participation in the European Council is reimbursed from the European Union's budget," Sten Otsmaa, government spokesman, explained.
The Government Office has received €85,555 from the EU budget for Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' (Reform) travel expenses since January 2021.
"In the case of the prime minister's official visits, the inviting party, i.e., the government of the other country, is responsible for the prime minister's local accommodation and travel expenses, in accordance with the protocol agreement and international custom," Otsmaa added.
The president's communications adviser, Indrek Treufeldt, told ERR, "In international relations, the higher the level of the visit, the bigger the costs borne by the host."
He added that the scope of expenses and the custom of covering them vary from nation to nation.
The representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized the exceptions regarding travel expenses for European Union-related trips abroad.
"For example, travel expenses for ministerial missions to meetings of the Council of the European Union are reimbursed. On the same premise, reimbursement is offered for a portion of travel expenses for working meetings organized by the country holding the [EU] presidency," Brent Pere, ministry spokesman, said.
Marko Mihkelson, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu, summed up the issue as follows: "The payment for the travel of European Commissioners and officials could be tied to lobbying activities aimed at persuading officials to make significant policy decisions. Although, we are an influential member of the European Union and NATO, I believe that due to our particular weight, we are not a very exciting target-country for lobbying."
Mihkelson said that the procedure for foreign missions in the Riigikogu is largely in place, although there could be instances in which the host party wants to pay for the expenditures, such as when a Riigikogu member is invited to give a presentation.
"In addition, there are countries where it is customary for the host country to pay for lodging, lunches and dinners, and they would expect Estonia to do the same if they visited us," Mihkelson said.
The issue of travel reimbursement arose when Politico reported in February that Henrik Hololei, the European Commission's top transport official, had accepted free airline tickets offered by the Qatari government while his subordinates negotiated the terms of an air deal with Qatari representatives.
Later, the same publication disclosed that a number of European Commissioners had accepted an offer from their host nation to cover their accommodation expenses.
This is congruent with the scandal that has shaken the European Parliament, involving former vice-president Eva Kaili, who has spent several weeks in pre-trial detention and is suspected, along with her colleagues, of accepting bribes from Qatar.