Prime Minister in backs-to-the-wall meeting on government crisis

Jüri Ratas at the Centre Party's post-meeting press conference on Friday evening.
Jüri Ratas at the Centre Party's post-meeting press conference on Friday evening. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) announced his intention to keep the coalition government together after an emergency party meeting on Friday evening, and to broker agreement between the two junior coalition parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDE) and Isamaa/Pro Patria, who have been increasingly at loggerheads as the week progressed over strong differences over the UN Global Migration Compact.

Essentially SDE support Estonia's endorsement of the compact, which aims to ease problems surrounding migration worldwide, as voiced by foreign minister Sven Mikser, whereas Pro Patria have come out in strong opposition to it, with justice minister Urmas Reinsalu serving as the principal mouthpiece for the party.

Calls for both ministers to resign came from different quarters; SDE leader Jevgeni Ossinovski said Urmas Reinsalu should be divested of his duties on Friday; EKRE leader Mart Helme said the same of Sven Mikser.

Escalated to the president's office

Not to be outdone, the opposition Reform Party, the largest party by most measures, has also applied pressure to the coalition. Chair of the Riigikogu's foreign affairs committee Marko Mihkelson virtually signalled the start of the current crisis earlier in the week by castigating foreign secretary Mikser for what he saw as the government keeping the Riigikogu in the dark on the matter.

On Thursday Urmas Paet MEP, a former foreign secretary, hinted that he might be able to do a better job than Mr Mikser. Sven Mikser himself had earlier stated that since the compact was non-binding in any case, its dissemination before the Riigikogu was less pressing, which brings us full circle back to the justice minister who argues that in practice the UN will implement measures to ensure it is indeed complied with.

Reform leader and, for some, prime-minister-in-waiting, Kaja Kallas, was somewhat subdued by contrast on this early test of her leadership calibre, saying both that the compact was not binding but that the Riigikogu was not kept informed.

Since the furore caught the attention of President Kersti Kaljulaid, not normally a political figure, it is essentially make or break time for the government since she said she would not attend the compact's verbal adoption at a meeting of national leaders in Marrakesh, Morocco, on 10-11 December, without government unity.

Prime minister keen to move things forward

Speaking at a press conference following Friday evening's crisis meeting for which he had curtailed a visit to Ida Viru County to return to Tallinn, Jüri Ratas said that "Government accountability needs to be fully implemented and, therefore, I will postpone all the ultimata from the [Centre Party] board,'' adding that he is to meet Jevgeni Ossinovski and his Pro Patria counterpart Helir-Valdor Seeder on Sunday to address the problems.

''I'm not here to head up a government which doesn't function; if that were to happen the Riigikogu could always carry out a vote of no confidence. But today I am going ahead with working with the current government,'' he continued.

"The best solution is to keeping talking, right now. I will work to make move forward on the issues facing the current government and to strike a compromise," he added.

Government in crisis

He went on to recognise that the dispute had brought about a crisis of confidence in the government, which not only threatened stability but also the adoption of the state budget, which passed its first reading at the Riigikogu in October.

He also acknowledged the culpability of all three coalition members.

"If we all worked together as we should, then we wouldn't have got into in such a situation. We need take a long look in the mirror. I understand the situation is tricky. But, when the dust settles, you need to pick yourself up and move forward. I have the desire to move forward," he concluded.

SDE won't work with Pro Patria, Pro Patria won't budge, close ranks

This may well be honeyed words though. Jevgeni Ossinovski has told ERR since the meeting that it cannot work with Pro Patria; the latter party's leader, Helir-Valdor Seeder, echoing Urmas Reinsalu's defiance at a press conference on Friday lunchtime, also told ERR that his party will not be handed ulitmata and will stay where it is.

Moreover Pro Patria have circled their wagons, with defence minister Jüri Luik also throwing his weight behind Mr Reinsalu.

The current coalition's viability has been in question since late summer when it ceased to have a majority 51 seats in the Riigikogu, though many analysts thought that it would probably limp on until the March 2019 general election.

Current interior minister Andres Anvelt (SDE) has said that the crisis is more the symptom of underlying tensions and linked Pro Patria with the opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) in trying to undermine the coalition.

SDE and Pro Patria, on whose support Centre relies for its survival, have been in office longer than Centre, who replaced Reform as the majority party in November 2016 following a vote of no confidence in then-prime minister Taavi Rõivas. Whether Mr Ratas' prime ministership will go the same way remains to be seen.

The full press conference (in Estonian) and gallery following the pizza-fuelled Friday evening meeting is here.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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