Sildam: Government crisis Ratas greatest challenge as PM so far

Toomas Sildam.
Toomas Sildam. Source: Sander Koit / ERR

The government crisis sparked by controversy around the UN Global Migration Framework came as unexpectedly as the first snowfall of winter, writes senior political correspondent Toomas Sildam. His opinion piece on the episode follows.

We still don't know how this crisis will play out. But what do we know for sure?

When the crisis first blew up, President Kaljulaid distanced herself, saying last Sunday that should the government fail to reach consensus on the compact she would not attend the meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco where it will receive its effective consent, in December. By Thursday, when it was clear the cabinet was split on the issue, the president said the main thrust of Estonian foreign policy since independence had been bent out of shape due to simple electioneering.

Subsequently, she left Prime Minister Jüri Ratas high and dry and did not invite him to Kadriorg for talks which he would not leave until consensus was reached and the proverbial white smoke was seen issuing from the Kadriorg Palace chimneys.

Make or break time

Moreover, while this may be the most turbulent period of the current president's term so far, her role places her outside the general cut and thrust of politics, whereas Mr Ratas is in the midst of a real crisis.

Either holding together the current coalition or forming a replacement one is the big test for Mr Ratas, one by which his success as premier will stand or fall. This is an even greater task than prising away the electoral list from the Edgar Savisaar/Yana Toom axis at the local elections to claim sovereignty over the city council. The price of failure could be second place in the elections and returning the Reform Party to office.

What is clear is Mr Ratas is handing an olive branch to both the warring parties in his government, Pro Patria and SDE; whether the coalition will stay or go all depends on the leadership of these two parties and their worries about support ratings.

Danger of ultimata

Third, the recent crisis highlights the danger of gambling with ultimata. SDE leader Jevgeni Ossinovski's demand that Mr Ratas remove justice minister Urmas Reinsalu (Pro Patria) might make more sense if we knew what SDE's next steps are. But right now appearing as causing the division doesn't make sense – posing as peacemaker, conversely, would help a party's image more.

The unexpected Pro Patria opposition to the UN compact is reminiscent of 2005, when the same party demanded a preamble based on the precepts of the Treaty of Tartu [of 1920, which dealt with the border between Estonia and Soviet Russia – ed.] be appended to the ratification of a new Estonian-Russian border agreement, following which Russia withdrew from signing. A permanent, agreed border is of course always preferable to a temporary line.

It is also salutary to remember that Mr Ratas' government, which included Mr Reinsalu, unanimously approved the UN compact in March, an agreement which has not since been cancelled by anyone.

Fourth is the question what Reform is doing, the party kicked out of the coalition by SDE and Pro Patria two years ago, letting Centre into office.

Whither Reform?

With any potential collapse of the government you would expect it to be circling overhead to snap up power three months before the elections, as well as being able to demonstrate how, after a period of failed government, they were the natural party of strong government. It would build up a new government itself, in other words.

Jürgen Ligi, chair of Reform's parliamentary faction, admits there are splits within and between parties, between a party's leadership and its rank and file, and between nobody in particular. In the months leading up to an election, getting Centre to be the minority single party government could be another tactic.

Fifth, the governmental crisis is mirroring society with the loaded terms ''migration'', ''refugee'' etc. EKRE amassed 10,000 signatures opposed to the compact in a matter of days, even though what is happening is not changes to national law arising for instance from an EU directive, but a global declaration from the UN.

Enter the justice chancellor

Nevertheless, the government took its eyes off the ball on what a live issue it was likely to turn out. It had been previously considered a done deal, though Mr Reinsalu had already counselled for caution in March. Moreover its translation into Estonian only took place last week, and even then some sections have been cast in questionable formulation.

Finally, the government should always recourse to the Chancellor of Justice, Ülle Madis, whose academic opinion on the matter is exhaustive. The framework is no international treaty, and does not impose legal obligations on nations or required them to surrender sovereignty.

If the government gave credence to the chancellor and her opinions, decisions on what is a very complex issue and its consequences to the public would be clearly explained.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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