Coalition split on Helme EU bailout program stance

Finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE).
Finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE). Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

The coalition government is currently seemingly split on whether finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE) acted unilaterally on a vote on European Stability Mechanism (ESM) reform. Centre and Isamaa state he should have consulted Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) prior to dissenting, Baltic News Service reports.

While Centre and Isamaa largely take the line that Helme should have consulted first, Helme's own party, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) generally believes Estonia should have a veto on grants from the ESM, a eurozone bailout mechanism, and, according to daily Postimees, is critical of both the ESM and its reform.

Ratas also tempered his criticism of Helme, however, in the light of how the ESM could work in practise.

Helme set out his stance at an EU finance minister's meeting last week that Estonia should have a veto in the vote on the use of ESM funds, but reportedly found himself a lone voice.

Under Estonian law, the government is supposed to adhere to the Riigikogu's European Union Affairs Committee (EUAC) agreed stance on the ESM, which in turn had adopted a position taken by the previous administration.

Thus Helme has been charged with overstepping his powers.

"On the subject of filing a reservation by way of exception to the condition concerning a 85 percent majority of votes, the minister of finance should have consulted separately with the prime minister before making the final decision," Ratas said on Wednesday, according to daily Postimees, citing the common position arrived at during the meeting of coalition parties. 

"We really did have a meeting with coalition partners this morning on ESM reform and the position of Estonia, in which representatives of all three governmental parties took part," Ratas continued.

The meeting, which lasted more than an hour, was attended by Ratas, and the leaders of the other two coalition parties, Mart Helme (EKRE) and Helir-Valdor Seeder (Isamaa).

ESM inspected for compatibility with Estonian constitution

The prime minister noted the ESM has been under public scrutiny since its inception in 2012.

Consequently, Chancellor of Jusice Ülle Madise also recoursed to the Supreme Court to obtain an opinion about the conformity of the ESM framework agreement with the Estonian Constitution.

Ratas was also somewhat equivocal on the nexus between Helme's disquiet with the ESM, and the realities of the program's operation.

"In accordance with the decision of the Supreme Court, an unstable euro area would pose a serious risk also to the Estonian economy. A serious crisis in the euro area would be a much more serious threat for the people and taxpayers of Estonia than the guarantee provided by Estonia to the ESM being evoked," Ratas said. 

The Supreme Court found the possibility to pass decisions on lending by way of exception with a 85 percent majority of votes is restrictive. However, since this restriction is in the interests of all EU Member States, including Estonia, it is thus justified, it is argued.

"Therefore the cautiousness of Martin Helme in this matter is understandable," Ratas continued. 

Ratas also noted that the cabinet discussed ESM reform at length, at a June 6 sitting, with the outcome being on of supporting the reform of the ESM in general.

Isamaa culture minister's view

Minister of Culture Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa), present at the meeting, said that Martin Helme very clearly expressed his stance that Estonia should not support relinquishing the principle of consensus.

According to Lukas, both Isamaa and the Centre Party saw eliminating the right of an individual country to veto the decision as the ultimate stance of Estonia on the matter. 

Sources have told Postimees that a common stance of the three-party coalition is expected to be forged over the course of the summer, BNS reports. ESM reform is likely to come up for discussion at the Riigikogu in autumn, with unanimity on the matter seen as key to maintaining the coalition's viability.

"As the discussions evolve, I will be able to support the agreements on ESM reform ... and further steps by the government will become clear by autumn," Ratas said, according to BNS.

Martin Helme position to date

Finance Minister Martin Helme could not be reached by Postimees for comment. 

On June 16, he had said that: "It is true that the government's position didn't give me the right to block the ESM reform. Thus I did not so it either. The government supports ESM reform in general. However, the government and the EUAC have affirmed on several occasions earlier that we support the principle of unanimity in decision-making. That authorization I did have, and I also stood to the end defending that position."

He also noted he had not acted unilaterally, noting a general disbelief in the existence of a minister who unflinchingly stands up for Estonia as being at the kernel of the charges against him.

As reported on ERR News, the Riigikogu's EUAC had been seeking clarification from Martin Helme on his position on the issue, in the light of Estonian law on the actions of the committee and its relationship to official government policy, earlier in the week.

The ESM, established in 2012, is based in Luxembourg and is a permanent safeguard on the eurozone, with financial assistance programs for eurozone member states when in financial difficulty, up to a maximum lending capacity of €700 billion.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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