Interview: Ratas to reserve veto right regarding new minister

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre).
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre). Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

The government of Prime Minister Jüri Ratas suffered losses this week when Minister of Foreign Trade and IT Kert Kingo was forced to resign after misleading the Riigikogu. Ratas said that he will have to meet with and carefully consider new ministerial candidates and agreed that he will reserve a veto right when it comes to filling the position.

Thinking back three years to when you were still in the opposition and worked as deputy speaker, how would you have reacted if a minister had lied to the Riigikogu?

My position would have been that such a minister has no place in the government.

Would you have set about collecting signatures for a vote of no confidence?

The Centre Party was always constructive in the opposition. (Smiles.) But there are certain rules in politics breaking of which makes it very hard to continue. One such rule is trust. Especially if you are addressing the honorable Riigikogu and the whole of Estonia.

Do we need 15 ministers or could we make do with 12 portfolios as suggested by several parties before Riigikogu elections?

Could we make do with fewer than 15 ministers – of course. But it depends on every individual coalition. This time we decided to have 15 portfolios.

And that agreement will not be revisited?

No coalition partner has proposed doing so today.

How to describe the foreign trade and IT minister of the prime minister's dreams?

The government is no place for dreaming, even though we would always like to see the perfect person. One must be able to look beyond the horizon.

What does that mean? It means the person should do everything in their power to open doors to our entrepreneurs abroad, help business delegations secure high-level meetings through foreign visits. Definitely also contribute here in Estonia, so our companies and their export capacity would become stronger.

Information technology and digital society have been among the most positive aspects of Estonia's success story. The information technology side of things also stands for the ability to maintain and develop major reforms. Today, we are talking about increasingly powerful computer systems, artificial intelligence, cross-border use of data…

Perhaps the portfolio should be moved from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as that is where Enterprise Estonia's (EAS) foreign missions are moving?

I'm not sure whether information technology should be moved there. But having foreign diplomacy, including as concerns the economy and business, under the foreign ministry is something I'm willing to have a debate for.

Does EKRE have a vast but empty locker room when it comes to ministerial candidates as we saw when Kert Kingo became minister?

I'm not an EKRE member and cannot speak to that locker room.

Will you reserve the right to veto candidates?

Yes, of course. The prime minister is the one who has to present the candidate to the president and ask for support. I need to consider, meet with all candidates who are put forward.

Do you have money saved in the second pillar of pension?

Yes. And allow me to add that I plan to continue saving.

Are you satisfied with the rate of return?

I must admit I do not check it every day or every month. However, I am very conservative when it comes to finances, and once I've made a decision, I will continue to trust the II pillar where I save.

Why, then, is your government looking to dismantle the second pillar instead of repairing it?

On the contrary – it will become voluntary. Everyone who wishes to continue saving in their II pillar is free to do so. Personally, I believe it is sensible and will do just that. But there are also people who want to withdraw second pillar funds post haste.

Did the Bank of Estonia meddle in politics when it criticized the pension reform or was it simply doing its job as the government's adviser?

It is the duty of the central bank to evaluate major reforms.

While we could always ask where were these assessments in the past 17-18 years; assessments on whether the second pillar was productive enough, whether management fees have been problematic; whereas I believe there have been problems regarding both. Have we seen corresponding analyses? Not really.

Is NATO temporarily paralyzed?

No. NATO will definitely demonstrate its strength, also before the London summit to be held in December. True, we can see a certain international hotspot that has created tensions between NATO allies. At the same time, NATO is moving toward having 30 flags instead of the current 29.

This hotspot translates as Turkey forcing USA to pull out of Syria, the Americans abandoning their former Kurdish allies and Turkey launching a military operation alongside Russian military police units. How's that?

It's very bad. It is a complicated situation. Over the last 10-14 days, we've seen that this problem goes beyond the immediate area and has brought serious tensions between NATO allies.

The situation looks bad… It once again proves you need to make efforts and take that extra step to find political and diplomatic solutions.

NATO was described as paralyzed by your dear coalition partner EKRE, members of which also believe the European Union to be falling apart. Do you share this pessimism?

The EU has learned a major, very painful and serious lesson over the past three years. Brexit. Over those three years, I have not heard a single head of government threaten to leave the EU if something isn't to their liking in the European Council. Everyone realizes the importance, benefit of the EU. It has strengthened the unity of the 27 members.

Has it also demonstrated how dangerous it can be to toy with major foreign policy matters in domestic policy, such as former UK prime minister David Cameron's EU referendum.

Let us return to Estonia and look at what we've achieved. Now, let us look at the next pair of countries [North Macedonia and Albania] knocking on the EU's door in October of 2019, looking to become candidate states and how difficult that process is for them. I hope I will not have to tell you one day that it will not happen for them.

This demonstrates the importance of steps we took to join the EU and NATO.

I agree that playing games [with foreign policy] in domestic policy or undermining the idea of international unity and our strong NATO and EU position is dangerous.

What is your government's Russian-policy?

I believe President Kersti Kaljulaid did the right thing meeting with her Russian colleague Vladimir Putin. That aside, we do not have mutual relations on the highest level. There have been some meetings [with the Russian side], for example, by the economy minister. There are good personal relationships and cultural contacts.

I did not hear about Estonia's Russia-policy.

We don't really have one on the highest level, while we have certain areas where we have cooperation or beginning of cooperation… That's how it is.

Were you to meet with Russian PM Dmitri Medvedev, what would you discuss?

Our countries are neighbors and have quite a lot to talk about. About rules-based world order, Ukraine approach…

You would not see eye to eye.

Our positions differ, while Estonia stands with its allies in this matter.

And if Medvedev repeated to you what he told President Toomas Hendrik Ilves back in the day, that solutions to smaller problems can only be found by ratifying the border agreement, what then?

The border agreement has been toyed with for some time, whereas not once have both countries been ready to move on at the same time. That is regrettable. I believe it is always more sensible to have a dialogue with a neighboring country than not to have one.

Do you believe President Kaljulaid could go to Moscow on May 9, 2020 to celebrate Russia's victory day?

That is up to the president.

When did you, as chairman of the Centre Party, learn that Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart (Centre) plans to shut down Tallinn Television (TTV)?

A change of plan concerning TTV was quite evident as soon as Kõlvart become mayor.

Was it a good idea?

Looking at TTV viewer figures, I suppose the city government, likely after consulting with the city council, saw that more effective use can be made of citizens' tax money.

A good idea then?

Stenbock House makes it a point not to meddle in local politics. I did not watch TTV and have lost nothing.

How has Kõlvart done as mayor?

I believe he has been busy. He is contributing to developing Tallinn's urban environment, whether we're talking about traffic, kindergartens, social benefits or planning.

His loyalty is one of the guarantors of the current coalition lasting?

(Laughs.) What do you mean by loyalty or disloyalty? Mihhail Kõlvart is deputy chairman of the Center Party and was a key member of the team who negotiated the current coalition. He wants the party to do well everywhere, which is also what I want, and we are working to bring the local elections in Tallinn home once more.

In 2021?

The next local elections are indeed in 2021.

Can you guess as to the main topics?

Of course – people's daily coping. That is the question of local elections. The situation of roads, kindergartens, schools, safety… I believe the Estonian voter can increasingly tell the difference between Riigikogu, local and European Parliament elections. Local elections are a matter of municipalities' future development.

What about defining the concept of family that EKRE wants to tie to local elections?

The law already provides that marriage is between a man and a woman. True, according to the coalition agreement, we will ask people whether they believe it should be fixed in the coalition.

How does that tie into local life, roads and city streets and people's subsistence?

It doesn't. It's simply that casting your vote in local elections affords people the opportunity to express their opinion regarding other matters.

Will the coalition be able to agree on a presidential candidate by fall of 2021?

The presidential election is far away…

You just talked passionately and at length about local elections in 2021

(Snorts.) I believe there will be interesting debates, different candidates and visions again…

The coalition does not have an agreement in place for any one candidate. We'll see whether the Riigikogu will be able to do its job and elect the president or whether it will move into the Electoral College again.

Do you realistically see the Riigikogu giving a single candidate the 68 votes they need to be elected in the parliament?

Two years is such a long time. But I agree efforts should always be made to look for compromises.

How did you manage to convince EKRE to support the climate neutrality 2050 goal?

It is the right thing to do. Innovation that's necessary for our people and the entire world that is taking this step together. While some major countries say they do not support the goal, major cities in those countries do.

We waited for the results of the Tallinn branch of the Stockholm Environmental Institute's (SEI) analysis; debates and a major conference organized by the Government Office and the Estonian Academy of Sciences were held. We adopted a knowledge-based approach.

I did not hear you answer my question in terms of how you managed to convince EKRE to change their mind.

They hold the portfolio, and Minister of the Environment Rene Kokk was on board all along and in favor of Estonia fighting climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I have never felt the environment minister going down a different path.

Mr. Ratas, does it not seem to you that you are oversimplifying the PM's job?

On the contrary. I will be honest – it was the most difficult and greatest job I had in the last three months to get the government to make this decision.

Hence my question of how you managed to convince EKRE.

The art of persuasion, in that Estonia can achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

Minister of the Environment Rene Kokk said he would skip electric vehicles and go straight to hydrogen technologies. What about you?

We can see today that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles cover greater distances and are faster to refuel than EVs. Hydrogen technologies are vital in the transport sector.

The state and local governments could take the first step here, with the former supporting the latter in procuring hydrogen buses and creating a network of hydrogen refueling stations.

What would that cost?

A hydrogen bus costs between €550,000 and €600,000.

However, it would need access to hydrogen, meaning that we would need to be able to generate hydrogen using our own electricity. And it would have to be green energy.

Should we talk about the possibility of constructing a nuclear power plant?

Everything needs to be on the table, talking about the climate neutrality goal. A nuclear plant reminds people of the Chernobyl disaster [in Ukraine in 1986], while we need to talk about new and modern nuclear power. Perhaps plants that don't exist yet – fourth generation nuclear power plants. The alternative should be considered.

As should constructing a wind farm 12 km off the coast of Hiiumaa?

On the one hand, we say we can never again turn oil shale into electricity in recent volume, while we see wind power as the most feasible alternative. The question is where to put all these wind generators. We know from experience that even if you suggest erecting the generators 12 km off the coast, there will always be a local community to say they don't want them there. There is considerable opposition to windmills. There has been talk of a new major wind farm planned in the Gulf of Riga, on the Estonian-Latvian border.

We also have national defense restrictions for windmills, especially the tallest ones. We should consider procuring the defense forces new radars that would allow us to develop wind energy.

What about mining phosphate rock?

Rare earth metals… We need to do everything we can to survey and analyze them and look at export possibilities. It is definitely something our technological university of geology service should look into.

You said that Estonia needs a tax debate some time ago. What would you change in terms of taxes?

We need to look at the starting position. Estonia is at the top in Europe in terms of investments per capita. If we take investments out of the equation, spending per capita falls a few dozen percent behind many European countries. While we want to live like people do in Finland or Sweden. Our current tax burden does not allow us to continue offering a similar level of services. I believe all of this will come up at the next elections.

What should we change? The Centre Party will come up with its tax policy proposals in the spring of 2020. It should definitely bring more solidarity, also in terms of the painful issue of homes for the elderly and home care in a situation where one's pension is not enough to pay for services.

We must also review the state budget by asking which services to retain and which to change.

Of course, we must respect fiscal balance rules in the process.

The environment must be included in the tax debate, environmental fees will come up.

What about a car tax?

Whether it will be a car tax, real estate tax, luxury tax… Everything should be on the table over the next three years. I would like to avoid a situation where the Centre Party says we'll have progressive income tax and that's the end of it. We will not go far on that alone.

The main thing is not to lose focus. We need solidarity and a more cohesive society, to develop our business environment so we would be able to compete on foreign markets. And this in turn ties into infrastructure, both physical and IT.

The first train should go down the Rail Baltic railroad in 2026. Will it?

Rail Baltic is a little behind schedule today. But we are working toward having a solid railroad connection in Estonia, to the Baltics and all the way to Central Europe by the mid 2020s.

The next EU budget framework will be a major milestone in terms of Rail Baltic's cost-sharing.

Why did you avoid the government voting over Lavly Perling staying on as prosecutor general in a situation where Centre and Isamaa could have beat EKRE 10:5? Were you afraid EKRE and Isamaa would score a similar victory over Centre next time around?

It is not about being afraid, it's a matter of principle. If you want the coalition to be able to work, you seek consensus. While voting is permitted, it is quite likely such a vote would cause the coalition to fall apart. That's just the way it is. Therefore, we need to work toward having consensus.

Isn't it ultimately unfair when the government cannot protect the people it should protect?

We can call it unfair or we can call it democratic.

The European Union operates based on the same principle, the European Council that I have now frequented for 36 months honors the principle of consensus. Let us take the recent Council meeting – a few countries saying they will not give North Macedonia and Albania enlargement perspective means the Council will not be launching the talks.

The only way to move forward here, which is what I and several of my colleagues want to do, is to work toward having consensus in terms of launching accession talks with those two countries.

The same parallel applies when it comes to the government in Estonia.

What do you do during Riigikogu Question Time when the opposition is boycotting you?

If the opposition initially tried to break me by asking me 10-14 questions simultaneously and now tries to break me by asking none at all, neither is going to work.

You do understand why the opposition is refusing to ask you questions?

It is a political statement. To let the PM just sit there without asking him a thing. On the other hand, I can use those two hours to work on documents and prepare for upcoming meetings, while listening to the riveting debate in the Riigikogu.

Read the full interview in Estonian here.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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