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At the opening session of the Riigikogu

At the opening session of the Riigikogu © Mattias Tammet/office of the president

14.09.2020

Dear friends!

I believe that I was not alone thinking about the people of Belarus while walking here today and preparing for a season of many free discussions and alternative opinions. They are today fighting for something, which we have already been accustomed to for decades. We should not interfere, but we should be with them, also today.

Honorable President Arnold Rüütel, Riigikogu president, members of the Government, your excellencies, chancellor of justice, ladies and gentlemen!

Honorable Riigikogu, dear people of Estonia!

One year ago, I stood here and encouraged you to find the time to work on Estonia’s long-term development issues – Estonian-language schooling, developing green energy production, opportunities for implementing artificial intelligence in our country. Your role is to guide us towards a better future by shaping permissive legislation.

This year has been difficult, of course, but it appears we all must honestly recognize that the rest of the world is presently a little bit ahead of us.

Yet this means that ten years from now, we’ll look at one another, perplexed, and ask: how did Latvia become an AI tiger, but we didn’t? How on earth is Poland, which at one point was dependent on coal-powered electricity, now capable of supplying us with green energy? Why is our own economy, which for 30 years rallied faster than those of our Nordic neighbors, no longer capable of doing so?

Naturally, it’s hard to say in the moment when exactly we missed our chances for the future and focused instead on buying an extension for the past. Thirty years from now, it will still be impossible to point out that precise place in history. But for the first time in three decades, we can plainly see and perceive that quite many of our fellow nations which emerged from behind the Iron Curtain are working towards a more prosperous and secure future with greater effectiveness than Estonia is. Something is wrong with our ability to grasp the big picture. Or with our ability to respond to it.

The alarm clock has already rung, dear Riigikogu – Estonia no longer has the capability to supply electricity independently, because despite the totally predictable rise in CO2 prices, we are still very far away from achieving the 2,000 MW offshore wind farms and energy-storage capacities we need, be they hydrogen or pumps.

So far away, that we cannot even answer the question: “How far?”

These long-term developmental risks must be mitigated with smart leadership. That work can be done in this very hall.

We live in a time in which the state is directing our economy’s development with greater sums than ever before. This is a chance to steer our economy on the path towards environmentally-friendly development – and a risk of wasting it on paying to hold on to yesterday.

And then, we have the pandemic. Fighting the virus means that our ordinary rights may be restricted in the name of a certain greater societal benefit – preventing fatalities. But these restrictions must be proportional and applied uniformly.

Another way to view the situation is to say the pandemic has given us a straightforward cause for greater discussion on how to enhance the freedoms our Constitution provides. That is necessary in any event.

Over this last decade, political parties’ worldviews have begun to diverge starkly and more in terms of principle on the axis of personal freedoms and universal human rights. Opinions regarding the role of the state and people’s freedoms are more opposed now in this hall than ever before this century.

The debate is honest and important, and indeed, it must be had. It is a debate over what is most essential: the individual and their freedoms, or the state and common national goals.

Having this debate will only benefit Estonia’s democracy by improving our understanding of universal human rights and our own Constitution. The relinquishing of rights and freedoms is often a process that happens in tiny steps, until one day, when it is finally realized, it’s already too late or impossible to turn back. Speaking out and being conscious of it is the best way to avoid such a path.

I’m very glad that we’ve discussed freedoms, rights, and obligations so extensively this year. Much work has been done.

This means that our society can also heal the splits that have formed before they result in irreversible damage. When some people feel that they have no say in Estonian life, then it is in no way positive for those who feel that they, conversely, do. A hand must be extended to those who feel that their state has failed them, but it must be done in a way that others are not made to feel the very same hand has caused the state to fail them in turn.

Many countries that served as models in the building of our own state have encountered hardships similar to the ones we are now facing, but have been unable to react as quickly in order to prevent the loss of social mobility, the reduction of lower-income families’ access to high-quality education, or a feeling of hopelessness passed down from generation to generation.

These last 30 years have apparently also brought us to a point where this discussion must be had. In today’s Estonia, the child of a single mother really can become president, someone who grows up in a Russian-speaking home can become a minister or mayor of the capital, and the daughter or son of a cashier can become a neurosurgeon.

They can, because we’ve taken many steps that probably surprised our wealthier friends, coming from a country with incomes at the level of ours: the impressively large share of education expenses in the national budget; free higher education; healthcare for all children that covers an unusually broad spectrum of services, including dental care, regardless of the amount their parents paid in social tax, or did not pay at all. Long and well-supported parental leave; local self-governments’ obligation to offer their residents daycare services. We can be really proud that we have managed all this.

But we still have a long way to go. In a true welfare state, greater positive attention is always given to those who are, for some reason, in a weaker position – minorities, single parents and their children, low-income families, disabled persons.

There is no point in separating minorities into those, who deserve society’s support and those, who are seemingly less worthy of it. Everyone feels like a minority at one time or another. Yet knowing that your rights and interests, that your happiness will not be steamrolled because to society, you’re simply an insignificant discomfort – because there aren’t that many of you – is the nature of the welfare state, as well as its citizens’ source of security and freedom.

This brings me to one of our greatest troubles in social administration. In this great hall, you most certainly notice if someone somewhere is feeling down or unwell. You notice, and you also act. But you are the minority of noticers. The majority are in local self-governments, and those who act are there for the most part, too.

For 30 years, we have complained that local self-government is too weak; that it tends to borrow itself to the breaking point; that it is incapable of fulfilling the tasks assigned to it by the state. We needed extensive reforms.

And we carried those reforms out, seemingly, though not much changed in terms of the facts. A little less “local”, still “self-“, but persistently little “governance”. Estonia’s local governments still lack the capability to be their residents’ closest noticer, helper, and supporter.

I’ve made my way through nearly all of our newly merged local governments. Their municipal councils and council chairpersons have one great, common request for you, members of the Riigikogu – greater trust. Give them a proper budget, too – one that is made independent of state programs and party-earmarked funding, and is instead contingent upon the diligence and abilities of that municipality’s people and entrepreneurs. Money is always in short supply – even though that formerly unshakable position seems to be swaying in our current crisis – but trust our local governments to run life in their regions, and you’ll see they’re worthy of that trust.

European countries’ model of the social market economy, which the Estonian Constitution also prescribes, tasks the state with being a guarantor of last instance for its citizens. If a person cannot manage on their own, no matter for what reasons, then the state helps them to overcome those difficulties or takes over the burden entirely.

In Estonia, the law mandates that local governments must be the ones to notice. Courts have ruled that local self-governments have no right, not even when facing insufficient budgetary funding, to deny coverage of care-home fees if an individual’s relatives lack the finances, to refuse to set up a support system for disabled children, or even to abandon the construction of waterworks promised in regional plans or the operation of a school close to residents’ homes.

And that is fair. Local governments must indeed meet all their residents’ needs. Yet much of the appropriated funding those governments rely upon is decided by ministries on the basis of partial and simplified information that lacks the necessary level of detail. At the same time, local governments have limited freedom to make their own decisions, even though that information is more readily and comprehensively available to them.

Couldn’t the solution to our heated debate over freedoms perhaps be to give a greater portion of tax revenue to those local self-governments, which can then care for their residents in a way that no one feels like an unimportant minority or forgotten in their own country?

Wouldn’t it be rational to redirect the greater part of European Union funding in the next period away from Tallinn, where the wealth is 135% the EU average? The rest of Estonia deserves preferential treatment, because without Tallinn, the national wealth is just 55% of average EU GDP per capita. Let me repeat that: 135% versus 55%. Two and a half times more!

Our municipalities are already fantastic at caring and noticing with the resources they are given. Child-protection workers, social workers, municipal elders, and council leaders all know – if they can’t help those persons, then often times no one will.

What the Riigikogu can do is to proceed with supplementing administrative reform to ensure that those who are helping have more opportunities and less heartache, because they are spread too thin. The Riigikogu holds the key to turn local noticers into effective achievers.

I must add that leaders in local governments are quite disappointed that their role in the selection of the president of the Republic of Estonia has been marginalized due to the Riigikogu’s idleness. You have forcibly and deliberately distanced yourselves from the original idea of the electoral college

We are also now in the period just before local elections. Cheaply borrowed money can certainly be used to boost local governments in next year’s budget, but the shine on that gold will quickly tarnish. In reality, this is the ideal time to instead build upon paragraph 154 of our Constitution, which states: local authorities discharge their duties autonomously. I hope the Riigikogu will find enough resolve to act.

It will do nothing for municipal elders and councils if a poll on the definition of family is made a central issue in our local elections. The discussion will overshadow a serious and imperative debate over the continued strengthening of our local governments, and will only scorn those who notice with heartache but are incapable of reacting, because the choice is not theirs to make and the use of resources not up to them to determine.

That discussion will not solve a single local problem, but will definitely impede the search for solutions that enable life in the countryside to be just as convenient as that in the city.

That discussion makes a mockery of all the actions that local governments have already taken to ensure that no one feels forgotten or like an insignificant minority where they live as a consequence of age, illness, or simply sparse population.

And that discussion demeans the people of Estonia, because its intention is to create a false impression that the outcome will amend the Constitution. It will not.

Dear friends!

I began my speech stressing my belief in Estonian parliamentary democracy and our constitution.

I am proud of the Riigikogu if this year’s debates were to show our people that you truly care about their rights, freedoms, future, and also their wish to make local communities the kind of Estonia that the people who live there themselves desire!

I am proud of the Riigikogu if, in this season, parallel to the heated debate over freedoms and interpretation of the Constitution, you were to finally begin drafting laws that will give us a green Estonia, a monolingual school system, and legislation that is as permissive as possible in regard to new technologies founded on data use.

Let’s make it so that the rest of the world isn’t a step ahead of us, but vice-versa! After all, you are the ones who specialize in leading us forward.

I wish you perseverance in your work!

Have a good season!