Tarmo Tamm: i was not present for the agreements

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Minister of Rural Affairs Tarmo Tamm.

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

Minister of Rural Affairs Tarmo Tamm (Center Party) told Postimees in an interview yesterday that everything has been done by the book as concerns support for pig farmers.

Tamm immediately takes the initiative when we sit down in his office. “Let us start on a positive note, because I like to be positive,” he says.

“Farmers are doing well: agricultural added value grew by €310 million compared to 2016 and production value by 21 percent. It is major growth and will contribute strongly to GDP. Estonia lost 118,000 pigs and 12,000 milk cows three years ago. All agricultural indicators were up again last year,” Tamm continues. “So, what we have today is completely different from the agricultural policy we saw under the Reform Party.”

It is nice to hear agriculture is doing better. Postimees has written about two pig farming support instruments since late last year – breeding support and recently extraordinary adaptation support. In both cases major beneficiaries include Urmas Laht (Center) and Kadri Simson’s partner Teet Soorm. Coincidence?

Let me ask you: how are they bigger beneficiaries than others? I showed you a chart of 79 beneficiaries. How are they ahead of other pig farmers? The support sum depends on the number of animals you have, not whether your name is Urmas, Jaan, or something else. Very simple arithmetic.

I understand that…

Allow me to remind you once more: we lost 118,000 pigs. Our pork sector can cover 73 percent of domestic demand, and it is possible some politicians will say that’s good enough and urge against support for the sector. But what is the task or goal of a politician? To help the sector catch up.

If we cannot meet domestic pork demand, that are we doing here. What is our job? To say that we cannot cope and that it’s inevitable? The number of domestic pigs started growing again last year which means the measures are working. The sector will never recover without help.

Coming now to Markilo, Saimre, and Rakvere AS, Urmas Laht and Teet Soorm are connected persons. Do you believe it is happenstance that they are among the biggest beneficiaries?

What has Teet Soorm to do with Rakvere Farmid? The company is owned by Finnish businessmen. How can you be fishing for ties in a situation where he was merely the executive manager at the time and isn’t even that today? Is it the executive manager’s business to secure more favorable conditions for owners? Is it a contractual obligation?

Farms belonging to the Finns got a total of €1.4 million. Are you saying they are the ones we’re somehow looking out for?

No, that is not my claim.

But how can you say that one out of 79 farmers is suddenly ours and gains more than the others?

I’m asking whether you perceive a conflict of interest here.

Where is the conflict? That someone happens to breed pigs, and might be a member of a party, and could have acquaintances? Estonia is full of people who meet those criteria. It is violent association through a single person.

Several pig farmers who were in the third zone (where domestic pigs were diagnosed with swine flu) and were initially set to be paid 27 euros per animal were paid 23 euros. Some lost thousands, others tens of thousands. You do understand why they’re upset?

There will always be winners and losers when it comes to support. Write this next piece of information down and memorize it: I became minister of December 12, while the regulation was signed on November 30. I was not present for these agreements. They were made in cooperation with the sectors, and no one introduced a single proposal to amend in the month they were available online. That is the reality.

Should I be responsible for agreements made by previous ministers and revise them? That would mean I do not trust the sector or anyone for that matter. One cannot work like that.

But the division of support had been agreed: 80 percent for the dairy sector and 20 percent for pig farmers.

Again: I came in on December 12, the regulation was put together on November 30.

The regulation bears your signature. Are you not responsible for it?

I’m responsible for all regulations! However, this one didn’t receive a single complaint. Had I failed to sign it in the middle of January, I would have demonstrated lack of confidence in the entire sector and our staff who calculated the support rates.

How could I have done that? Should I have taken away support for the entire sector? Consider myself smarter than the previous minister? I have never held myself to be smarter than my predecessors.

Pig farmers learned who gained the most once support had been paid out.

Pardon me, but they didn’t. The rates were public and there for anyone to see. The ministry is not a secret organization cutting back-alley deals. I do not understand what is going on. I honestly don’t. I care about all farmers.

You wash your hands of the whole thing?

I say again: I became minister on December 12. Can I be held responsible for Kruuse (Urmas Kruuse (Reform), rural affairs minister from April 2015 to November 2016 – ed.) and Repinski (Martin Repinski (Center), minister from November 23 to December 9, 2016 – ed.)? I understand you desperately want to make a connection, but it just cannot be made.

I don’t want to do anything.

I can also tell you that I have not discussed support with Urmas Laht for one minute. No one has bargained for conditions with me.

The problem pig farmers have is that the regulation was changed when Martin Repinski became minister.

Why don’t you talk to him about it! Do not connect me to this in a situation where I came in on December 12 and the regulation had been sent to Brussels on November 30.

I’m simply asking for your assessment. The new version of the regulation introduced a new support rate for farms that had previously been in zone III. This reduced support sums for new zone III farms.

It did not, look at the chart.

I’m talking about support rate per animal.

Policies differ. I understand someone desperately wants us to continue Urmas Kruuse’s policy. I hope that will not happen in the coming years. His time as minister was disastrous for Estonian agriculture. I can tell you that much.

I’m forced to repeat my question, talking about support recipients, Markilo…

Yes, Rakvere Farmid got the most in support, followed by Atria, then a pig farm in Saaremaa, and only then Markilo. And people standing up for their sector is a positive thing. Or do you consider it a sin to take care of your own interests?

Absolutely not.

What is the problem then?

Again: you do not perceive a conflict of interest?

How is it a conflict of interests?

I’m asking, do you see one or not?

Let me ask you: has a decision been made to serve singular interests?

No, but the person who sought that decision, Urmas Laht, is a member of the Center Party.

We have not discussed it for one minute. Is it forbidden for a Center Party politician to have a say in things?

No.

But that is what you’re saying! What does the Center Party have to do with it? Perhaps you are aware that we have a centrist government.

Martin Repinski said that the entire system used to favor the Reform Party. Do you agree?

We have experts working for the survival of the sector. Yes, our policy is different from that of the Reform Party. For example, transitional support of which we paid €19.9 million last year and €18.4 million this year. I hope you will write this down.

We also introduced breeding support. Made additional funding available for extraordinary adaptation support for which the Reform Party did not find money. These are very important steps.

Urmas Laht made serious lobbying efforts before the regulation was sent to Brussels, which makes sense, and he is a member of the pig farmers union…

He is also a member of the Center Party! And the latter is in the government. It would be mystical if someone else was shaping our policies.

But why is the head of a lobby employed as your adviser?

It is another very positive step I’ve taken! I had a choice of whether to hire a single ministry adviser or have several from the outside. I believe it is very positive if we consult active farmers. This includes a lot more people in brainstorming. I believe it is great!

What’s wrong with it? I believe other ministries should follow suit. It is positive! I will also give you a copy of the minutes of the previous agriculture advisory council meeting to demonstrate what it does. Where are these personal interests? What you see are young farmers, sustainable economy.

I also looked at the minutes of the first meetings, and there the topic was African swine flu.

It is a topic in the entire European Union!

If you ask about personal interests, then…

African swine flu is someone’s personal interest?

No, but Urmas Laht is a pig farmer.

Are certain people not allowed to do business? Do you have a list of people who can or cannot engage in enterprise in Estonia?

I’m simply asking whether you see a conflict.

I do not. Sincerely, I don’t. Because it doesn’t exist. No proposal by a single individual can be passed. The council needs to have consensus. And the minister is not a robot who just mechanically signs it.

I often meet with farmers, I listen to them. But in the end, I make the decision, not the council or advisers. I’m also the one responsible for that decision. It is up to me based on what I make it.

When Urmas Laht comes to you and makes a proposal of how to distribute some instrument or other, how can you tell who he is representing?

He is representing the pig farming sector. Can he not make proposals? All pig farmers can make proposals. I take all calls! I spent half an hour talking to a grain farmer from East Viru county who couldn’t harvest his crops in time one morning. I take all calls! One does not have to be Urmas Laht to be able to talk to me.

Why did you invite Urmas Laht to head the advisory body?

He is a centrist, and I will naturally welcome a fellow party member. He is an active farmer who protects his sector. Why not? Is there something wrong again? Is he a persona non grata for Postimees?

I haven’t said that.

Looking at the avalanche of articles, I get the impression a certain person shouldn’t do anything in Estonia.

Are you convinced that Urmas Laht is not proceeding from his own personal interests when he advises you?

He does not advise me directly. If he does it through the advisory council, and if the council accepts it, that is another matter. Like I said, all Estonian farmers can give advice. No one farmer is dominating.

Postimees wrote how Urmas Laht secured more favorable conditions for himself through his fellow Center Party member Martin Repinski. Is it ethical for him to run the ministry’s advisory council in that kind of a situation?

It was well within Martin Repinski’s rights to shape the regulation based on what the sectors agreed.

The sectors had agreed on an 80:20 distribution.

The new minister can revise these things. I personally do not, on principle.

Do you really believe the minister sits down with Urmas Laht behind closed doors and makes a deal? Everyone was involved, and 79 companies that needed it were given support.

These beneficiaries you mention also include those whose support rate would have been bigger had the additional rate not been introduced.

It is a political choice, and I do not make a habit of commenting on the choices of others. I’m forced to repeat myself.

You believe Urmas Laht is fit to run the advisory council?

Perfectly! We have had no problems, everything is going smoothly. They visited the ministry last week, and no one came knocking on my door looking for special deals. It is not how it works in this house.

Do you mean to tell me all 79 pig farmers should stay away from political debates?

No, I don’t.

There was no special formula for him (Laht – ed.). And support rates are calculated by specialists, not politicians.

You believe everything was done by the book both concerning breeding support and extraordinary transitional allowance?

Yes, I think so. Participants can complain if they feel something was not done right. The sector needed support. Do you question the policy and want to tell us what we should do instead?

I wasn’t planning on it.

What were you planning?

To ask you questions.

You should address questions pertaining to the regulation to Repinski. Ask me about the things that have taken place after December 10.

I will ask about the advisory body. You do not see a problem with Laht remaining?

I believe Postimees could allow the council to have a single member from the Center Party. If even having a single centrist in an advisory body while Center is in the government is too much, then…

To summarize, you do not a see a problem in any of this?

What is the problem?

Conflict of interests.

Where is the conflict? What would you change?

You hired a person who lobbied for better conditions on a state salary.

Some salary. A single adviser’s pay divided between seven individuals.

The salary amount is not relevant. He is still the chairman of a ministry advisory body.

And you think that is somehow a bad thing?

I’m asking whether you perceive a conflict.

I don’t, or I would have replaced him a long time ago.

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