The Estonian government approved Prime Minister Juri Ratas' proposal to nominate Kadri Simson of the senior coalition partner Center Party as the candidate for European Commissioner for the next iteration of the Commission as well as the current one, should the seat of the Estonian commissioner become vacant.
Congratulations, Kadri Simson. This is a major leap in your career as only prime ministers have joined the European Commission so far from Estonia.
Indeed, only two people have held the post so far; this means that only a few people have the chance to work in the European Commission at such level.
Estonia’s commissioners have so far also held the vice-presidential post; how likely are you to receive it as well?
I certainly won’t become vice-president in Juncker’s cabinet. Rather I shall have to negotiate about the issues the cabinet hoped to handle in the remaining months. But the allocation of roles in the following commission will fully depend on the next president, how the president will organize the work in the commission. It depends on the president whether there will be vice-presidents or what their missions would be.
In fact, a lot depends on the present European Commission president whether or not you can go there at all. Jean-Claude Juncker told a few days ago (to the Bild) that he would do all he can to prevent the appointment of a new commissioner for four months, since such a change would cost a lot to the European taxpayer, one million euros for four months.
It would pay if my term would be only four months and he had the experience in Barroso’s second cabinet, where several commissioners resigned and were replaced by people without any ambition to serve a second period. We have met before, we obviously had contacts before my official appointment, and an assurance from Juncker that he would indeed oppose a four-month member, but if the candidate would be the same to be presented to the next president, then he would not object.
But the Estonian government cannot give an absolute guarantee at present. If this government should fall before August, for example, the new government would elect a new commissioner.
One can always develop conspiracy theories, but today’s decision reads that our candidate for commissioner for the next five years has been appointed and if Estonia’s seat should become vacant earlier with Andrus Ansip accepting the voters’ mandate to the European Parliament, it would not remain empty – I am willing to start working earlier.
So you have an assurance that you will receive the post for four months?
In any case this is a jackpot for you, even if the government should change, since according to Juncker even the four-month commissioners would receive the same guarantees as those remaining in office for five years. For instance, full pension from 66th year of age.
Not full pension, but minimum pension in 24 years. I would not call it a jackpot, since they I would give up the recent seat in the parliament and probably return to Pärnu as deputy mayor. I certainly won’t go there just to have a great four-month experience.
What are the fields where you feel confident, probably economy and energy production?
I have a good experience in the sense that Estonia was recently the EU chairman country and I headed three different formats of the Council of Ministers. Besides the ministers of economy format there were the formats of the ministers of transport and energy, but this cabinet of course has other portfolios interesting for Estonia. For example, the commissioner of regional policy, who administrates the Cohesion Fund, who was also elected to the European Parliament and I do not know her decision regarding the mandate.
Andrus Ansip said in an interview to Postimees that he has called you and promised to make the present coalition fall as soon as possible, while he also stressed that his real interest is to carry on as commissioner if possible. What did you exactly talk about?
It was a very nice offer on his behalf to help me settle down; he must have received similar help from Siim Kallas.
Aren’t you afraid that Andrus Ansip may be dishonest here. It would be beneficial for him to tell Juncker not to approve Simson’s candidacy at once, since we are attempting to bring down the government and I may be back in the autumn.
He need not tell it Juncker, since he obviously cannot retain his old position starting from autumn. Of course, he can make my life difficult before the voting in the European Parliament. We remember cases when the commissioner candidate faces the parliament and need not say a word about the future sphere of responsibility but has to counter domestic political attacks, which obviously were not invented by Germans or Belgians or Portuguese, but were provided by their compatriots. I believe that the Estonians are not that mean.
But how likely is it that you would have to explain to the European Parliament why they show some hand signs here and what tendencies are prevailing? What would your answer be like?
It is highly likely that I would have to answer domestic policy questions, especially since I cannot know the content of the portfolio for the coming five years. The new hearing for the five-year mandate will come after the new president of the Commission has been elected. And I shall answer the same what I have been saying so far.
It would depend on the question, but what matters is what the government is doing, what has been agreed upon in the coalition agreement and I can of course answer these serious questions.
But how do you rate the present cabinet? Was it a good idea to involve EKRE?
I think so. Hypothetically, what would have been the alternative? I think that if EKRE were in the opposition today, ruled out by everybody, the discontent would not be smaller. Many Estonia’s region, where EKRE received strong support, would be very disappointed.
But you acted more like an opposition member when you made Mart Helme retract his statement during his vote of no confidence attempt.
I did not do it out of malice, it is just that facts must be clear and, in that situation, I could not discuss it via a newspaper the next day. I had the opportunity to make the matter clear in the parliament hall,
To prove that he was lying.
Precisely to make the truth come out and it was time-critical, since if Mart Helme hadn’t been able to clear it there and then, it would have been very difficult to handle the affair later.
So you did him a favor?
I believe so. I think it was a favor, since having been in the same position I know well how high the adrenaline goes when you are standing there and if you want to answer quickly, it is easy to make mistakes.
While Jüri Ratas is trying hard to defend another minister, Kert Kingo, the minister of foreign trade and IT, you sand that if she carries on like that, the post has no meaning.
This position has not always existed, it was created in order to ease the workload of other ministers, especially the prime minister and the minister of economy, since not only contacts with foreign investors are important. The entrepreneurs’ interests in finding new markets are also important. And the minister of foreign trade was such an official. True, there have always been sceptics who question the need for this minister. In order to defend this minister, she has to do her work with passion and certainly at least half of the time outside Estonia.
But isn’t it presently clear that she does not do it? What would you recommend Jüri Ratas, make this post redundant?
Well, I am willing to believe that the fiasco with her first day on the job does not mean that she is incapable of doing it. She has to think hard whether she can upgrade all her skills so that she could be competent and efficient in handling the job. No one wants to have a job they are incompetent or unqualified to perform. Ja ma think that this is primarily the minister’s inner understanding whether the job is for her.
Do you think now that she is not qualified for the post?
I have not heard her speak English, not even via the media. But let us see how it will go in the next few months. I know that there are ministers even in large countries who habitually use interpreters.
Should Estonia do it as well?
It is somewhat complicated for the Estonians, but it also depends on the sphere; I imagine that if the ministers of agriculture speak half of the time in their own language, no one would mind. But direct contacts for opening a market save half the time.
Continuing the subject of your opposition to the coalition, you said, for example, about the alcohol excise that it should not be lowered hastily. Isn’t it hasty, what is happening now?
It is hasty and it certainly caused confusion among out neighbors; in case of alcohol excises they observe closely what is happening next door. I generally believe that the Center Party considers the electricity and fuel excises a problem, since these are inevitable expenses, especially in our climate. Alcohol is not an inevitable expense.
How likely is Latvia to lower its excise?
Latvia has already passed the law of rising excise, but they have to make their own choices. Logically most of the alcohol is bought by the country’s own taxpayers.
The prime minister said in an interview that he and not discussed the excise cutting issue with his Latvian colleague, Should have done it?
If we had wanted to take time out – we spoke about tax peace – it would have meant that the price gap would have become insignificant in four years due to the price rise in Latvia. But if you want to have clear results immediately – not by Midsummer day, but by the anniversary of restoring independence, the coalition opted for the rapid solution.
How will you vote on the bill presented to the parliament?
Honestly, my vote would not matter, since the Reform Party would provide the votes in favor, but since the coalition has agreed that way, I have no other choice but to support it.
A personal question – if you now leave for Brussels, it would be unlike the European Parliament members, who travel to Estonia all the time. Are you ready to live in another country?
Yes, I have accepted that this would be different – it would not be a job permitting spending weekends at home and I understand that Brussels will be my home for the next five years.