EKRE scores and promises to back down

Carl-Robert Puhm
Protest against bill 347 SE at Toompea.
Protest against bill 347 SE at Toompea. Photo: Tairo Lutter

The saga of amending the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act (NETS) is coming to a close. While head of the opposition Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) Riigikogu group Henn Põlluaas still said that bill 347 SE will be frozen in parliament using obstruction tactics on Monday, the ice had begun to melt by Wednesday evening.

The coalition and EKRE managed to agree on revised phrasing of the draft legislation to satisfy both sides. The compromise saw EKRE chairman Martin Helme promise to withdraw the opposition leader’s host of amendment proposals that would have dragged out proceedings over many months. “We had introduced so many proposals to amend that it would have been impossible to pass the bill in normal procedure. At best, it could have been done by autumn,” Helme explained.

While such a parliamentary compromise is a rare occurrence in Estonian politics, the coalition does not feel it has surrendered ground. Head of the ruling Reform Party Riigikogu group Mart Võrklaev said that the bill was improved.

“I would say the bill has been made better. We also noticed some shortcomings when it first came to the parliament and wanted to know precisely under which conditions the Health Board would get to involve the police. While the explanatory memo made mention of an emergency, this was not explicitly clear in the text of the draft legislation,” Võrklaev admitted.

Good sign of cooperation

The newly struck agreement specifies the procedure of inter-agency involvement. The Health Board will need approval from the government to involve the police in its activities. Initially proposed fine amounts that would have prescribed penalties of up to €800 for failure to wear a mask were also scrapped, and current fine amounts will be retained.

Võrklaev said that the agreement comes as a good sign of willingness to cooperate in the parliament. “The fact that we managed to agree is positive. I believe both sides made efforts to get us here. We realized EKRE were asking the same questions we were and Martin [Helme] understood as much as their negotiator.”

He added that the party was prepared for a different outcome. “We were initially unsure of whether they wanted to deal with the matter at hand or simply fuel fears.”

Jaanus Karilaid, deputy head of the coalition Center Party, also said that what took place was a good example of parliamentary cooperation. “EKRE’s flexibility came as a positive surprise. Statesmanlike conduct was in them somewhere and I suppose they realize the bill had positive value. What they suggested for a time about [police] breaking down people’s doors was an outright lie, there was more political noise than substance there. But that no longer matters. The important thing is to talk less and do more.”

Karilaid added that he was okay with the initial version of the bill. “I’m very satisfied with the result personally. While I’m not sure practical aspects were improved, adjusting the bill’s phrasing rendered it clearer. The bill remained the same for me. Some see it as a change, while I see it more as concretization.”

EKRE chair Martin Helme told Postimees the aspects that were now addressed were always the same and the coalition aware of it from the first. “The coalition is trying to safe face. We came right out and said what we didn’t like about the bill. The number one problem for us was the attempt to give the police permanent powers in the field of healthcare. Without any kind of political input and merely on the agency level. We have always agreed that some things need to be handed differently in an emergency, while it needs to be at least recorded what is an emergency, what are the police’s powers in one and for responsibility to fall to the political level. All of these changes were now introduced,” Helme said, adding that he is happy with the result.

While the amendment will give the Health Board the right to take infectious people home, Helme said it is not a problem because no one can be forcibly removed without help from the police. “The Health Board can order people to return home. Just as it has so far ordered people to isolate. And I believe it entirely sensible to say that people who are infectious must stay home.”

Helme said that a better definition for an emergency was also discussed. Right now, every agency is free to decide when something becomes an emergency. The politician said that pragmatic aspects proved decisive here. “While it was debated whether an emergency would need to be approved by the government, because there are very different emergencies, certain agencies need to be able to react very quickly. It makes no sense to slot the government in there somewhere. The government will, however, be able to decide the extent and aim of assistance. Involvement of the police will not see the automatic transfer of all their powers to crisis management.”

Amendment will take more time

EKRE MP Kalle Grünthal introduced 39 separate proposals to amend bill 347 SE. Martin Helme promised that there will be no scheming and that Grünthal will also withdraw his amendment proposals. “The agreement covers all of our MPs,” he assured.

Even though a compromise has been found, it will take more time to enter the law into force. The bill will go to the Riigikogu Social Affairs Committee where amendments will be discussed and need to be approved before moving to its second reading in May. This means that the law will likely not enter into force before the second half of May, Postimees’ sources agreed.

Võrklaev admitted that the police will not be able to launch misdemeanor proceedings [for failure to comply with Covid restrictions] during the current wave of the virus. “Rather, this will not prove possible [in spring], while we will need this law in the future. We do not know what will happen come fall. The law is not just a reaction to this crisis and will remain applicable in future ones.