President Karis: Laws drafted on the fly must not become the norm

  • 2023-04-11

Address of the President of the Republic
at the opening session of the XV Riigikogu

Toompea | 10 April 2023

Honourable members of parliament,

Esteemed guests,

The new Riigikogu is starting its work. I am sure we all perceive this day’s significance. Over the next four years, decisions will have to be taken in this chamber in order to adapt to the life-changing events we are currently experiencing.

The country’s electors have granted each of you a mandate to represent them. At the same time, the Constitution states that members of parliament are not bound by their mandate.

What does this mean? It means that it behoves each and every one of you to represent the nation as a whole.

You must take all of the concerns raised during the election into consideration. It is easy to list them in general terms: security; the economy; the cost of living; the climate; protection of nature; education; the ability of local governments to cope. And there are many others which may not spring to mind immediately but which are no less important – such as the development of technology and young people’s mental health, both of which I have spoken about and will continue to do so.

It has been said that politics is the art of the possible. However, we must be more ambitious than that: politics is also the art of doing that, which is initially deemed impossible. Estonia has reached a point where our aim is not merely to catch up to others on the path ahead of us, but to find new paths to go down. Indeed, this is something we have no choice but to do. In a situation where the state’s debt burden threatens to grow, our objective cannot be limited to making savings where we can. Our target must be to find opportunities for development that boost efficiency and allow us to achieve more in future than we are capable of achieving today.

I am in agreement with those who feel that economic growth is not the only yardstick of a country’s well-being. We must also see that the growth of an economy depends on aspects whose importance is likewise emphasised in law: education; health care; a sense of security in society; effective climate policy; culture in the broadest sense.

Smart, creative people, people who are capable of and interested in creating, must be what we aim for – not seeking a balance between hard and soft values as if they were polar opposites.

Concerns can pave the way for us to make forward progress. As such, the rise in the cost of living forces us to ask: is there sufficient competition within the Estonian economy? Wherein we must turn our thoughts not just to price levels, but to how we can spur on innovation in our economy by increasing competition. The same is true of energy. Striving for security of supply has meant that we have had to make some difficult choices, but let this be something that pushes us forward towards new technological solutions rather than remaining rooted to the old ones we currently use.

For you, members of the Riigikogu, this will mean a great deal of work. I concur with Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise that a coalition agreement and a development plan is no substitute for a law. Not that this means we require as many laws as we can possibly create. On the contrary: the law must be used to erect a framework, one which enables, for example, climate policy objectives to be achieved without undermining the stability of Estonia’s economic environment, without anyone in the country suffering and ensuring that entrepreneurs have the confidence to make investments.

True, the coming years are unlikely to offer us the kind of reassurance which until very recently we still enjoyed. Our language has gained a new word: ‘multicrisis’. There is much conjecture as to when the current crisis, emanating as it does from a number of areas, will come to an end. I cannot say; nobody can. However, this period of uncertainty we find ourselves in could be said to be marked out by the fact that we can no longer distinguish between a crisis and the ordinary state of affairs as we once did.

I speak of this here today because we have to think of the role of parliament in a new way. Since the government tends to come to the fore in crisis situations, there is a risk of the parliament, which is tasked with making laws, remaining in the background. You will recall that the question was raised during the pandemic as to whether the Riigikogu had been sidelined in the making of important decisions.

The way I see it, in order for political responsibility to function, the government must have the authority to take decisions freely enough for the electorate to determine whether or not the policy direction adopted by said government was successful. It is the task of the Riigikogu to produce laws which are as clear as they can be as guidance for the government.

Why is this so important? Perhaps the government would cope without the parliament. I recently leafed through a book entitled ‘Government Agency Activities 1935-36’, which describes, in great detail, just how active the government at the time was. True, the ministries were very busy dealing with economic and social and education policy and passing budgets and other laws. Reading it, you do not even notice at first that there was no working parliament in 1935-36. No doubt there were those who thought that things were better that way: quicker, more efficient. I give this extreme example to paint you a picture, a scenario to which no multicrisis or fear must be allowed to lead us.

Making decisions without being hogtied by a body democratically elected to scrutinise them may well be quick and efficient. But parliamentary debate ensures that matters of principle are discussed publicly, in depth and with the involvement of the opposition. In other words, with increased wisdom and responsibility.

Moreover, if you are forced to take minority views into account and to respond to criticism, this produces a broader basis for decisions in society.

Of course, it would be lovely to think that our democracy works in such a way that decisions adopted by a majority in the parliament, as the body representing the people, would be accepted as binding by everyone in the country. But recent years in Estonia and abroad have shown that this is not necessarily the case. Social divisions have arisen which are difficult to bridge, and which all too often seem to rule out the possibility of dialogue. But our democracy has also changed because our citizens are more critical, demanding more of the decisions that are made by the government and the parliament.

The power of the majority must not exacerbate the schisms in society to the point where they are truly insurmountable. It is one thing to become part of the minority, but quite another to feel that positions representing the opposition deserve no discussion or are not to be taken seriously.

This is one of the reasons why the government, in my view, cannot make endless use of the opportunity to bind votes on laws in parliament to confidence votes. The role of the Riigikogu cannot be restricted to deciding whether there is trust in the government. At the same time, obstruction cannot hand the power of veto to the minority. If the lawful work of the parliament grinds to a halt, there is no point in the opposition striving for power either. The cost is then borne by the state as a whole, not just some party.

Thankfully, the Constitution has found a balancing point that unites parliamentary control and the government’s ability to act. In monitoring the fulfilment of the Constitution, the protection of both is my aim, too.

I say “mine too” because I am not the person who is the first to have to check acts and their draft versions to ensure that they conform with the Constitution. The first to do so are the members of the Riigikogu. An important part is also played in this by officials, which is why it has concerned me to hear that they have less and less time to dedicate to draft acts. This is very much a red flag. True, the time of crisis we have lived through has forced up to act quickly. Nevertheless, crisis or no crisis, laws drafted on the fly must not become the norm. If a lot of work and consideration is put into a draft act, there is no need to immediately enact new laws to rectify deficiencies in the original resulting from haste.

A number of times now I have had to refuse to sign into law acts which have been passed by parliament. I do not view such occasions as conflicts. When all is said and done, the parliament and the president are but individual parts of the organisation of the state and they must work together to ensure that the laws passed in the country are as good as they can possibly be.

My opinion of a law may not align with that of the majority of the Riigikogu, but it is for such instances of disagreement that the president is granted the right to make independent decisions. I have of course heard the argument that my most recent refusal to sign an act into law was short-sighted. I picked up on this because my understanding of the Constitution says quite the opposite: its principles express that which is important in the longer term. In its day-to-day work the Riigikogu focusses on the problems that life inevitably places in our path. From that point of view it may seem strange that the Constitution does not allow anything to be done which needs to be implemented quickly for the good of the country.

This is where you need a bystander’s view to pick from the background the principles of lasting value of which we must not lose sight even when faced with pressing problems.

The security crisis which is affecting us is multidimensional in nature. There is the military dimension, that of national defence; but there is also that of the democratic rule of law and its defence. Estonia must be capable of showing that a free and democratic state is stronger than one which suppresses freedom and democracy in the name of strength.

A strong state is one which is trusted by its citizens and which they view as their own. A significant threshold was crossed in the recent elections: for the first time, more people voted electronically than on paper. I am in agreement with the Supreme Court that in such circumstances the organisation of electronic voting requires greater attention from the legislature. Everything of importance pertaining to the organisation of electronic elections must be set out in law, and it is the task of the parliament to pass those laws. Villu Kõne, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was right to remind us that elections must not only be fair, but be seen to be fair.

Allow me to expand on that. According to the Constitution, the state of Estonia is founded on liberty, justice and law. How can we make sure that everyone in the country is convinced this is the case? There are a lot of options before us, one of which will be deemed the most appropriate by one group, another by another group and so on. The security crisis will place further difficult choices before us. Choices pertaining to security must also be made on the basis of law, and the Riigikogu can ensure that everything of importance is taken into consideration therein. Yes, the position supported by the majority will inevitably prevail. However, others must be able to see that their voice has been heard, that their positions and their concerns have been weighed up.

As such, honourable members of parliament, let us all work to maintain liberty, justice and law.