In this interview series, we reach out to some of our liberal party leaders to hear their thoughts on liberalism, Europe and beyond. For this month’s interview, we spoke with Kaja Kallas, leader of ALDE member party Eesti Reformierakond in Estonia. The interview was conducted in late June, as Europe started to slowly open up after the coronavirus outbreak.
Kaja Kallas, what did you find to be most challenging during the COVID-19 crisis?
Being an opposition leader, it was frustrating to see how little there was we could do. If you have a government that leans towards authoritarianism and, at the same time, citizens are in a state of panic and demand decisive action, even asking for clarifications or posing questions about the decisions and actions by the government was criticised. Meanwhile, the government put new rules in place that had nothing to do with the virus but were restricting the lives of people.
Your party, Eesti Reformierakond, was founded 25 years ago. In this current environment, what do you see as the main challenges for the party? And what do you feel are its strengths?
Reformierakond has always been a future-oriented and forward-looking political party. We have such a great and strong team, full of different skills, expertise and competences. I am so proud of our team of parliament members and back-office staff. I truly enjoy working with them.
"Reformierakond has always been a future-oriented and forward-looking political party"
The sitting government is a key challenge for us: as it is not doing anything to develop Estonia and the Estonian economy further, our big challenge is to change the government and execute the ideas that would benefit the Estonian society at large.
In fact, if I was the Prime Minister of Estonia, I would use the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity. I would invest more money in research and development, in building infrastructure and connections and in enhancing our e-government systems.
Estonia is globally known for its very advanced use of technology and digital tools as part of government and social services. What kinds of digital tools did you or your party use during the COVID-19 outbreak?
As a party, we needed to deploy a range of digital tools to ensure our activities. As signing documents has been done electronically for over ten years in Estonia, it wasn’t really an issue. We also quickly started making the most of video meetings.
However, as we now have hybrid meetings where half of the group is joining in through online tools and the other half is physically present, this is quite a challenge when it comes to chairing the meetings. But I manage :)
There is a lot of talk about the ‘new normal’ and not going back to the old way of doing things after this crisis. In this light, what do you see as the biggest threats to liberal democracies in Europe and around the world?
In times of crisis, people are afraid and they sometimes look for a strong hand to rule. This means democratic discussions are replaced with an authoritarian way of doing things. Then, little by little, we are giving away the rule of law and this only benefits the parties that represent authoritarian principles.
"History has shown us that this is a very slippery slope – we have already tried that route and it didn’t end well"
The coronavirus crisis has shown us that if countries close their borders, if Europe lets the state aid rules down, then all member states will turn inward and will just fight for themselves. This results in increasing trends of protectionism and isolation. While bigger countries may benefit from this in short-term, in the long run this kind of approach will be detrimental to Europe and will only contribute to global hostility between different countries and nations.
History has shown us that this is a very slippery slope – we have already tried that route and it didn’t end well.
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