For Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia and leader of the Reform Party, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a professional and a personal challenge, but also an opportunity to implement new solutions and take stock of what works and what doesn’t. We spoke with Prime Minister Kallas as Europe is slowly emerging from a year of restrictions and lockdowns.
This interview was originally published in the ALDE Party Liberal Bulletin in June 2021.
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has put a strain on countries in Europe and across the world. How can we make our economies grow again while ensuring that social divisions and inequalities are not increasing?
I think it is something we struggle with every day, but I also think that every crisis is an opportunity to learn and do something new. What this crisis has shown us is that we need to use all available technologies. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to move further and quicker on topics such as the future of work. We have talked about it for a very long time, but this crisis has brought the issue close to everyone: working, studying and living our lives with a physical distance. Here in Estonia, we were prepared for e-studying and distance schooling, and it has been working quite well from the side of the schools. I know from experience that it can be difficult to make children study in this way, but they have adapted. My own children are sick and tired of staring at screens after school hours and want to spend time outside instead, which is a great thing!
When it comes to our society as a whole, we have an e-voting system in place whereas some countries in Europe and across the world are either postponing elections, which isn’t good for democracy, or holding elections, resulting in greater numbers of infections. Our approach allows citizens to cast their vote and develop democracy without risk. But of course, there are challenges with access to the Internet here as well, and this is why we are using European funds to equip the whole country with highspeed connections. It’s with steps and systems like these, by providing equal opportunities for all, that you can fight divisions. But it’s not easy, that is for sure.
Speaking of digital solutions, pushed forward by the European Commission’s plan to accelerate the digital transformation among others, what can other countries learn from the Estonian example?
E-voting, without a doubt! I always said that if people are spending more and more time online, then the state should be there too, otherwise you are alienating yourself from the people.
But Estonia has experienced some bumps on the road as well. We have discovered things that are not working so well or could work much better. Our education system, which is something we are proud of, was ready to face the challenge of moving online. Yet, we see knowledge gaps and subjects which simply don’t work well online, which require face-to-face interaction too. Now we also know more about the situation from teachers’ perspective: for some, the transition has been easy and rewarding, for others it has been more challenging.
You caught the virus yourself and shared on social media that it was not easy. Has that experience changed your point of view on COVID-19 in some way?
In a way I was lucky because I did not end up in the hospital but it was definitely difficult, I was very ill. Meanwhile, I have a friend, the same age as myself, who contracted the virus at the same time and was hospitalised for seven days and needed to wear an oxygen mask. She is still recovering, and it is hard for her to walk longer distances without rest. I have visited hospitals and seen the challenges caused by this virus, especially when it comes to older people. My point of view hasn’t changed but I am aware I was very lucky myself.
I am also very grateful for the doctors here in Estonia. I received information on the steps to take daily, and the family doctors have been giving presentations on how to treat yourself at home, as most of the people who contract the virus do not go to the hospital but stay at home. They need to know what kind of symptoms to look out for.
What is clear is that this is a very difficult disease. We have vaccinations now, but we also need to get used to living with COVID-19. It will not go away entirely so instead of hoping for that to happen, we have to look forward and think how we can manage to live with it.
This crisis calls for more Europe in some fields while in others, Member States have been seeking unilateral solutions and closing themselves off. Will Europe come out of this crisis stronger or weaker?
I think that every crisis Europe has faced has also made it more resilient. Our economies are doing quite well thanks to the foundation we established during the debt crisis. Had we not learned the lessons of that crisis, we would not have managed to put in place the support mechanisms which are the basis for the recovery. I am confident this ongoing crisis teaches us lessons for the future.
Those who are angry about Europe not acting during a health crisis, while they know it’s a national competence, are also saying that they don’t want more Europe. It is contradictory – either you want this or you don’t want this. What worries us is the unilateral approach many countries adopted, being very protective and inward-looking. As soon as a problem appears, suddenly it is every country for themselves. It should not be like this.
We are in this together, and for a small country like Estonia, the procurement of vaccines is a great example of European cooperation. We could not have secured their delivery on our own and are very happy to be a part of the process. There are challenges, but I still consider it a success.
I believe this is an opportunity for all countries to learn from each other. This crisis has clearly demonstrated that different countries have different basic rights – some have closed their borders so that no one can enter while others have said such action is unconstitutional. What we all must be able to do, however, is see the bigger picture and understand that we are a part of a bigger Union. There is no way out of the crisis unless all of us are out of the crisis.
Despite the crisis, you managed to do something historic by becoming the first female Prime Minister of Estonia. What does this mean to you on a personal level?
I get asked this question a lot and I still don’t know how to answer. Yes, my gender might be different from our previous Prime Ministers but in terms of competences, there is no real difference. Because I am the first woman in Estonia to hold this role, there are people who want to see me fail. The expectations on me are much higher, higher than they would be on any man, and the responsibility to not fail everyone is huge. No other Prime Minister has started their mandate during such a difficult crisis. I cannot be popular because I must make so many unpopular decisions, from COVID-19 restrictions to the state budget, and more. There are challenges but I hope to inspire all girls and women that the role of prime minister is for everybody, no matter the gender.
You can follow Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on Twitter here.