Estonia’s first female prime minister vows to tackle climate crisis

Kaja Kallas, 43, took power on Tuesday after the previous coalition collapsed due to a corruption scandal

Estonia’s first female prime minister has promised to implement changes in both style and substance in the governance of the Baltic nation, as she takes charge after two years in which a far-right party was in the ruling coalition.

Kaja Kallas, a 43-year-old lawyer and head of Estonia’s Reform party, was sworn into office on Tuesday.

“My government will be very pro-European, especially in supporting European values such as the rule of law,” she said in an interview. “We will also have a very clear change in policies when it comes to issues like climate policy.”

The new coalition government has vowed to develop plans to stop the production of oil shale power in the country by 2035 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The previous coalition collapsed after a corruption scandal involving the Centre party of Jüri Ratas, who resigned as prime minister. He caused controversy after elections two years ago by going into coalition with the far-right EKRE, whose members opposed all immigration, were often Eurosceptic and on occasion praised Nazi economic policy.

A flagship EKRE policy was holding a referendum on whether to explicitly define marriage as between a man and a woman in the Estonian constitution, which they demanded as a condition of joining the government and which was due to take place later this year. With EKRE out of government, the referendum will now not take place.

Estonia passed a law allowing civil partnerships for same-sex couples six years ago, but many of the provisions are not yet in force. Kallas said she wanted to see progress on that, but added her government would not push for same-sex marriage.

“We will not open the marriage definition in order to keep division down in society, but we will try to move on with granting full rights to civil partnerships, so eventually we will achieve the same goal: that all people have the same rights,” she said.

EKRE politicians had become known for scandalous outbursts over the past two years, with President Kersti Kaljulaid even convening the country’s security council over fears that EKRE politicians were jeopardising relations with allies. She accused the Ratas government of being “a threat to national security and constitutional order”. EKRE’s leader, Mart Helme, who served as interior minister until late last year, called Joe Biden “corrupt” and referred to Finland’s 35-year-old prime ministerm Sanna Marin, as a “sales girl”.

Now, Estonia becomes one of the few countries in the world where both the prime minister and head of state are women. Kallas, who is the daughter of former prime minister Siim Kallas, also appointed women to the key cabinet posts of finance and foreign ministers. “Everybody asks me about their gender, it’s not about their gender it’s about them being really competent people,” she said.

The Centre party remains in the coalition, sharing ministerial posts with Kallas’s Reform party despite the corruption scandal.

Kallas said there was little that could be done to win over the support of EKRE voters, with the party neither winning new fans nor losing supporters during its time in government, instead staying at around 15% of support.

“It’s like a religion. It’s not based on the policies, but [their supporters] believe in them and nothing will make them decide otherwise,” she said, citing polls that showed EKRE voters were the least likely to be swayed by new policies into voting for other parties.

She said, however, that she had little time for the criticisms being made by EKRE politicians about the new direction of the government. “It’s like, can’t you have this monologue in front of a mirror? You were in the government for two years … and did nothing for the places and people further from Tallinn.”

The first major challenge for the new government will be dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The slow speed of EU vaccine procurement and distribution, as well as neighbouring Finland’s decision to close its borders to Estonians, is testing Europhile sentiment, but Kallas said, while the vaccine situation was frustrating, it was still better than each country looking after only itself.

“Without the joint approach … a small country that doesn’t need so many vaccines can’t really get on board of any agreement that pharmaceutical companies have with a big country; we could only ask other countries to also buy some for us,” she said. Once vaccines do arrive in larger quantities than the current trickle, a large proportion of Estonia’s 1.3 million population could be vaccinated quickly, she said.

Contributor

Shaun Walker Central and eastern Europe correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Serbia gets its first female – and gay – prime minister
President Aleksandar Vučić announces appointment of Ana Brnabić, 41, a graduate of the University of Hull

Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade

15, Jun, 2017 @5:45 PM

Article image
Danes vote for their first female prime minister

Far right's 10-year grip on government has ended as Danes vote in a centre-left coalition led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Ian Traynor, Europe editor and Lars Eriksen in Copenhagen

15, Sep, 2011 @10:41 PM

Article image
Marine Le Pen makes 'OK' hand gesture used by white supremacists
France’s far-right National Rally leader asks ally to remove controversial selfie from Facebook

Shaun Walker Central and east European correspondent

15, May, 2019 @5:14 PM

Article image
Denmark exit polls predict election of country's first female prime minister
Social democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt said to be slightly ahead in closely fought battle

Ian Traynor, Europe editor, and Lars Eriksen in Copenhagen

15, Sep, 2011 @6:14 PM

Article image
Italy's first transgender mayor says 'kindness revolution' can defeat far right
Gianmarco Negri was elected mayor of small town of Tromello, beating far-right League candidate

Angela Giuffrida

03, Jun, 2019 @4:00 AM

Article image
Emmanuel Macron pledges €15bn to tackle climate crisis
French president announces measures following ‘green wave’ in local elections

Kim Willsher in Paris

29, Jun, 2020 @1:38 PM

Article image
Migration v climate: Europe's new political divide
In Hungary and elsewhere, activists are demanding climate action but politicians say biggest threat comes from migration

Shaun Walker in Budapest

02, Dec, 2019 @9:18 AM

Article image
French prime minister promises action to tackle 'danger' of Front National
Manuel Valls says reducing unemployment is top priority to prevent further rise of far-right before next presidential elections

Kim Willsher in Paris

14, Dec, 2015 @8:24 PM

Article image
NGOs seek to convict French state of failing to tackle climate crisis
Historic court case accuses country of being responsible for ecological damage and its impacts

Kim Willsher in Paris

14, Jan, 2021 @2:23 PM

Article image
Spanish far-right party’s anti-LGBT tweet makes star of tiny gay ghost
Vox’s tweet shows Lord of the Rings’ Aragorn as party tackling LGBT symbol

Sam Jones in Madrid

02, May, 2019 @1:37 PM