Estonia’s far-right finance minister says he will oppose greater eurozone integration, raising fears the Baltic country’s new coalition government will reverse years of pro-EU policy.
Martin Helme, deputy chairman of Estonia’s anti-immigrant, populist EKRE party, told the Financial Times on Thursday that his party would protect its national sovereignty against any moves from Brussels to deepen monetary union or adopt a common immigration policy.
EKRE, which doubled its support to win 17.8 per cent of the vote in elections in March, entered a coalition as a junior partner with the liberal centre party of prime minister Juri Ratas last month.
The nationalist force has advocated protection for “indigenous” Estonians, while Mr Helme has said “blacks go back” with regards to immigration.
Mr Helme, 41, told the Financial Times: “I don’t see a reason for ever closer union and I don’t support deeper integration in the EU in general. We should first do what we have agreed and not focus on finding new ways of integration or deepening integration.”
An active campaigner against Estonia’s EU accession in 2003, Mr Helme said his party no longer supported leaving the union or the single currency as long as the EU remained a “union of nation states”.
“We do not contest Estonia’s participation in the EU or the eurozone,” said Mr Helme ahead of his first meeting at the eurogroup of finance ministers in Brussels on Thursday.
The far-right’s entry into government has raised alarm in Brussels and EU capitals that Tallinn could row back on its more than 15 years of pro-European policy.
Mr Helme, and his father Mart Helme, who is the country’s new interior minister, were heavily criticised for using their inauguration ceremony to make an “OK” hand salute that has been appropriated by white supremacists.
The finance minister denied it was a white power sign and said he would continue to make the gesture as a form of defiance to “leftwing radicals who want to hijack language”.
“When someone says you can’t say it, then I say to hell with you.” He also stood by his comments on African immigration, saying they were “taken out of context”.
“I am not a racist. People who refuse to participate in collective national suicide through immigration are labelled racist.”
This week, Mr Helme and EKRE MPs met with Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Rally, for talks over an alliance in the European Parliament after next week’s election. EKRE is on course to win two seats in Brussels.
As finance minister, Mr Helme said he wants to slash Estonia’s excise taxes on alcohol and fuel and called the country’s commitment to balanced budgets an “absurdity”.
Estonia suffered a painful process of wage cuts and austerity after the economy contracted sharply during the global financial crisis.
Although he wants to make use of the country’s relatively low public debt to raise government borrowing and stop paying down the deficit in good economic times, Mr Helme insisted that Estonia would not breach the EU’s spending rules.
“We have lots of leeway to relax our budget rules and stay within the [EU’s] framework.”
Andrus Ansip, Estonia’s EU commissioner and member of the opposition liberal Reform party, said the government’s approach to tax and spending resembled profligate pre-crisis governments in southern Europe.
“The new Estonian finance minister has stated that he sees no point in building up reserves during good times. Europe appreciated the value of fiscal prudence the hard way. It saddens me that some have not yet learned this lesson.”
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