He wants to keep his country racially pure and makes gestures used by white supremacists. And this week he will sit down with the rest of the euro region’s finance ministers.
The new man in charge of Estonia’s national wallet, Martin Helme, will take his seat for the first time at the heart of the continent’s mainstream policy-making at the Eurogroup meeting in Brussels on May 16. He’s a member of the anti-immigrant EKRE party that secured some of the Baltic country’s key government positions after winning 18% support in a March election.
Located on the European Union’s eastern frontier with Russia, Estonia is the latest triumph for a growing band of anti-immigrant populists from Rome to Helsinki. Led by Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, they’re looking to make inroads in votes for the European Parliament this month.
Helme, 43, took his oath of office in April and marked the occasion by flashing a white supremacist hand sign also used by the perpetrator of this year’s deadly New Zealand terrorist attacks. Like his father, EKRE Chairman Mart Helme, he wants an Estonia free from all other nationalities. In March, he stood by an earlier remark about how to decide who should live in his country, saying “if he’s black, send him back.”
“Martin Helme, to my mind, is the dangerous fanatic of the family,” said Andres Kasekamp, an expert on the radical right at the University of Toronto. “He’s intelligent and he’s been very purposefully working in this direction for a long time. He sincerely holds on to these principles that he espouses.”
Helme said by email that there’s a tendency to label people “too light-handedly.” “Every person has a right to their own opinion and I’ll always stand for personal freedoms,” he said in response to questions.
Despite a population of just 1.3 million people, Estonia is important. It’s seen as an example of successful post-Soviet economic transition, a front-runner in digital government and a model of fiscal conservatism inside the euro region. The country is also among the EU’s staunchest backers of sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s government over Ukraine, while being home to a sizable NATO troop contingent from Western members.
There have been blemishes. Estonia is grappling with its part in a $230 billion money-laundering scandal. But burgeoning support for the far right in the wake of Europe’s refugee crisis had gone largely unnoticed as Estonia successfully branded itself as a modern, western state, according to Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia and an expert on populism.
“In many ways, Martin Helme reflects classic Estonian nationalism,” Mudde said. “He’s added remarkably open racism to it.”
EKRE, the country’s third-biggest party, has links to political bedfellows in neighboring Finland and eastern European countries and has applied to join Salvini’s nationalist group.
It has the usual credentials. As well as railing against immigrants – the Helmes complain of a “replacement of indigenous people” in Europe –EKRE opposes same-sex partnerships. In 2016, U.S. alt-right figure Richard Spencer tweeted a photo of himself with EKRE’s youth-wing leader, now a lawmaker, writing “my new Estonian friend.”
Meanwhile, they have escalated criticism of President Kersti Kaljulaid after she attended the April 29 swearing-in of the cabinet wearing a sweatshirt with the slogan “speech is free.” They also said she had dishonored her office by failing to congratulate the government.
Helme has backed away from some earlier inflammatory statements. Having accused politicians of complicity in money laundering, his first statement as finance minister was to “keep the country’s financial environment fair and transparent.”
In his email to Bloomberg, Helme said he pledged to nurture open economic relations and fight money-laundering. He will use his four years experience on the Estonian Parliament’s finance committee, he said.
Indeed, the meeting of finance ministers will give him the chance to help tackle the economic issues of the day – and hone his skills.
A history graduate who’s been a lawmaker since 2015 after running a publishing house, Helme once told a local weekly that he’s “completely inept at math” and “can’t even play cards because I can’t count the tricks.”