President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö’s New Year’s Speech on 1 January 2020

Photo: Riikka Hietajärvi/Office of the President of the Republic of Finland

My fellow citizens,

We are on the threshold of a new decade. The 2010s was a time of rapid change. The pace of change will continue to increase, but we can affect the direction it will take.

Unrest, instability and short-term thinking have characterised life both in Finland and the world at large. Counterforces to them must be created. We need more peace, stability and long-term thinking.

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Late last year I was startled when I heard an interviewee on a street in London describing the opposing sides of the Brexit dispute: “we’ve learnt to hate each other”. When an issue, no matter how important, breeds hate towards those who think differently, we are heading for trouble. A culture of hate will not carry us far. It will lead to a fall.

I am increasingly concerned about how we in Finland treat one another. It is a matter of respecting each other, and ultimately maintaining social peace. And with it, our security.

Our way of public discussion has changed rapidly. It is increasingly rare to hear those holding opposite views seeking common ground. It is increasingly common to see existing divisions being fortified. Here are “we” who are right, over there are “they” who are wrong.

When there is no longer willingness to engage in a genuine dialogue, deliberate misunderstanding increases. When knowledge is meaningful only when it serves one’s own agenda, half-truths and even lies gain ground.

This is a development we need to end. The question is not only about a more pleasant atmosphere for those taking part in the dialogue. At stake is the single most important factor of Finland’s success. Mutual understanding.

Mutual understanding does not necessarily mean unanimity. There has always been room in this country for different opinions. Issues can be contested, and they should be. But disdaining and belittling others does not help to find solutions to those contested issues. We can do better.

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Society must guarantee a secure and peaceful life. Finland is a very permissive and open society; also in this respect a model. But there is also evil in the world which is not dispelled by mere kindness. The good needs to be defended resolutely if we want to preserve it. This is also what I have meant when talking about terrorism legislation.

The backbone of our social fabric is its service sector. People who carry out what our democracy wants. Far too many of them are exposed to daily harassment, threats, pressure, even violence. Once again today, they are obliged to attend to customers who harassed them just yesterday. Their work is no longer only professionally demanding, it is also mentally punishing. If those who provide care, education and security become exhausted, the functioning of our whole society is endangered. That we cannot afford.

Online shaming and hate speech are new concepts in public debate. However, our legislator has been far-sighted. For example, incitement to ethnic hatred and offences against personal reputation, dignity or privacy of the individual are already criminalised by law. A person committing a crime against another person is liable to prosecution. This has no connection to freedom of speech, let alone its limitation.

Finland has, correctly, underlined the rights of minorities, and protected them. The inviolability of every individual, then again, enjoys equal legal protection, irrespective of their perceived affiliation. And we are all individuals.

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A new phenomenon has emerged in domestic politics and the parliamentary system. No government installed in office in this millennium has served a full term. The current government is the ninth appointed since 2003 and the Prime Minister the eighth. Full four-year terms that had become customary have been replaced by an average of less than two and a half years. At first glance, it could appear that this is due to a fragile parliamentary system or an unstable political situation.

But this is not the case. None of these governments fell on a motion of no confidence and not once has there been a political stalemate. Actually quite the contrary. Governments that have resigned mid-term have been quickly succeeded by a new one with more or less identical programmes and composition. Except for the Prime Minister who has been replaced.

The workload of the Prime Minister is demanding. And his or her person is under constant scrutiny. As the head of Government, he or she is the most visible person to answer to the public and supporters in defending decisions that are not always palatable to all. If, at the same time, the popularity or political support wanes, pressures start mounting. A single error or failure may be enough to trigger them.

I would once more like to draw attention to the fact that a Government works as a collegium. Decisions that are jointly made, are also jointly answered for. This indisputable joint responsibility has been overlooked to some extent, but bearing it in mind may both lighten the Prime Ministers’ burden and encourage them in their efforts.

Even politics requires peace and quiet to focus on getting the job done. Political drama can be created instantly, whereas political results take their time.

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Climate change is a major threat. Will it be fixed? Tools exist but are there those willing to use them? Every nation has set their objectives, Finland at the forefront. This is commendable. But objectives do not yet amount to action.

Few people, even in Finland, are familiar with the term “Helsinki Principles”. They are closer to tangible action than just objectives. Less than a year ago, chaired by Finland, a group of finance ministers – currently numbering over 50 – agreed that climate impacts will be taken into account in all future budget and investment projects. Similar thoughts are quickly spreading among major corporations.

Change starts with the big players: states and business conglomerates. But we too – soon eight billion people, each with different consumption patterns – are another major player.

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The unstable world situation shows no signs of settling down. In an increasingly complex world, the requirements imposed on Finland’s foreign policy will grow.

In foreign policy, Finland does its utmost to promote peace, stability and long-term thinking. By supporting the common good on a broad front, we shoulder our share of responsibility for the world while at the same time advancing our own interests.

Ultimately, every nation forges its own destiny. Safeguarding our own position must continue to be the clear point of departure in Finland’s foreign and security policy. Nobody else will do this.

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This year a quarter of a century has passed since our accession to the European Union. For Finland, the EU remains the most important source of economic prosperity and stability.

What I find especially significant is that the debate on European security is finally advancing. While the cooperation is still only taking its first steps, it lies in our interest that it continues.

Amidst intensifying superpower competition, the new EU Commission has chosen to define itself as “geopolitical”. This is positive. Only a strong Union can act on an equal basis with the United States, China and Russia, all keen to emphasize their power.

True enough, Europe is already a superpower in trade, economics, science and technology. They are areas which may shape tomorrow’s geopolitics. As part of Europe, we are also involved in this process.

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Man has always believed in the future. Been wrong repeatedly, and then made amends. And succeeded.

I wish you all a happy new year. God bless you!