Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the 100th anniversary of Finland’s constitutional democracy celebration on 10 September 2019

Photo: Hanne Salonen / Parliament of Finland
Photo: Hanne Salonen / Parliament of Finland

 

Honourable Mr. Speaker, Honourable Members of Parliament, Ladies and gentlemen,

“First and foremost, Parliament is called upon to enter into records the new Constitution Act, which lays down the foundation for the political life of a free, independent Finland,” said K.J. Ståhlberg, the author of the Constitution upon the closure of the 1919 parliamentary session.

The legislative process to draft the Constitution Act was the touchstone of the young republic. After the civil war, a wide range of opinions – white and red, monarchist and republican – were voiced, but the objective was common. A united nation which also stood firm in its relations with others.

This ambitious undertaking was accomplished successfully. The Constitution Act became a foundation that sustained society. Untypically, it has remained, in its broad outlines, unchanged throughout the decades.

Today, we may safely say that this foundation holds up. Finland is one of the world’s most stable countries and ranks high among rule of law states. A country known as a clear-headed and reliable actor.

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Constitution is an impressive appellation and may sound alien in everyday speech, yet it has a profound impact on our daily lives.

I approach the topic in terms of two themes, trust and social inclusion. While neither of these are strictly speaking legal concepts, they still reflect the spirit of the laws regarding our social arrangements.

All social life is based on trust, the assumption that each and everyone acts in a manner that may be reasonably expected.

The fundamental rights recorded in the Finnish Constitution created a sound basis for assessing such “reasonable expectation”.

Often, the thinking stops at the notion that fundamental rights are something that society must guarantee and the citizens enjoy. However, citizens too are duty-bound to respect the fundamental rights of others. If the rights of the fellow-man are not upheld, very little is left of one’s own rights.

The Constitution expressly states that nature and its biodiversity, the environment and the national heritage are the responsibility of everyone. It means all of us.

Individuals are also called upon to assume responsibility for their own security. The Constitution includes a provision on the right to social security stipulating that “those who cannot obtain the means necessary for a life of dignity have the right to receive indispensable subsistence and care.” The Constitution goes on to say, quite rightly, that specific laws are to be enacted to provide support in special situations and guarantee adequate social and health services for all. But as I see it, it also presupposes that every individual makes a genuine effort using his or her best endeavours, each according to his or her ability and capacity.

However, the highest expectations are pinned on those who exercise public powers, that is, all of us in this room, the authorities. It means that we are called upon to uphold the Constitution which “guarantees the inviolability of human dignity and the freedom and rights of the individual and promotes justice in society”.

The foundation set out one hundred years ago in our Constitution Act have remained firm in both difficult and positive times. To put it briefly: Trust and responsibility – these are the concepts that our Constitution still rests on.

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My second theme is social inclusion: the sense that one belongs and can have a say.

The Constitution creates a firm framework, a sort of safety backdrop that guarantees opportunities and room for social engagement.

For people today, some of the rights are self-evident, such as universal suffrage. At the time when the Constitution Act was enacted, it was this right that contributed to the sense of belonging and created the foundation for the advancement of the republic.

Similarly, the freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience are taken for granted. We are, as it were, lulled into thinking so.

But this involves a number of risks. Both in the European and Finnish context, the question of how to safeguard freedom of speech has risen to another level compared to recent years, when its value and limits were clearer.

The world of opposite truths leaves little room for knowledge. It creates confusion in the audience: what is it that I am actually involved in?

In my view, the Constitution becomes less of a framework and more of a tangible reality closer to daily life in guaranteeing a range of educational, linguistic and cultural rights. When educational opportunities are abundant and diversity is accepted, a large number of people are able to be include for this reason alone.

But no law, not even the Constitution, is all-powerful. At this point, I wish to return to my concerns about young people threatened by social exclusion that I expressed a few years ago.

Each and everyone of us can support a young person to become integrated into everyday life. Personally, I would probably not be where I am today if I had not come across understanding adults in my youth. And they were numerous. I assume that many of you share this sentiment.

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For a long time, all debate on the Constitution was limited to academic or political circles. Over the past few decades, this circle has expanded as an increasing number of public debaters invoke the provisions of the Constitution. In my opinion, it is a sign of our advancement as a civilized country.

Towards the end of the previous parliamentary term, the interpretation of the Constitution became a hotly debated issue. Once again, it focused on the position of the Constitutional Law Committee as the guardian of the Constitution.

True enough, it gave food for thought at a theoretical, I emphasize, at a theoretical level. Is it conceivable that the Constitutional Law Committee would have ruled differently on an identical issue if the balance of power in Parliament had changed? And if so, could it be justified by saying that only the interpretation changed while the Constitution remained the same?

It is important to understand that the Constitution was formulated in broad terms to allow for changes in interpretation in response to the times. But even so, if something was constitutional yesterday but unconstitutional today, one is left wondering.

As it is, the courts of law, the highest instances at last resort, may, in individual cases, review the constitutionality of a law after its enactment. Before confirming the laws, the President of the Republic, in turn, may request an opinion from the Supreme Court or Supreme Administrative Court, which may involve an assessment of the constitutionality of the Act. Understandably, it has been proposed that the courts of the highest instance should also be involved in ex-ante control. For example, this could be accomplished by having the Constitutional Law Committee request a statement from a panel composed of members of the highest courts.

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The present Parliament will also be called upon to enter important decisions in the records. They will undoubtedly show how quickly times are changing and what challenges these changes pose. But if the record shows that trust is solid and social inclusion strengthened, we will have come a long way.