Keynote Address by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. on 27th September 2018

A Stronger Europe: Our Common Interest

Like many of my colleagues, I spent the past few days at the UN General Assembly. The sentiment I took away from the speeches and discussions there is not new, but it became much clearer: we are experiencing a fundamental transformation in international relations. The balance of power is changing. The credibility of institutions is being tested. And completely new challenges pile up on top of existing ones.

While there are reasons for hope and optimism, fear and pessimism often seem to outweigh them. We are leaving many familiar things behind us, and the visibility ahead of us is very limited. That leads to uncertainty. And uncertainty and insecurity go hand in hand.

This combination can be corrosive to the very fabric of our societies. We are rapidly losing our sense of community, a spirit of belonging, both domestically and internationally. Turning inward, we risk forgetting the value of working together.

Let me be very clear: this is a dangerous development. We need to boldly intervene and start shaping the future we want. In order to have a role in it, Europe has to become stronger.

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The European Union was born in a previous era of insecurity, a much more severe one than today. Out of the ashes of the Second World War, the six founding members started pooling their coal and steel resources and began the project of a single market. It was a community of nation states, who decided to join forces – and share sovereignty – at their own free will. This principle has not changed over the decades. The member states are still in charge. People decide what the EU does. The European Union does not exist to serve its institutions. The EU and its institutions are there to serve the interests of the member states and their citizens.

And let’s not forget: the European Union has succeeded remarkably well. Over several enlargement rounds, we have seen the internal market, the freedom of movement and a growing number of common policies develop. They have created welfare and stability previous generations on our continent could never have imagined. That internal strength of Europe has also made the transatlantic partnership stronger. Building on solid foundations at home, the Europeans and Americans have jointly defended and promoted our common values in the world: democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

For Finland, joining the EU in 1995 anchored us firmly into the community of nations and values we consider our own. I remember very well the powerful European spirit of that time, a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, that spirit has faded over time.

It is no secret that the EU is now in a difficult phase. Discord is overshadowing unity.
Brexit is a loss for both the United Kingdom and the remaining 27 members of the union. In some member states, national elections have brought in governments that are questioning the very values Europe is based on.

In order to put our own house in order, I believe rebuilding the European spirit is essential.

When I talk about that spirit, it is not just a soft and idealistic goal. It is also hard realism.
The spirit of belonging together increases our security and resilience. Without it, we are much more vulnerable to external threats. And it goes both ways: I believe that doing more together on security is the best way to strengthen that spirit.

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The EU has plenty of tools to provide its members with soft security. Hard security and defence is where the Union has been slower to deliver. Ever since the failed attempt to create a European Defence Community in the 1950s, NATO has been the uncontested foundation for the collective defence of its members. This continues to be the case. Also to non-members like Finland and Sweden, NATO is fundamentally important for European security and stability. We highly value our close partnership with NATO.

For seventy years already, NATO has to a large degree meant the United States. The Americans have shouldered the lion’s share of the burden for Europe’s security. It has been highly valuable for Europe. And we fully understand why the US expects Europe to do more for its own security.

This is precisely what we aim to do now. I have been calling for a stronger European defence for over a decade already. I am delighted to see that there is finally movement in this field.

The European Union has started its first so-called PESCO projects. From the US perspective, this “Permanent Structured Cooperation” may sound technocratic and the sums of money may seem tiny. But it is an important step in developing the EU’s defence investment, capabilities and readiness.

There is now also a fresh discussion about the Article 42(7) of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. For those of you not familiar with the treaty, this article declares that member states have an “obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power” if another member is under attack. I am glad that we are finally beginning to address what that would mean in a crisis situation. A core task of any union is to protect its own citizens.

I know that European “strategic autonomy” is almost a dirty word for many here in Washington. Let me assure you: the growing European activity in defence is not an attempt to undermine NATO. On the contrary. It aims at developing stronger European capabilities.

Those capabilities can equally well be deployed through NATO, through the EU, through multinational coalitions or nationally. This is not a zero-sum game. A stronger Europe means a stronger NATO. And a stronger Europe is a more useful partner for the United States.

Finland takes its own defence very seriously. After the end of the Cold War, we never let our guard down. Our citizens’ will to defend their country is the strongest in Europe. Maintaining a strong national defence sends two powerful messages. It is a threshold against potential aggressors. And it makes us a more interesting partner. This is evident in our close bilateral cooperation with many NATO countries, including the US.

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In these turbulent times, a stronger Europe is in the interest of us Europeans. But my argument is that a stronger Europe is also a shared transatlantic interest.

Let’s just take a look at geopolitics and the two other major actors in the world. China and Russia are both seeking to increase their influence in our neighbourhood. Russia has been doing it aggressively, flexing its military muscles, and also using them, as we have seen in Ukraine and Syria. Chinese means have been more subtle. Towards Europe, both of them are currently showing a friendly face. Lately, we have not witnessed quite the same level of interest in Europe from Washington.

When China extends its Silk Roads to Europe and attempts to buy its way into our infrastructure, it prefers to work with individual European countries and ad-hoc groups, rather than with a strong EU. When Russia tries to rebuild its economic relationship with Europe, despite the sanctions, it declares it prefers to work with a strong EU. Also with Russia, the truth may be more fragmented than that.

Beijing and Moscow certainly have paid attention to the signs of a rift in the transatlantic bond. It cannot be in the US interest to have your major adversaries gain a bigger foothold on our continent. A strong and united Europe is better equipped to resist them.

Common competitors unite us. And so should common interests. I say this fully aware of the fact that the US and Europe now have open disagreements in many areas, from foreign policy to trade. But where can the US find a more reliable partner than Europe?

The same question applies even if we think of the transatlantic relationship as a transactional relationship. Our economies are deeply intertwined. There may be trade deficits on one side, but services and foreign direct investments balance the picture. An open and free trade benefits us both. The transatlantic value chains foster competitiveness in European and American companies alike.

Climate change and other environmental challenges will require completely new technological innovations. Our companies, universities and research labs have a lot to offer to each other in this field. Together we can ensure that standards continue to be set by democracies, not by others. Technological cooperation across the Atlantic will also help us face ever more complex hybrid and cyber threats.

And finally, beyond geopolitics and transactionalism, we should not forget how invaluable the transatlantic link is in its own right. I mean “invaluable” in both senses of the word. Extremely important. But also “valuable beyond estimation”. Something of such immaterial value that it is impossible to measure it in dollars or euros. Let’s call it the transatlantic spirit, a sense of belonging together. We cannot afford to lose it, on neither side of the Atlantic.