President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö’s speech at the Ambassador Seminar on 23 August 2016

The world is transforming, but one issue remains the same: The autumn season of Finnish foreign policy opens with the ambassador seminar. It is always a pleasure to meet you, even if we are not living through the easiest of times.

This year is another in which events have flown by, from one surprise development to another. More now happens in a week than once occurred in an entire year.

It is clear that the burning issues of the day and their management attract most attention. However, in the everyday business of foreign policy, the most urgent issues are not always the most important ones. We need to be able to see not just further ahead, but also further afield. This is something that I would like to encourage you and Finland to do.

But before we can shift our gaze further afield, we need to recognise the dangers and opportunities right in front of us. We need to avoid the fate of those whose gaze is fixed only on the sky.

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As you know, I take a holistic view of Finland’s security status, seeing it as resting on four pillars. They are national defence and security, western integration and partnerships, well-functioning relations with Russia and the international system and comprehensive security.

The pillars of our security will not remain strong without constant care, but they require an active policy aimed at maintaining stability. It is not in Finland’s interests to stand by and simply follow how things develop. 

Let me take a recent example. The tension in the Baltic Sea area has increased due to the Ukraine conflict. Impaired flight safety is one of the dangerous symptoms of this, which could at worst lead to accidents and serious crises. This is not by any means a new issue – it has been discussed at a number of international forums over the years. Despite this, no significant improvements have been made in this regard. 

Like many others, I have drawn the attention of both our Russian and western partners to this shared concern. The finger has been pointed at the Russians in particular with respect to dark flights.  In light of this the rational conclusion was to take up the issue with Russia. If this is now viewed as being negative or confusing, that is because some other line of reasoning is behind it.

However, the condition of each and every pillar is not only in our hands, but depends on developments in our international environment. No progress on the most burning issues was made in the last year – in fact, the situation has in some respects even worsened. The Ukraine conflict and the Syrian civil war rage on. The most recent escalation in Crimea showed that matters could again take an unexpected turn for the worse.

New developments are also occurring in quick succession elsewhere. The relationship between Russia and Turkey is an example of this. Within nine months, these countries have succumbed from a partnership to a period of deep crisis, and then back again.

The rapid rapprochement between Turkey and Russia represents a major geopolitical change. While it does not necessarily amount to a stable alliance, even a tactical rapprochement poses new challenges to western actors. It should be borne in mind that both countries have expressed deep frustration with the EU at what they view as an endless process of negotiating a partnership – or a membership.

Developments in Turkey have raised legitimate concerns. It would not be in our interests for Turkey to spurn democracy and its EU partnership. There is also a slight historical irony in the harder line being taken by Turkey: there is now a danger that political terms will be set for the EU, which has been the one accustomed to setting the terms to others for many years. 

The EU’s banking crisis, which had already been declared as solved, is making a comeback after the UK’s decision in favour of Brexit. Powerful forces are now shaking up the EU. The sluggish global economy is making an impact. We, who have for so long enjoyed the benefits of globalisation, are now also seeing its darker side. Tougher economic competition is eroding our comparative advantages.

The European Union appears to have reached an impasse in many other respects. This impasse is largely self-inflicted. We all know the steps of this dance: a crisis comes out of nowhere. Summits are held. And then the same thing happens again. And the can is simply kicked down the road. The problem becomes even more intractable.

The EU’s problem is ultimately political. Too often, decisions are made to postpone genuine decisions until later. And even when decisions are made, their implementation often adds up to no more than good intentions. By acting in this way, the EU is undermining its own future in the eyes of its citizens. The feeble approach taken to the joint handling of the migration crisis is one example of this. There is much room for improvement.

The Union must not turn out to be a fair-weather organisation. The signs are not entirely encouraging. The UK’s Brexit decision is a serious blow. Although it does not yet pose a threat to the Union, it must be taken seriously. One of the strong messages is that people throughout the EU often have little trust even in their own leaders, let alone the EU. This problem is not confined to Britain, but is also taking hold on the continent. If it is allowed to worsen, it will become a genuine threat to the Union and thereby to all of us.

Britain will remain an important partner for the EU and Finland, even after Brexit. We hope that our relations remain close and strong. This is not just an economic issue. Britain’s strong and positive input will continue to be needed in terms of foreign and security policy as well.

However, it is clear that the EU’s future is again in the melting pot. Many now want to see a radical deepening of the Union, while others want to see it break up. I think that both will be disappointed. 

Instead of ambitious, new plans, it would be more relevant to focus on the essential, go back to basics and ensure that all member states and their citizens feel that the European Union brings an element of stability to their lives. However, many people say that even our everyday security is under threat and that terrorism has come permanently to Europe.

If the everyday security of EU citizens is lost, this means that the Union is without its basic function and thereby its legitimacy. For example, terrorism is not an uncontrollable force of nature, but always grows out of particular social and political settings. We must carefully identify and analyse these underlying factors. After that, we need to address them. That is the only way of preventing terrorism.

It is wrong to think that terrorism is new or that it uniquely threatens Europe and its values. On the contrary, regardless of where it occurs terrorism is a global scourge and a crime against life and humanity.

Islamist terrorism is raising particular concern, since the process of radicalisation still seems to be in its early days. Similarly, a number of global transitions and inequality between people and nations are creating long and continuous potential for radicalisation within countries. 

The phenomenon of terrorism affects us all, including Finns in one way or another. The question is, what can we do about terrorism. There are means, but do we have the will to use them? Cooperation between the police and intelligence services must be deepened in order to prevent acts of terrorism. We must also develop our anti-terrorism tools. This too is to be covered by Finland’s forthcoming new legislation on intelligence activities.

France, which has been the victim of callous attacks, is now giving the most direct thought to these issues. We can illustrate this point by referring to the fact that as many as 81 per cent of the French people favoured the restriction of personal freedoms, if security so requires, in the wake of the Nice attacks. Security and fundamental rights should not be set against each other. Yet it is difficult to get the balance between the two rights. Difficult choices may also lie before Europe and these choices will only become more painful the longer we delay dealing with terrorism and, in particular, its underlying reasons. At the same time, the remedies and their eventual price may be greater than we are ready to absorb at the moment.

In addition to combating terrorism, the EU has much to offer in the field of security. More joint action and a greater role for the EU would be in Finland’s interests. The Government’s foreign and security policy report approved during the summer refers to the EU as a strengthening ‘security community’ in stepping up the security of member states. The deepening relationship between NATO and the EU also implies a more important security role for the EU in the future. This is also what citizens wish from the EU. However, cooperation within the EU is always in addition to, and in no case displaces, our own active national role in safeguarding our security.

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In addition to the external pillars, the strength of Finland’s own national pillar is a key source of national security. A credible national defence forms an important part of this. We have learned to think that a credible defence creates a threshold and deterrent for intruders. It is equally important that, if a serious crisis should break out, a credible Finnish defence provides also strong incentives for partnership.

However, security is not based on weapons alone. Finland’s social solidarity and everyday security for citizens is another important constituent of our national pillar. Our pillar rests on a solid foundation. In international comparisons, Finland is an exceptionally safe, peaceful and developed country. Several international rankings list Finland as one of the world’s most stable and advanced societies. For example, the Fund for Peace Index has once again rated Finland as a sustainably stable state – and, as such, the only one of its kind in the world. In international rankings, Finland is also near the top in terms of human development, low levels of corruption and freedom of the media.

We are often used to being modest and downplaying this by stating that surely we cannot be that good at anything. However, the rankings do tell us something.

It is clear that, in spite of its current challenges, Finland has succeeded well in getting the basics right. The fruits of economic success have been shared reasonably fairly and the entire nation has benefited. The resulting social solidarity is a great achievement by Finland and its people and is a major strength in terms of resisting hybrid and information-based forms of influence.

Yet despite our strengths our national solidarity is also under pressure. I would draw your attention to a report published by the think tank e2 early in the summer, “Kenen mitta on täysi” (“Who’s had their fill?”), on the social climate in Finland.

The report is a sobering read. It states that a large section of the public is dissatisfied, anxious about growing inequality and feels insecure. Many feel that even their own hard work no longer guarantees a living and that our democracy is dysfunctional. Finland is dividing into a nation of winners who are content with life and their country and to those who are dissatisfied and disappointed.

Particular attention should be paid to our young people, the builders of our future. The newly published study, “Finland as a growth environment for young people”, reveals that although most youngsters are faring well, one third of the cohort experience difficulty in finding secondary education and making the transition into working life. This is a worrying trend that sets us apart from other Nordic countries, where young people are better able to get a start in life. According to the latest survey of young people conducted in 2015, only 56 per cent feel that they truly belong to Finnish society. In 2012, three years earlier, the corresponding figure was 76 per cent. This is a negative trend and a fertile breeding ground for future problems.

This same dramatic division can be seen in the result of the UK’s Brexit vote and the popularity of Donald Trump in the United States. When those in society who view themselves as having lost out are roused, the consequences can be difficult to predict.

However, our reaction to the phenomenon should not be to demonise or condemn. Discontent is part of democracy. What is essential is where and how it is channelled, and by what kinds of leaders. If it prompts citizens to have a constructive social impact, it can only be of benefit. 

Finnish society remains stable and functional, in spite of some tensions. Many things are going well. However, there are no grounds for complacency. Developments in Finland’s internal situation will also have a decisive influence on our national security.

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I think that although the times have been hard and storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, in many respects Finland’s foreign and security policy has become newly topical and important. This is work that we cannot outsource to others and which presents Finland with opportunities to influence events in advance. These opportunities mainly arise via – and in the pauses between – the hard, everyday work of you and all foreign service employees. Incisive reporting is a key tool in this respect and no one’s contribution is unimportant.

I wish you all the wisdom and strength you need in your important and demanding tasks. But I have a feeling that you have thoughts of your own on these issues as well. In order to avoid a monologue this morning, I will now open up the floor to a discussion of these and other matters.