Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the Interparliamentary Conference for the CFSP and the CSDP in Helsinki, Kalastajatorppa, 5 September 2019

This autumn we are commemorating the outbreak of the Second World War eighty years ago. We must not forget the terrible devastation and human suffering caused by that war. But it is also important to remember what grew out of that tragedy. The spirit of “never again”, the seeds for European unity.

As my good colleague, the German Federal President Steinmeier said in Warsaw last weekend, “the united Europe is what saved us”. European integration essentially started out as a peace project, aiming to prevent another war. In this sense, security was of course at the core of the European project from the very beginning. And indeed, between the members of the European Union, the absence of war has prevailed.

Maintaining peace inside the Union is not a minor achievement. On the contrary, it is a prerequisite for everything else that we do. Yet for the European Union to thrive in the 21st century, its contribution to security needs to go beyond avoiding the horrors of the past. A credible Union needs to show that it can address the present and future security concerns of its citizens. This requires unity. This requires strength.

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Let me begin with unity. You have gathered at this conference to discuss the Common Foreign and Security Policy as well as the Common Security and Defense Policy of the European Union. Before even turning to foreign, security or defense policy, I want to stress the word “common”. I would like to challenge you to stop for a moment to think about a simple question. What do we, Europeans, have in common?

I firmly believe that if we take this question seriously, we can come up with a long list of issues that unite us. A list that easily outweighs those questions that divide us. Why is it, then, that the image of the European Union these days is so often one of disagreements and quarrelling?

I am afraid we, collectively, have ourselves to blame for this. Where there are problems between members, they naturally have to be dealt with. But if we constantly focus on the differences when we talk about our Union, it only makes us weaker, internally and externally. It turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It makes it more difficult for us to arrive at effective common policies. It makes it easier for others to try to divide us even further.

Instead, we should focus on all that we have in common. Our values, to be sure. But also our interests. In my thinking, the main argument for the objective of a common European voice has nothing to do with idealism. It is pure realism. In a world increasingly dominated by a great-power competition, even the largest of EU member states are small if they act on their own. The more united we are, the more forcefully we all can pursue our interests globally.

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The outgoing High Representative, Madame Mogherini, will address you at this conference later today. In her speech to the EU Ambassadors earlier this week, she stated that “the world expects the European Union to play a leading role”. Although we have witnessed a diminishing demand for the export of our values, this is an important reminder. A stronger Europe is not only something that would benefit us Europeans. Many of our partners across the world would also like to see Europe live up to its full potential.

Whereas the world may expect the EU to play a leading role, however, we should have no illusions: the world will not stop to wait for it. In my own speech to the Finnish Ambassadors two weeks ago, I noted that the geopolitical picture of the world has started to resemble a triangle. With Washington, Beijing and Moscow as its corners, this triangle now makes its mark on all continents, in different constellations.

I would much rather draw this picture as a rectangle. With a strong European Union as its fourth corner, as an equal global player with the three others. For the time being, this is not the case. Europe is no longer shaping the world, we are being shaped by it – above all by the great-power triangle.

If we want to change this picture, as I think we should, the European Union has to earn its place at the tables that matter. The triangle will not turn into a rectangle on its own. Unity is the first requirement for our ability to make that change, but it is not sufficient. Unfortunately we are living in a world that respects hard power. In such a world, only the strong ones are listened to.

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The good news is that Europe is now, at last, waking up to this reality. For a long time, I felt a bit lonely when calling for a stronger role for the European Union in the security and defense of our continent. In the past few years, I have been relieved to finally receive some company in these efforts. Whether the objective is called a European Security and Defense Union, European strategic autonomy, or something else altogether, the main point is that these questions are now taken seriously.

With a series of new achievements, from the Permanent Structured Cooperation to the European Defense Fund, this is certainly an important part of the legacy of the Commission of Mr Juncker. I trust that the new Commission led by Madame von der Leyen will continue this work relentlessly. Now is the time to fill all the structures we have created with concrete deeds.

Ultimately, concrete European deeds can only come with committed political leadership from the member states. Therefore I have been particularly pleased by the entry to the scene of another good colleague, the French President Macron. I can wholeheartedly support all his initiatives aiming at a stronger European Union. I only hope that we would hear more in the same vein from other European heads of state and government – and from the parliaments that you represent.

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In the case of Finland, we have long argued that taking care of our own national defense is valuable for two main reasons. It creates a credible threshold against a potential aggressor. And it makes us into a more interesting partner for others.

I cannot see why the same argument would not work for the European Union as a whole. A European Union capable of taking care of its own security is an important goal in its own right. But it is also a means to an end. It will be a European Union that is a more interesting partner for others, in security matters and beyond. It will be a European Union with more influence in the world.

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Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Chairman,

I now look forward to continuing the discussion with you.

Compic/Mauri Ratilainen