Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn on 13 May 2017

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I would like to thank for this invitation. I am honoured to be delivering this key note.

Lennart Meri was an exceptional individual. He lived a remarkable life during a very difficult time in Estonian history and he left a lasting mark well beyond his own country. Lennart Meri was a man of keen intellect with a good sense of humour and he never missed an opportunity for a debate. This Conference is a fitting tribute to his memory.

Today I speak also in honour of another great statesman – President Mauno Koivisto – who passed away last night. When he, as a young soldier, heard that the war had ended, he got out of the trenches carrying his gun and thought to himself “there must be another, more peaceful way of dealing with ones neighbour.” His actions towards that goal are a legacy for us all to uphold.

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Today I want to touch upon two issues. Firstly, I will give an overview of the security dynamics in Europe and highlight how Finland is seeking to uphold European security. Secondly, I will underline the Arctic as a global concern.

To begin with, I take it that we can all agree that Europe is not as stable and secure as we would like it to be. We are forced to admit that the post-Cold War promise of stable and prosperous Europe without dividing lines has not been achieved. Increased tensions, arms races and rise of terrorism show no signs of abating.

Many say that ‘geopolitics’ is back. Indeed, hard words have been followed with hard action: Military activities and build-up are increasing, and military operations and exercises are conducted in previously unseen ways. Threat perceptions also include asymmetric threats, such as hybrid and cyber. Even the very foundations of our democracy, elections, have been targeted with malign intents.

There is no denying that European security is riven by deep mistrust. Our joint co-operation platform, the OSCE, struggles as key commitments have been breached: The annexation of Crimea by Russia was a heavy blow.

Finland is steadfast in defending the principles and structures underlying European security and stability. We have also taken steps to enhance our own security. We are investing into our armed forces, in particular by enhancing readiness and rapid reaction. We are passing new legislation to ensure that we have all the means necessary to protect ourselves. We also contribute to increasing our common resilience towards hybrid threats.

We want to send a strong signal that we take security very seriously. We work closely with our partners in NATO and our bilateral defence co-operation with Sweden is progressing rapidly.

For Finland, the EU is of particular relevance. I have been raising EU defence co-operation to the debate for over a decade. My starting point is this: The EU is hardly a true union if it does not play its part in ensuring the security of its own citizens.

For many EU members NATO is the primary forum for collective defence, and rightly so. But there is a great deal we can do together under the banner of ‘Protecting Europe’. I am confident that succeeding in this task is important for the EU also in the eyes of our citizens: Security is an area where the publics have expectations towards the Union.

There has been a major shift in the EU’s orientation towards defence. There was a time when the Commission did not even dare to say the word aloud. This changed in 2013 when the issue was debated at the European Council and the Commission launched its road map on defence. It was also then that the EU decided to start spending money on defence.

This year we have seen moves to strengthen the EU as a security community. I am happy to note that at last discussions concerning defence co-operation are bearing fruit. We are close to agreeing on activating Permanent Structured Co-operation (PESCO) in defence. Finland fully supports this development and will contribute to the process.

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But as always the devil is in the detail. We need to strike the right balance, be ambitious but also see the value of inclusiveness. We are a Union and this should be reflected also in the field of security. We must ensure that the arrangements are and will remain inclusive while bringing concrete steps forward and real value added to the security of ordinary Europeans. Developing key capabilities, enhancing our operational readiness, but importantly also our willingness, are important.

But we also need dialogue. Finland has done and will continue to do its share to promote security in Europe. The initiative for Baltic Sea air safety is a manifestation of this. Although the work in the context of International Civil Aviation Organisation ICAO is low-political, it has been one of the rare occasions for constructive discussions on issues affecting our common security.

We need a chain of positive steps to foster confidence and security. This requires, firstly, that we see success in efforts to resolve the many crises of the day – particularly Ukraine, Syria and North Korea. At the same time we should take a fresh look at the bigger picture that includes technology development, weapons of mass destruction, arms control and military confidence building measures.

Two of the biggest concerns today are the use of chemical weapons in Syria and prospects regarding nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, including in North Korea. We must strictly enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention. These weapons should never be used. It is also important that the nuclear weapon states, in particular the United States and Russia, get back on track in their strategic talks and seek to reduce all types of nuclear weapons.

Conventional arms control is also crucial in preventing conflicts, alleviating tensions and building confidence. Since most of the current arms control measures in the OSCE framework were agreed during the Cold War almost three decades ago, the tool box is in need of modernization. Finland welcomes the efforts to promote arms control dialogue, such as the so-called Steinmeier initiative and recently initiated dialogue on security risks and challenges in Vienna.

We need more predictability and transparency. We also need to reduce risks and military activities that give rise to concerns. I believe now is the time for a genuine engagement on arms control and confidence building. I readily admit this is by no means an easy task. But to give up the effort at the outset would be detrimental to European security, the OSCE, arms control regimes and to our own security interests.

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The future of humanity does not depend on military security alone. Finland has just begun its two-year Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Although the Council has only eight full members, the Arctic itself is a global concern.

The Arctic is a region that puts us face to face with the great dilemma facing humanity: do we approach the Arctic primarily as a source of economic opportunities, or do we admit that preserving the region’s ecosystem is critical to our entire planet? In short: Do we put the environment or the economy first?

Recently we have seen mixed signals concerning the topic. On the one hand, the leaders of the two largest member states, the United States and Russia, have expressed views that climate change is not due to human action. On the other hand the Arctic ministerial meeting in Fairbanks earlier this week adopted a declaration that not only acknowledged climate change but also put the attempts at fighting it to the forefront.

It is clear that we need to utilise the economic potential of the Arctic but do it in a manner that is sustainable. At the same time we must make the tackling of climate change a priority.

I would recommend approaching the issue from the perspective of black carbon, an accelerator of glacier melting. Old energy plants in the neighbourhood of the Arctic are causing heavy pollution due to incomplete burning. And then we have flaring – a process, almost impossible for a lay man to understand, where excess gas is burnt off on the production site. Around the world, flaring wastes forty times more gas than Finland consumes in a year.

I believe that a ‘neutral zone’ for co-operation can be found from combating these two sources of emissions. Doing so would not interfere with interests bent on economic exploitation. On the contrary, refitting plants would create business opportunities.

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Estonia will begin its first EU Presidency in July. It is an important position at a very challenging time. I am confident that the Estonian Presidency will be a success. You can count on Finland’s full support in your tasks.

I opened this speech with Lennart Meri and I want to close it with him as well. Speaking in 1999 at an event commemorating the end of the Cold War he made an important remark: ‘We, and indeed all of western Europe, have repeatedly stated that we want to have strong and friendly relations with all our neighbours. We do not wish, nor do we intend to build up new walls between the European Union and the countries east of us.’

I have no doubt that this vision is the right one. The path ahead will be long and narrow but there is no feasible alternative. We must also accept that achieving Lennart’s vision does not depend only on us. But at least we should ensure that we ourselves are up to the task: Ready to ensure our own security as well as foster mutual confidence and trust through dialogue.