Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at a banquet hosted by President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Mrs Ieva Ilves on 17 May 2016

My esteemed colleague, Toomas Hendrik, dear Ieva,
Dear friends,

Many of the Estonians here will manage without the translation of my speech that has been laid on the table. This is unique: the spirit of togetherness felt by two peoples, separated by a narrow sea, can be heard in our languages. Our countries and peoples have been bound by their languages and history, aspirations and needs, and personal histories for as long as the Gulf of Finland’s shores have been inhabited.

The first contacts across the Gulf of Finland go back to the 1300s. Finns brought fish to Estonia in the spring and were paid in rye in the autumn. Trade was based on trust and common needs. It did not pay to betray such trust. However, our period of coexistence was broken violently by war and the Soviet occupation of Estonia. Our southern cousins had to turn their backs on the sea and break with centuries of free movement, which had been based on trade and connections across the Gulf of Finland.  

There was hardly any contact at all for decades. Then the connection was slowly but surely re-established via the shipping route and Finnish television. Visa-free travel represented the first step towards close interaction between our peoples. Then came the EU and Schengen, based on which Finland and Estonia have seamlessly integrated their people and economies.

But such connections need the people who build and maintain them.  That is why it has been important to have so many opportunities to exchange greetings with you, Toomas Hendrik, both in person and by telephone. All relationships should be actively maintained. 

Tensions are higher in the Baltic Sea region than they have been for many years. We are following the tone of pronouncements and watching military developments with concern. History and geopolitics explain the level of concern in the Baltic countries and the desire for a stronger NATO presence. Finland is a force for stability in the region, based on its own foreign and security policy which includes a credible national defence, cooperation with the EU, NATO and the Nordic countries, and dialogue with Russia. 

Ladies and gentlemen, 

History continues to affect the life of a nation long after the historical facts have been forgotten. I hope that both of our peoples continue to take an interest in each other’s history. Understanding is based on the analysis of various experiences and the investigation of their causes – including, on occasions, a closer analysis of our own experiences. 

Culture – by which I am not solely referring to presidential DJ gigs – has an important role to play in this. The current generation may feel disinclined to study the history of its neighbouring country – or even that of its own – from books. The plot of the film “The Fencer”, which was directed by a Finn, is set during the Soviet occupation. In essence, it is a depiction of how a society was ruled by fear. The international success of the film shows that the story speaks to people across national frontiers.  

But what does the border between Finland and Estonia signify? In practice, our economies are integrated, with millions of our citizens travelling back and forth for work or leisure. We sometimes even forget that we are abroad. The authorities too must respond to people’s everyday needs. The keyword is digitalisation. We need services that can be effortlessly provided and used on both sides of the Gulf. The EU area is in greater need than ever of such technology.

With our economies closely intertwined, now is the time to explore the next steps and take them together. That was what happened today at the ‘Future’ forum at Mektory. Both countries are in need of structural reforms and – in their programmes – both governments have signalled their commitment to such reforms. Finland and Estonia are small, innovative countries with a high level of education and expertise. We should combine our efforts in exploiting this. Although practical ideas were generated by the discussion, it is the atmosphere that I find truly unforgettable. It was tinged with optimism. This is what is now needed in Finland, Estonia and the whole of the European Union.

Ladies and gentlemen, 

I laid a wreath today at the monument for Estonian volunteers who fought in Finland. The setting was impressive and my meetings with veterans were memorable. The motto of the ‘sons of Finland’, “for the freedom of Finland and honour of Estonia”, bears a strong message. As presidents, we wrote a foreword for a compilation of the personal histories of these volunteers, which was published last year. It is wonderful that their story has been recorded for posterity.

I also laid a wreath at the monument of Estonia’s War of Independence. This commemorates the ‘sons of the North’ – Finnish men who came to Estonia to support its struggle for liberation – alongside Estonian fighters. They made their own decisions to come to the assistance of their neighbours.

Our young people have seen neither war nor struggles for independence. Times change, but our strong connection endures. Our neighbouring countries now represent an opportunity for work and study, or to have fun. The lives of our two peoples are intertwined.

Both Finland and Estonia are preparing for their one-hundredth anniversary celebrations. We also aim to hold events together. Our common history will unite us in celebration.

I would like to raise a toast to the Estonian success story, its creators and the future of our countries.

To your health!