Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the opening of parliament on 2 February 2017

(check against delivery)

Members of Parliament,

You are the custodians of great things. This year, Finland will celebrate 100-years anniversary of its independence as one of the world’s most stable democracies. Rule by the people is a key factor in this success story, since its deep roots in the Finnish mentality have brought us this far.  Our democratic principles have also been skilfully applied; as you are doing in your turn.

The early years were neither easy nor to be taken for granted.  Our country was still being forged, in many respects, during our first three decades of independent democracy.  Figures spring to mind from each decade of that period. First there was K. J. Ståhlberg, the author and uncompromising defender of our Constitution; then there was Väinö Tanner, who persuaded his own side to walk the path of parliamentary responsibility; and in the thirties there was P.E. Svinhufvud, who repulsed the opponents of democracy – also from his own political wing.   In addition, Lex Kallio, a law whose very name is a kind of metaphor for being anchored in Finnish granite, formed the bedrock of all of this. 

A great tradition in domestic policy was born: that differing views, including deep contradictions, can be solved by democratic means, even if this ultimately involves chastising your own side.

We would not have survived the wars and dangerous years that followed without this. In other words, we would not have survived without Finns feeling that ‘we are all a part of this, this is our common goal – the arguments can be had and solved later, when we can thrash out our differences properly’.

A great tradition in foreign policy was also established. Whether we name it after Paasikivi, Kekkonen, or both, its orientation and aim was towards the West, but necessarily sought to secure our existence alongside our neighbour, the Soviet Union, which later dissolved. The door opened to Europe and to the European Community, whose goals and values we felt very much at home.  Many or most people believed that the circle had closed; this was where we have arrived, will stay and where we are comfortable. 

Since those earlier days, the world and everyday life have gradually but fundamentally changed, at least externally, with technology, the digital world and robots taking us into entirely new realms.  But there has been no change in basic human mentality; there are negative and positive feelings both within and between nations.

So the same issues always arise.

* * *

Now, as at almost any other time, domestic policy is dominated by the economy;  not necessarily in terms of GDP or the deficit figures, but with regard to its impact on daily life.

The decade or more following the mid-nineties was a time of increasing well-being and growth. There was a general feeling that this would continue.  We became complacent and set in our ways, unable to see that today’s prosperity can be tomorrow’s worst enemy.

The financial crisis brought us back to earth, but did not fully awaken us.   During many of the following lean years we comforted ourselves with the idea that ‘growth will resume next year’ or we ‘will respond with a stimulus’, or that change would arrive ‘during the next term of government at the latest’. Living on credit began to be the new normal.

This is not a party political point; almost all political parties had a hand in this period of policy paralysis during their terms in government.  

When speaking at the opening session a few years ago, I said that we must act, because we cannot afford to do nothing.
We have now seen that there are no easy solutions.  The old saying, that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, sometimes a lot of eggs, still holds true. There has been criticism, and even commotion on the public stage, sometimes on and sometimes off topic. 

But I would encourage you to forge ahead; since we cannot afford to do nothing.

The key issue is that we continue our great tradition in domestic policy, of cherishing democracy.  We have no major movements within or outside politics that would seek to challenge our democratic system. 

It is clear that we have much to learn about the new, real-time media.  For example, we often get worked up by momentary updates via the social and other media, but the news then changes in the blink of an eye.

We, the representatives of the people, need to remain cool-headed and – at times – be patient and remember the big picture.  We need to show that we appreciate what we do, but that we also respect the efforts of those who disagree with us. This will send out a signal of stability to our fellow Finns.

* * *

Finland is highly dependent on the global economy. Free trade has increased prosperity in the world and in Finland. For example, extreme poverty has been halved in just two decades.  On the other hand, competition has intensified and the issue of improving competitiveness has become a much repeated theme.

However, we may be on the brink of an era of a different kind. Suspicions about the rise of protectionism are well-founded. If trade restrictions are imposed, they are bound to lead to retaliation. Such a spiral would create a hugely paradoxical situation: the challenge would no longer be competitiveness alone, but can one benefit from it.

The closure of economic or other borders is not a cure for the imbalances of globalisation. No nation can flourish by forgetting the rest. The direction should be towards open cooperation based on international rules.

In addition to the good it has done, globalisation has increased inequality. By this, I not only mean the latest astonishing news that just a few individuals own as much as the poorest approximately four billion people in the world.  This is not just about money, but increasingly about the concentration of economic power. A very small number of people can fundamentally affect the circumstances of very large masses.

I consider it important for Finland to combat inequality. I am sure that you would like to engage in broad cooperation in this respect. In addition to public sector activities, each and every Finn has the duty to help those who are in need; to encourage those who need encouragement; but also to prod those who choose to be inactive. And we must all give a clear message to greed: No!

* * *

The great foreign policy tradition has rested on the art of the possible. This remains true and will perhaps become even more so in the near future.

Finland is part of the West and is a country of western traditions. Nobody is questioning this.  Our existence is based on the values of democracy, human rights and equality. These are also the foundations of our foreign policy.

So what constitutes the West at the moment? From Finland, the sun traces an arc westwards to the land of Brexit, and onwards to Trump Tower.  This realignment of the West is raising many questions and inspiring a great deal of thought.  In my New Year’s speech, I made the point that the EU must speak out on geopolitical matters – it has now become clear that the voice of Europe is also much needed in championing western values.

Our security policy can have only one objective – how best to ensure a secure life for Finnish people. Neither Finland nor the Nordic countries in general are a source of danger that any unrest would break out in our own back yard because of us or that would be directed against us in particular.  However, we do need to be prepared for problems originating elsewhere.

This is where our foreign and security policies converge; we need to build our security in all places and in all ways.

The steps taken can be small, as in the effort to lessen tensions by improving air safety in the Baltic Sea area; or larger such as in the idea of holding an Arctic Council summit in Finland; or even broader, as in our activities in international organisations, peace mediation and development cooperation. All are important.

We must secure our own continued existence, in case the worst occurs. I would like to return to the four pillars I have mentioned on previous occasions, if only to update them. They are not static, but develop over time.

First of all, with regard to national measures, Parliament will soon receive a Government Report on Finnish Defence Policy for its consideration.  It has a clear message: Evil will be met with stiff resistance. In addition to which, Finland will be a strong partner if a crisis occurs.

Secondly, I would like to refer to partnerships. Even we are surprised by how well cooperation with Sweden has progressed. Where applicable, the same cooperation could occur alongside the other Nordic countries. The EU has also woken up to the need of protecting itself, something which we in Finland have long advocated.  We have been at the heart of a NATO Summit for the first time, which sends a strong signal. We are building on a long-standing relationship with the United States, which has yielded results in areas including arms sales and beyond. 

Thirdly, there is our relationship with Russia, which has always been an inevitable and essential priority for us.  We have no bilateral problems in this regard and have no interest in creating such problems.  They respond to our invitations as do we to theirs, talking very frankly, as good neighbours tend to do.  We know each other very well.

The fourth pillar is the rules-based international order resting on the United Nations.  This is our weakest pillar and we draw no comfort from the fact that the same holds true globally.  There are now major problems in this regard – will a few big fish cruise past the hundreds of minnows?  We are on the side of the little fish, but not against the big ones. An effective and just international order is ultimately in everyone’s interests.

* * *

And now for a small digression:  At the beginning of the decade, Parliament decided to make itself the highest-level custodian of our foreign policy, as recommended by the Constitutional Law Committee.  This concerned a hypothetical situation in which the Government and the President of the Republic were in disagreement. Parliament would resolve the matter and all sides would have to settle for that.

Digressions always need to be explained: Although such a situation is unlikely to occur in practice, the signal is positive and clear: Democracy is in your hands!  Cherish it!
Mr Speaker, Members of Parliament,

I would like to congratulate the party leaders for the continued support they have received and wish every one of you the greatest success, as well as wisdom in your demanding work on Finland’s behalf.

I hereby declare the 2017 session of Parliament opened.