Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the Opening of Parliament on 3 February 2016

Madam Speaker, Members of Parliament,

When you began your work a year ago, you can hardly have anticipated what lay ahead. When I took office, I was equally unable to foresee everything that would transpire.

It is said that history is being made now, in the midst of the current decade; that we are at a crossroads and the decisions taken now are crucial to our future.

It is also said that, in recent years, we have encountered a series of events which are shaking us to our foundations, and that this is likely to continue. That this year will yet again reveal another, equally unforeseeable phase.

These are questions that you here, I, and the government will all have to respond to – how we Finns and Finland will face our future. Ultimately, that responsibility is ours alone.

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Early 2016 has been a period of memorable, public debate between the Finnish people. Indeed, some of it has called for words of warning, when people have been unlawfully hurt, verbally or physically. But we have also become too accustomed to raising our voices at one another. Men, women, the tolerant and intolerant and many others, including the police, have been slammed – we have indeed verbally abused each other in the most thoroughgoing manner.

Why now?  Because we face problems. Uncontrolled migration is the most recent of these. We are sorely mistaken if we think that we can sweep this problem under the carpet by placing each others’ words and deeds under a microscope, as a prelude to engaging in straw man arguments and ad hominem attacks. This is no solution to our problems; it is only a way of redirecting attention elsewhere and allowing our woes to accumulate.

In this respect, it is indeed time for common sense to prevail, as columnist Jyri Paretskoi has written in the newspaper Iisalmen Sanomat.

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Migration is a serious problem. Europe, Finland, the western way of thinking and our values have all been challenged by it.

This is a stark transformation; just a few years ago we were exporting our values and regarded them as unquestionable, now we are having to consider whether even we ourselves can preserve them.

The flow of immigration into Europe and Finland is largely a case of migration rather than a flight from immediate danger. All estimates predict that the flow of people will increase this year. This is challenging the ability of western democracies to help and also challenging the very structures underlying the idea of Europe.

In the resulting chaos, the situation facing the migrants can only worsen. It is known that refugees are being exploited. We have just heard about the 10,000 missing minors in Europe. Human traffickers, with huge illicit business operations, are exploiting and cashing in on the situation, often risking the lives of those on the move. There is also a risk that refugees will be used as pawns in cynical power politics.

We hear a great deal of talk about how we must close our borders, or at least limit the number of entrants and, most of all, immediately return wrongdoers. Many people agree and wonder why we have not done so already. There is an explanation for this.

I am now approaching the key issue. International agreements, EU directives and national laws have been enacted and thought through in an admirable, right-minded manner – in order to protect all those who are in danger.

However, in practice this means that anyone who knows how to pronounce the word “asylum” can enter Europe and Finland; in essence, use of the word grants a kind of subjective right to cross the border. Without any good grounds whatsoever, an arrival is entitled to an evaluation lasting years and can then, if not qualifying for asylum, avoid enforcement of the subsequent decision and remain where he or she arrived under false pretences.

And so we come to the dilemma that is so deeply rooted in our values.

Europe cannot withstand uncontrolled migration for much longer. Our values will give way if our capacity to cope is exceeded. It so happens that good intentions are creating a bad situation for everyone.

It is alleged that most, if not almost all, measures that might be taken to control the process are in breach of international rights and agreements. The result is that we cannot do what many people consider necessary.

It has also been suggested that the International Convention on Refugees should be amended. This would be a slow process, unlikely to solve what is an acute problem.

The international rules were drawn up and their interpretation evolved under quite different circumstances. I feel sure that if these international regulations, and the national regulations based on them, were drawn up now, their content would be fundamentally more stringent, while still taking account of human rights and helping those in need.

There are therefore no good options. We have to ask ourselves whether we aim to protect Europe’s values and people, and those who are truly in acute danger, or inflexibly stick to the letter of our international obligations with no regard for the consequences.

We must now take stock of where we are headed. The objective is to strike a balance which, when viewed from all angles, would be at least satisfactory, since this is the best we can do right now.

First of all, we must safeguard our foundation of European values – there should be no confusion about this. Secondly, we must help those who are in distress or being persecuted. At the moment, however, we cannot help those who are merely seeking a better life or feel that their circumstances and future are difficult in their home countries.

Europe is still seeking a balanced solution to the problem. Many governments are acting unilaterally, pursuing their own narrow interests or engaging in a display of defiance while issuing threats. At some point, someone has to recognise that, here and now, we cannot fulfil all of our obligations under international agreements. Most of the national proposals put forward are based on this realisation.

It would be best to face facts, and best of all for the EU to do so and embark on the joint control of our borders, the slowing down of migration and the acceleration of deportations, thereby creating a safe space for those in the worst distress.

The termination of various conflicts, such as the Syrian war, would also be an indispensable part of the solution. This will require extensive international cooperation, in which we will certainly do our part. However, no rapid relief of this kind is in prospect, nor is it likely that it would deter those who are migrating for other reasons.

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In my New Year’s speech, I said that we must not enter the spring at odds with one another. We cannot meet the challenges posed by migration if we are a house divided.

The economy is vital, but not the most important thing in life. That is what makes it the easier of the thorny problems we face.

In addition to indulging in self-criticism, we have again begun to fret about what the world is saying and thinking about us. Unfortunately often, the media seek out the smallest hints of negative news. It is as if we long to publicly wallow in our low self-esteem.

Of course, the world does evaluate and pay attention to us in a number of ways. I would begin with our rankings in international comparisons: we are among the best in terms of issues such as happiness, well-being, creativity and the attractiveness of our country, not forgetting our competitiveness and education. In fact, studies of national sources of pride are few and far between in which we do not come close to the top.

If anything, the world is actually wondering why we Finns, being in possession of almost all the elements of success, are unable to make more of ourselves. We have carefully hidden our light under a bushel. A yawning gap has opened up between our potential and our achievements.

We are now continuing with our fifth round of negotiations on reviving our economy, which has been at a standstill on a tight rope for the last eight years. Young entrepreneurs are now introducing a breath of fresh air – I ask the negotiators to open their doors to the new breezes. Give us all a pleasant surprise!

Madam Speaker, Members of Parliament,

Much is now expected and required of you. We need greater security, immigration is a problem, our economy is under duress and unseen problems may lie ahead. On a deeper level than has been expected of Parliament for decades, you will be asked to wrestle with fundamental, constitutional issues.  Your work will not be free of pain.

President Ståhlberg’s desk, where our constitution was drawn up, can be found on the upper level of the main Parliament building. There lies a message in that scene: Here is where the constitution was created and has stood the test of time and the accompanying changes.

I congratulate the Speakers on the support they have received and wish you all the best of success and the greatest wisdom in your demanding work.

I hereby declare the 2016 session of Parliament opened.