Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the spring meeting of the Finnish National Defence Course Association on 5 April 2016

Copyright © Office of the President of the Republic

Copyright © Office of the President of the Republic

Thank you for the opportunity to address such a distinguished and knowledgeable audience. It is vital that we in Finland remain sharp and engage with the latest ideas; it is in this light that I view your presence here today.

I will try to provide you with additional food for thought. We are emerging from another dark winter into the spring sunshine. This provides the setting for my speech, or at least ought to make it a little more palatable; once again, I have no particularly joyful news to share with you.

As you are well aware, the international system is in transition. This is a fact that has often been repeated from this lectern. Another well-known fact is that the European Union is struggling through a series of crises. New crises seem to appear, even as the old ones are still raging. That is what we see when we look around us. 

Are we beginning to get used, or even dangerously numb, to this? Of course, we are deeply disturbed by events such as the Brussels terrorist attacks. They are met by entirely justified demands for stronger measures and a change in policy. But as each day goes by, it is perhaps becoming clearer that better times are unlikely to be just around the corner. In various ways, a long and difficult time may lie ahead of us, which may demand more from us than we dared to think.  

We still remember the old east-west confrontation: the days of division between communist and capitalist countries. There still seems to be a division of this kind, but between democratic and non-democratic countries. The world is also divided on the basis of religion. However, these perhaps conceal a more fundamental divide – between order and stability on the one hand, and disorder and chaos on the other. This will continue to be a focus of discussion for us. We need to think in terms of wholes rather than our most cherished details. 

In times of such profound upheaval, the key task is to safeguard Europe as a zone of order, stability, democracy and human rights. Only by succeeding in this can we secure development and the continuation of the European way of life. A great deal of work lies ahead of us, even if just a few years ago such circumstances were taken for granted and even viewed as export products. However, our certainties are diminishing, giving way to sources of uncertainty. 

Bringing peace to the arc of conflict around Europe’s periphery is one of the prerequisites for a better future. Unfortunately, many fires need to be put out. Even dormant conflicts can re-emerge, as we have seen in Nagorno-Karabakh. In the Middle East and North Africa, the roots of instability and conflict are very deep, penetrating all aspects of life, including the economy and national development. 

However, there have also been successes. The nuclear agreement with Iran was one of last year’s key developments. The important issue now is that the agreement holds. A ceasefire has been achieved between the government and opposition forces in the Syrian civil war, mainly due to the efforts of the United States and Russia. The important issue now is that it holds. However, the journey towards peace is highly challenging and fragile. The fight against Daesh and other terrorist organisations will continue.

No positive developments have emerged in the east; there are no rapid solutions in sight for the Ukrainian conflict. Although the binding nature of – and the lack of alternatives to – the Minsk Agreement are widely recognised, its implementation seems to have become bogged down for various reasons. When a conflict of interests runs deep enough, even deadlock can begin to seem like a solution. At least the parties to the conflict are in no hurry to reject the agreement.  

I could continue talking about conflicts and sources of instability for even longer. The fundamental issue is to realise that they are unlikely to stop impacting on life in Europe and its development for some time to come. 

* * *

Large-scale migration flows are, of course, one of those effects.  Previously, it had already become clear that Europe could not withstand uncontrolled migration forever – Europe would need to find solutions and take action to stem the flow of migrants, at least limiting it to manageable levels and routes. This had to be recognised, despite the fact that many people, even in Finland, did not want to acknowledge it. 

In many respects, the agreement concluded between the European Union and Turkey is not perfect. It has been strongly criticised from the human rights perspective. It will be difficult to implement. Quite predictably, alternative migration routes will be sought; there are already signs of this in the Mediterranean. But such a solution is still better than making no attempt to solve the problem. It is also probably better than a model based on 28 different national solutions. Above all, it is intended to enable the targeting of assistance at people who are fleeing war. 

When I spoke on this issue in February, I proposed that even a satisfactory solution would be a worthy goal. No better options were, or are, in sight. In many respects, we live in a time in which we have to choose between unpleasant options. In real life, we cannot simply retreat to the moral high ground, waiting on the perfect idea or reiterating general principles. We must also solve practical problems.  We will sometimes make mistakes, but must always try to learn.

Uncontrolled immigration is a phenomenon which is bringing conflicts on the EU’s neighbourhood together with its own internal problems. It has accelerated the Union’s internal conflicts by creating a new dividing line, partly between – and frequently within – member states. It is clear that those fleeing war cannot be blamed for this. Europeans themselves are accountable for such disputes and choices. 

The situation is being further aggravated by the intensification of Islamist terrorism targeted at ordinary citizens in Europe. Most observers view this as a long-term threat, since the phenomenon is closely linked to developments in many Islamic countries and, even more so, to the radicalisation of young people in Europe. The diversification in the means of terrorism, possibly extending to the use of radioactive materials, is worrying. This was a major concern at last week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.

How can we combat terrorism and ensure the safety of Europe’s inhabitants? The aim is no less than the prevention of attacks. The police and intelligence agencies are the deciding factor in this. Cooperation and the exchange of information must be increased between national authorities as well as across borders. Structures and frameworks are in place for this; above all, we need clear directives and effective practices. Finland has strong capacity in this regard. 

Greater coordination and exchange of information is no magic bullet for solving the problem, no matter how much we wish that it were. We also need to take account of our intelligence and anti-terrorism capabilities and the related powers. We must meet an elevated threat with greater capacity, ultimately with a preventative objective. No other goal is possible in countries where the key issue is to ensure the safety of its inhabitants without, of course, breaching other basic rights.        

We should also combat terrorism by preventing the social exclusion of young people, in other words by providing them with work and prospects. However, this is easier said than done – even if it is generally accepted that we are dealing with what is mainly a socio-economic problem. In no way does economic growth hold out the prospect of better times in which all our problems will magically disappear. After all, western social policy has already been grappling with economic and social problems for decades. While results have been achieved, we cannot expect the dawn of the perfect society for some time to come.  

* * *

The stability and security of our own neighbourhood, the Baltic Region and Northern Europe are Finland’s key project – to borrow a term from the Government Programme – in foreign and security policy. That is where most is at stake for Finland. 

In terms of security policy, tensions grew in this region when Russia engaged in power politics in Ukraine, in breach of international law. From a wider perspective, this also concerns Russia’s increased military capacity and the frequently made observation that it now has a lower threshold for resorting to military force. In addition, mention has been made of the use of nuclear weapons in a manner never heard during the Cold War, or at least in its final stages. 

One consequence of this development has been a mutual increase in military activity in the Baltic Sea region, since NATO has also responded to the situation by increasing its presence and activities. This increase may continue after the NATO Summit in Warsaw. Such a process will strengthen the key role played in Europe by the United States.  

This change has been noted by Finland and Sweden, the two non-NATO countries of Northern Europe. The foreign and security policy of these two countries is extensively integrated. Both are strengthening their national defence and mutual defence cooperation. Both Finland and Sweden extensively engage in international cooperation. This applies to our NATO partnership as well as cooperation with the United States. There will also be an opportunity to emphasize transatlantic relations when we meet at the Nordic-US Leaders’ Summit hosted by President Obama in May.

Finland is therefore reacting, but not overreacting. That is, of course, just my opinion: some believe that we have already overreacted, while others think the opposite. But we can all at least agree that we are reacting.

Why are we acting in this way? First, the increase in tension is having negative impacts, but not to the extent that they have become uncontrollable in scope or have forced a complete reappraisal of the situation. We are not yet out of options. 

We will keep an open mind and retain Finland’s room for manoeuvre. We are continuously assessing the situation in a rational manner and from a range of perspectives. This is everyday foreign and security policy, which is sometimes more prominent and sometimes subdued.

Under no circumstances can Finland’s foreign and security policy rest on a single pillar; it must form a whole whose parts are in the right balance with respect to the challenges of our time. National defence and security, western integration, relations with Russia and international law – the pillars of our stability-oriented policy – are all important. It is on the basis of these pillars that we must take our opportunities, measures and, at times, the initiative. These constitute an active defence.  

Together with the Government, we have sought to keep our channels of dialogue with Russia – including its national leaders – open in a transparent and responsible manner. This was the case during the Easter week, when I met with President Putin in Moscow. It is better to talk to one another than ignore each other. It is better to seek cooperation wherever possible. It is better to try to take care of problems than leave them unresolved. Such is Finland’s neighbouring area policy in all directions. Looking in one direction does not prevent us from turning towards the others – even if some, who have lost their maps and compasses, clearly fear this.              

There is no quick fix for securing the stability of Northern Europe. We need dialogue. We need greater transparency. We also need mechanisms for preventing clashes. By maintaining open links with both west and east, Finland and Sweden have credibility in this regard. Indeed, Finland has sought to bring these links together. 

The short-term prospects are fairly uncertain. But we must take action now. The Kultaranta talks, to be held around mid-June, will provide a follow-up forum for this discussion.     

* * *

Europe has fallen into what are in many ways difficult and uncertain times. In historical terms, however, this is not an exceptional state of affairs. Only those whose sense of history is limited to the last couple of decades view our times as unusual. Nations that take care of themselves and each other can cope and thrive even now, just as they have done before. 

Copyright © Office of the President of the Republic

Copyright © Office of the President of the Republic