President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö’s New Year’s Speech on 1 January 2019
My fellow citizens,
Late this autumn, the memorial flame was burning beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. A hundred years had passed since the end of World War I. World leaders joined in silence to commemorate the making of peace that ended a European war.
Less than a month later, in the vicinity of the Arc de Triomphe, cars were burning. At the same time, yellow-vested people were on the streets, telling that things were not right for them. Under the Arc de Triomphe, the ostensible unanimity and reconciliation with the past changed into a fierce battle over the life today.
This symbolism forces us to ponder. Europe is the most democratic, equal and free continent in the world. Now it has, however, drifted into divisive quarrels over its very own values.
* * *
If even the best begins to seem disorderly, the prognosis for the entire world looks bleak indeed. The temptation to choose a different path grows.
Exporting European values has changed into defending them on home ground. And are we seeing attempts to import values alien to us? We know what the opposites of democracy, equality and freedom are.
We must continue our tireless work to defend the rules-based international order. The UN system is a significant supporting pillar also of Finland’s own security and well-being. At the same time, we also have to prepare for the possibility that the current system may not be able to recover to what it once was.
The world is rapidly becoming multipolar and the world order is changing its form. China is using its economic power, Russia is rearming and the United States is distancing itself from cooperation. In this transformation, we must remain vigilant.
Finland has good connections with Washington, Moscow and Beijing. We need to utilize these contacts in pursuing our global objectives.
Foremost in my mind is the danger of the return of nuclear weapons to the everyday life of international politics. If the arms control treaties formulated during the Cold War collapse, we have to strive for the creation of new ones to replace them. Finland stands ready to offer its good services to build contacts for negotiation. We will take this message forward also during the beginning year.
Alone, however, our possibilities to influence others are limited. Europe must be brought back to the tables where the decisions about the future are made. An internally weak European Union is not able to do this. Together we must perform better.
* * *
Europe has a long tradition of representative democracy. There are calls to complement it, or even replace it, with more direct democracy, aiming at immediate and quick impact. Marches, movements and counter-movements demanding change are born.
We are living in a transition period. New ideas are eagerly grasped, but they may be abandoned just as quickly. We risk losing something essential to representative democracy: that is the ability to harmonize different viewpoints. And at the same time the ability to listen and try to understand the opinions of others, even when not accepting them.
The right to call into question is at the core of democracy. The power of contentment or discontentment belongs to the people. Indeed, all the current political parties were once born out of discontent. Also the energy of these new movements may thus be channeled to the construction of common good.
Yet amid the change, there are also disturbing signs of dangerous extremist movements. Anarchists hiding among yellow vests and demonstrators marching openly under Nazi symbols remind us of the cruelties and atrocities of the previous century. In a democracy, there is no room for them.
A year ago I expressed my concern about how the will to misunderstand often outweighs the attempt to understand. A heated debate that twists the truth is a maelstrom that easily ends in permanent hostility.
This past centenary of the events of 1918 gave food for thought. When hatred takes over, an ordinary person may end up acting with cruelty that he or she would previously have found unimaginable. But from hostility, there is also a way towards a common future. In our case, it opened in lockstep with the increasing trust in democracy.
* * *
In recent years, migration has been the phenomenon that has divided Europe most. It has been controversial between countries as well as within them. Migration in the world is not about to end – on the contrary, the pressure for it is increasing. This is why we have to be able to manage it better, whether it is about work-related migration, refugees or asylum seekers.
An asylum application cannot be left unexamined without breaching international law. International agreements were created to protect those in real need of protection. Them we must help. But as we have also experienced, the system can be exploited by people trying to immigrate for other reasons. We have also seen how some people who have sought refuge in Finland, even some who have received it, have created insecurity here with inhumane acts. This is an intolerable situation.
Those residing here have to be given the opportunity to be a part of our society. In turn, there is the right to require a willingness to adjust to our society. And to bear responsibility, also by guiding their own. Behaviour contradicting our laws and values increases the risk of stigmatisation of entire groups of people and arouses deep mistrust, even hatred.
The EU is looking for solutions to the management of migration. The agreement with Turkey has provided at least a breathing space to agree on terms on who and how can enter Europe and where they will be placed. If the management is successful, many countries, Finland no doubt included, will be ready to increase the amount of quota refugees. They are in need of international protection.
We must not forget that we also need migration. Qualified experts and those learning to become ones, to participate in the maintenance of our society.
* * *
We can with a good conscience say that Finland is the most democratic, equal and free country in the world. Our strength has always been trust, also in authorities: from education to social services, from police to health care.
We have traditionally respected these people who provide us security. But today it becomes increasingly evident that they are faced with inappropriate, even aggressive behaviour in their work. Something has gone badly wrong if a person providing societal services has to be afraid of the ones receiving them.
The respect for democracy is measured in the everyday interaction, on both sides of the table.
* * *
We must remember for whom and why we are writing our great story. We do it for our children. In addition to raising them with our words and example, with our actions we also shape the world that we leave behind for them. It is precisely this view that opens for the next generation that makes a person stay or leave, try or give up, or – as we have witnessed – rebel.
Through the window of this room, I can during the spring observe groups of children on their school trips. They are taking steps from their homes to the world, led by their teachers, the smallest ones hand in hand with their friends. And wearing yellow vests.
Our population is growing older and the Earth’s ability to sustain us is reaching its limit. We can no longer be certain that children have a better future ahead of them than their parents had.
From all of us, mitigating climate change demands the ability to give up something. The era of material abundance and continuous growth is about to change. It does not have to mean the end of welfare. It must not mean the end of equal opportunities. We have to be able to redefine the elements of the good that we strive for. Humans are adaptable and inventive. The new good can thus be better than the previous one.
* * *
Not only Finland and Europe, but the entire world is in many ways also doing better than ever.
Therefore it is good to end with the words by poet Eeva Kilpi.
“There is beauty.
There is love.
There is joy.
All those who suffer from the misery of the world, defend them!”
I wish you all a happy new year and God bless you.
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