Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the Ambassadors’ Conference on 25 August 2020

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Esteemed Heads of Missions, ladies and gentlemen,

We still have more than a third of this year left, but it has already felt quite long so far. Our everyday life has changed in a way and at a speed no one could anticipate in the beginning of the year. In the speech I gave at the opening of Parliament in early February, I could still express my hope that the coronavirus would not escalate into a pandemic.

It did not go that way. The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and its prevention extend now simultaneously all around the globe. Reaching every continent, every state, every individual. We often talk about global challenges. This, if any, is such a challenge.

Therefore, we could also expect a global response. On one hand, we can see some encouraging signals. When the threat has been large enough, entirely exceptional measures have been launched in different parts of the world, exceptionally fast.

The problematic point, however, is that the global response has been a series of national responses. The capacity of the international community to take concerted action turned out to be regrettably weak, particularly in the beginning. When it came to the crunch, each country began taking care of its own only, as best they could, not giving much thought to the views of their neighbours or partners.

This is, of course, quite understandable, but, when seen as a precedent, also raises concerns. Are we to expect a similar reaction in future global crises as well? And have we already seen the same in relation to climate change? What does that tell us about the future of multilateral cooperation, which is of such great importance to us?

***

Although the coronavirus pandemic is anything but over, a lot of consideration has been given to how it will change the world. It was the theme of this year’s Kultaranta Talks. And the question seems to be very much present at this Ambassadors’ Conference as well.

However, it would seem that, at least as far as international policy is concerned, the talk about change may be misleading. Namely, nothing totally new seems to be emerging. It would rather appear that the pandemic is only strengthening and speeding up the already identified development trends. The great-power competition is accelerating. The rules-based system and the institutions and treaties that form its foundations are being tested at an increasing intensity.

I referred to the great-power competition already a year ago, when speaking to you. Worldwide, it is primarily a question of the confrontation between the United States and China – in terms of diplomacy and rhetoric, the economy and technology. This growing tension between the two great powers is becoming increasingly visible to us as well. Still, from the Finnish and European perspective, seeing it as bipolarity is a rather simplistic way of thinking. For us, it is also of great significance where Russia places itself in this setting.

And, for us, our own position is naturally of even greater importance. The worst-case scenario would be that Europe would have to choose sides between the great powers one issue at a time. This would be the worst option, which we must not allow to happen. A much better alternative is a strong Europe, one among the great powers, which can make its own decisions independently: at its own initiative, and not only forced into choosing its side by outsiders. In that case, natural allies can also be found.

As far as Russia is concerned, we should also remember that the competition between the two great powers poses a similar question to the EU and Russia: how to keep up with the way the world turns? By this, I am by no means suggesting that we should be naive. Even when our needs appear to be similar, we may draw quite opposite conclusions. But we should not categorically close our eyes from opportunities.

***

I quote: “Open discussion about the direction of the EU would have come about if changes required by the recovery package had been made through amendments to the EU treaties. However, the amendment process of the EU treaties regulating the operations of the Union is such a slow and, due to the requirement of national ratifications, uncertain path that it was not the chosen. There was a hurry after all. Thus, obstacles preventing the approval of the package were cleared by interpreting the articles of the treaties in a creative manner.”

This is how Helsingin Sanomat described the creation process of the EU recovery package in its editorial on 29 July. The editorial also points out that the same approach – interpretation – has been the chosen method in the Union in other matters as well.

That view is difficult to deny. The Stability and Growth Pact for the eurozone was supposed to set limits for indebtedness and budget deficits. The “no bail-out” principle was supposed to be unambiguous. It was not foreseen that the European Central Bank would become the debt security holder for the Member States. The EU budget was not supposed to be financed by taking debt.

Did these things happen? The rules in the EU treaties remain unchanged, but the actual situation looks very different. Those key principles of the management of finances have lost power year by year. As a result of once-off reinterpretations, one time after another.

One cannot deny that some crises have emerged quite suddenly. The urgency has been great, and it has been essential to find a solution. And here, I am not at all evaluating the material content of the solutions, not even as regards the EU recovery package. But every reinterpretation, made only once, has continued to live on. Interpretation has actually turned into an agreement.

Every advocate of the EU should be concerned about this; every situation where creative interpretation is used raises questions, doubts and criticism. In the long run, and when the same happens repeatedly, they begin to undermine the institution’s legitimacy. This is something the EU should not expose itself to. Once we have tackled the coronavirus, it is time to return to the rules-based system.

***

When I am asked why the President of the Republic brings up these dangers of the road of interpretation, my answer is clear. Firstly, the key EU treaties are agreements between the Member States and therefore part of how an individual Member State defines its relationship to foreign powers.

Secondly, the EU’s Common Foreign, Security and Defence Policies are progressing. We are part of an equation, where our external fate is easily measured against the EU. What if the road of interpretation is opened also in the EU’s external relations? In such a manner that we first lay down major policy lines, which are then followed up with a wide interpretation of the policies.

The European Union is an essential frame of reference for Finland, also in terms of foreign and security policy. Globally, the EU distinctly represents matters we see as valuable: democracy, rule of law, multilateral rules-based system, compliance with agreements.

For us unwavering EU supporters, it is important that we can maintain our trust in European Union to be true to its word.

***

I want to remark that if we begin making wide reinterpretations of earlier agreements, it usually means that the strong ones are at their strongest. And the weak ones are at their weakest. The road of interpretation is also problematic from the perspective of international rules-based system.

We support this multilateral rules-based system with good reason. But do we understand sufficiently well what kind of pressures for change that system currently faces?

If the United States continues to withdraw and China continues to increase its presence, it cannot but affect the contents of cooperation as well. New areas of focus emerge, old ones are left aside. If we follow the road of interpretation, we must ask ourselves: what kind of a rules-based international order we end up supporting?

International institutions must naturally keep up with the times, be able to react to the world changing around it. It is equally evident that the capacity to function of various international organisations is not at its best right now. These difficulties are visible on a daily basis in two institutions of importance to us, the UN that just turned 75, and the 45-year-old OSCE.

But diluting their principles is hardly the right solution to the problems the institutions are facing. The principles of the UN and the OSCE are exactly the kind of common agreements I referred to earlier and, as such, basic pillars of our own security. Wide interpretations will weaken them, not make them stronger. The best way to defend the rules-based system is to systematically display its principles, even in hard times.

***

In recent weeks, we have followed the heated situation in Belarus with great concern. Due to reasons attributable to Belarus, the country’s presidential elections at the beginning of August were not observed by the OSCE election. They failed to meet the international criteria in other respects as well. This started a dangerous circle. When the trust in the system collapses, the security may also be at risk.

The way in which demonstrators have been showing their discontent in Belarus has been touching and impressive. They have given no reason for aggression. For this reason as well, it has been incomprehensible that they have been subjected to acts of violence, arrests and threats. We can only hope that the way forward can be found in a peaceful manner, through national dialogue.

Artificial geopolitical arguments do nothing to help find a solution to the situation in Belarus. Dangerous signs of such approaches have also been heard. Therefore, I consider the kind of statements important in which both the EU and Russia have underscored the need for internal dialogue in Belarus and encouraged the parties to engage in such dialogue. Perhaps we could find a valuable, constructive role for the OSCE in supporting such a process. This possibility I discussed with both Chancellor of Germany Merkel and President Putin a few days ago.

I am also very concerned about the tensions building up within the UN. In the Security Council, the latest example of this is the dispute about the sanctions against Iran.

Earlier this year, both Russia and France made their own P5 initiatives to have a summit organised between the five permanent members of the Security Council. We have many good reasons to hope for a better dialogue between the heads of state of the P5. Nuclear weapons, and arms control in general, are among the most important of these reasons. If these nuclear powers fail to find mutual understanding and trust, even what remains of the agreement system controlling the weapons of mass destruction are threatened. It would be essential for the P5 countries to find each other even outside the arms control issues to ensure the operability of the UN system. However, the summit between the great powers must not lead to leaving aside the UN system. To be credible, the international rules-based system must comply with its own rules. Selecting the road of interpretation may totally erode the trust in the system. In such a case, security would also be at risk.

***

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, I sent you all a letter that during such exceptional times as these the work done by your missions is particularly important. I continue to stand by these words. But I would like to add a complementary observation. When exceptional conditions get prolonged, they also make you realise more clearly what you are missing compared to the normal conditions – personal encounters with people.

Confidential talks are one of the basic tools of diplomacy. When opportunities for such talks become narrowed down due to the social distancing restrictions, it also threatens to narrow down our snapshot of the prevailing situation. Not everything can be replaced by technological solutions. But since the prospects of the exceptional circumstances ending any time soon seem non-existent, we cannot wait around for the normal conditions to return.

Because, right now, having a realistic up-to-date view of the world is extremely valuable. Behind the scenes of the coronavirus pandemic, many matters of fundamental nature are in motion. In the midst of an accelerating change, in its foreign policy Finland can no longer hold on to its own assumptions if we cannot be certain that they still hold true. If the established methods of gathering information no longer function, we must find new ones. And you must use your personal professional skills to interpret that information. In your reports, following the road of interpretation is necessary for us.

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