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Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s speech at the Meeting of Finnish Heads of Mission on 22 August 2016

Government Communications Department
22.8.2016 13.41
Speech

(check against delivery)

Distinguished Ambassadors,

This Government has been in office for just over a year now. The pace has been fast and it has been a demanding though rewarding year. When I met you here last August, I drew a comparison between Finland’s situation at that time and the challenges of flying through fog. I said that in the conditions prevailing at the time, visibility was poor and so we had to closely monitor all the instruments if we were to avoid losing our orientation and direction. Since then, Finland’s weather has been clearing up and we are, at least for the time being, able to fly in conditions of improved visibility.

We have achieved results by working together and we are now on the right track to getting Finland back into shape. It is my great pleasure today to be able to give a more optimistic speech than I did a year ago, when I called for us to cultivate a crisis consciousness. This has been done, and now we are advancing to the next checkpoints. The way ahead will be found by keeping our focus on the bigger picture, the most critical and essential matters.

During this past year, each one of you too has contributed to putting the Finnish Government Programme into place, and I would like to convey my heartfelt thanks to all of you for this. As we stated in the Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy, maintaining our own network of diplomatic missions provides Finland with both a vital source of information and a tool for exerting its influence, enhancing the country’s security and wellbeing.

In connection with my various travels and meetings I have also personally had the pleasure of benefitting from the expertise of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Finland’s network of diplomatic missions around the world.

You, of course, follow events in Finland, Europe and the world at large from a different vantage point than we do here at home. For you, this annual meeting of Finnish Heads of Mission is in many ways like the start of the academic year: you are getting your backpack ready for what lies ahead.

Representatives of Finland,

This year, one item of importance that I hope you will be carrying in your backpacks to keep you going is a firm sense of togetherness and collaboration.

Next year is the centenary of Finland’s independence. The theme of the centenary celebration year will be ‘Together’. This is no slogan to be simply waved around; instead, it is a message, an incentive and a duty for all of us. I encourage everyone to give its content full and careful consideration.

When we drew up the Government Programme more than a year ago, it was in this same spirit that we distilled the future vision for Finland in 2025: Finland 2025 – built up together.

Doing and experiencing things and living our lives together is something that involves Finns and friends of Finland alike, whatever our background. We are all building the future of our nation together. It is my hope that you will be conveying this message about Finland in its centenary year around the world.

In the Government Programme we also stated that Finland will be a place where: we trust each other; we respect each other; we find common solutions.

Miscommunication – or rather the inability or unwillingness to hear what the other is saying – as well as polarising attitudes have begun to gain ground in Finland. They are also troubling many other western democracies, both in Europe and elsewhere.

The need for a spirit of togetherness and trust and respect is very acute in our societies today. This goes for Finland as much as it does for the European Union and our entire global community. Forces that pit people, countries and continents against each other must not be allowed to dominate our thoughts and actions. We must ensure that we listen and discuss, not preach. Maintaining dialogue – especially with those who think differently – is essential for promoting understanding.

It is gratifying to know that every individual and every country can positively influence the course of events if they really wish to. This also applies to us in Finland and to Finland itself.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As I indicated already, there are now many positive signs in Finland’s current situation. The prolonged contraction in the economy is finally over. Our economy has now grown for three successive quarters.  This economic turnaround after three years of decline is evident in the employment figures, which have swelled by more than 30,000 people over the past year. People’s uncertainty about job retention has fallen significantly, aided by the growth in private consumption. The air of despondency has lifted and made room for hope about a better future.

The reliance on increasing public debt must be brought to an end by 2021. After the first year of this Government we are on a track that will lead us towards the achievement of our debt target. Nevertheless, to reverse the debt trend we will need to carry through the EUR 4 billion cuts in public spending that the Government has already decided on and increase the employment rate.

The high rate of employment that guarantees the financing for welfare services has been and will continue to be a key determining factor in the Government's economic policy. During the Government’s first year in office, we put in place a range of measures to promote entrepreneurship and encourage work, the most important of which was the Competitiveness Pact. Thanks to the agreed pay restraint, the competitiveness package and the new negotiating model we will be able to bridge the cost-competitiveness gap with Germany before the end of the present of term of Government, and with Sweden even before that. 

We will be pursuing the same line in next year’s Budget. Concessions in the taxation of earned income will be introduced in all income categories and a tax deduction for entrepreneurs will be adopted. Special attention will also be given to the means by which periods of unemployment can be shortened. This is important not only for the national economy but also, above all, to prevent people who become unemployed from being marginalised.

The Government will also push forward resolutely with the reforms agreed in the Government Programme. The most important of these is the health and social welfare reform. If we fail to carry through with these reforms the core values of our society in terms of providing public services will be put under severe strain as the population ages. I am a friend and big supporter of Finland’s welfare society and do not wish to see us land in such a situation. These matters are still down to us ourselves.

A Finland that is built by all of us together is the best guarantee of a stable and secure future for our society.

However, we do not live in a vacuum. We have followed with concern the way that Europe has been driven from one crisis to another and, more widely, the many new challenges of our global community.

Let me start with the broader international picture. Opposition to globalisation is now growing on various fronts, and many seem to prefer to put on blinkers and earplugs and to gaze at their navel. Owing to both internal and external pressures, western democracies are operating with less room for manoeuvre. In international trade the mood of protectionism is on the rise, free and regulated trade are starting to be viewed as a threat, and trade agreements are being called in for renegotiation. Refugee crises and famines are far from being a thing of the past, despite this being 2016.

The future is more difficult to forecast, as the range of issues and participants is growing in complexity. As we have seen, one person can influence events not only for the best but for the worse as well. It has become more accepted to break commonly agreed rules and values. Talk of the unity of the world has ended up giving way to a fear of the different. The once linear faith in development has fragmented into dotted lines going off at tangents. For many people, here and elsewhere, such a world of uncertainty is frightening and unfamiliar. Many would like to batten down the hatches and draw a curtain over them too.

In such a situation it is important to work tirelessly to ensure that our situation awareness is based on facts rather than presumptions. We should not be naive, but we must remember our humanity and keep a warm heart.

And when the world is looking for a direction, there is an opportunity to influence decisions. All changes bring opportunities and these should be grasped.

That’s why Finland needs to be fit and agile. We want to shoulder our responsibilities and to grasp the opportunities that are rapidly opening up. We want to play a role in matters that we consider important from the point of view of the development of Finland, Europe and the global community. We want to defend and strengthen the spirit of collaboration.

To do this we need a robust foreign policy approach. I am very pleased with our new Government Report on Foreign and Security Policy – it is compact, resilient, realistic and targeted. It is now important to make sure that the objectives are translated into concrete action.   

Distinguished Ambassadors,

Finland's position and role in the European Union are clear and unequivocal. Finland is an active, pragmatic and result-oriented Member State. Finland’s place is in a reforming European Union. As I said in my address to this Annual Meeting of Heads of Mission last year, we are always part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Brexit, internal and external security, immigration, economic problems, Europe’s weakened position in the world – the European Union is now searching for a direction and there is a need for a clear vision.

Here too, there is a window of opportunity to exert an influence, and Finland stands ready to play a role in forging the future of the Union. This is not rocket science; it is simply focusing on the essential. We now need to concentrate on implementing the common decisions made earlier. Now is not the time to take integration in new directions, but to make sure that the principal basic issues that have been jointly agreed are taken forward.

At the same time we must restore people’s trust in the European Union, and this can only happen by achieving results. There is room for improvement in communications too, but the future of the EU will not be resolved by new full colour brochures. Citizens all over Europe have been disappointed in the EU’s ability to respond to problems. The EU must focus on the major economic, employment and security issues. The political culture needs a shake-up as well. When problems are home grown, Brussels shouldn't be blamed for them.

Finland's next Presidency of the EU in the latter half of 2019 will be earlier than anticipated; this is right after the parliamentary elections and the formation of the new government. The political machinery will thus be freshly put to a serious test – that's why the public officials must be extremely well prepared. You and your colleagues across government have a great responsibility – and we as politicians do know that matters rest in very good hands.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The referendum result in the United Kingdom was a disappointment for both Finland and the entire EU. The UK is an important partner for Finland, in terms of both the economy and security. Together with Finland, the UK has been taking the European Union in a direction that is more open and more effective and emphasises the internal market. The agreement between the EU and the UK must be put together in a way that both parties' central interests are taken into account. The new arrangement must not take a disproportionate length of time. We have launched a comprehensive evaluation of which matters the changing UK-EU relationship will have an impact on and which matters must be addressed in the negotiations in order to protect Finland's interests.

If the UK wishes to remain in the EU's internal market, it should respect all four freedoms. This was very clearly expressed by the European Council in June. The question of the movement of people will be one of the most difficult items on the agenda. However, it would be in the interests of both the Finnish economy and the Finnish people that the UK remains a part of the internal market.

The European Union is an important security community for Finland and we are committed to strengthening it. In June, Finland and France issued a joint declaration on the development of foreign and security policy. We consider it important that the EU's defence cooperation should be deepened to ensure that the Union and its Member States can better respond to future challenges. Cooperation must be increased in, among other things, the development of military assets, the defence industry and defence research, and preparedness for hybrid threats.

Migration and asylum issues remain on our agenda this autumn, too. Irregular migratory flows are a matter that cannot be resolved by the EU alone. Instead, we need global measures and close cooperation with partner countries. In June, the European Council adopted a Partnership Framework with the priority countries of origin and transit in order to better manage the migratory flows. The aim is to elaborate Partnership Agreements with Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Ethiopia. Finland's desire is that the EU would also prepare Partnership Agreements with Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

It is important that the EU continues its cooperation with Turkey not only to handle the migration issue but, above all, in order to maintain a more comprehensive dialogue. Turkey is an important neighbour for us. We explicitly condemned, both as a Member State of the EU and as Finland, the attempted military coup that took place a month ago, and we gave our support to democratically elected institutions in Turkey. However, we are naturally concerned about stability in Turkey and actions following the attempted coup. The central principles related to respect for the rule of law, human rights and fundamental rights must be adhered to in all circumstances. To communicate these messages too, we need interaction and dialogue between the EU and Turkey.

We need to maintain dialogue with Russia as well. Finland is firmly committed to the EU's joint sanctions, which were introduced following the Ukraine conflict, including the illegal annexation of Crimea. The sanctions have been linked to the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and unfortunately progress has yet to be made in this. However, Russia's isolation is in no one's interests, which is why we need to maintain contacts. We Finns are used to dialogue with Russia in both good and bad times. We will concentrate on the Russia issues at the level of EU Heads of State or Government in the October European Council.

The key questions in Finland's EU policy include deepening the internal market especially in the areas of services, capital markets, energy, and digital services and products. Last year, the Commission published a new Single Market Strategy, which includes various actions aimed at removing the remaining barriers to trade. The Commission will present the actions related to the Strategy separately later this year and in the course of next year. The central matters from Finland's point of view are opening of the service markets, improvement of implementation, and supporting the free movement of goods.

In the EU internal market, legislation is harmonised in a number of sectors at EU level. Barriers in the internal market mostly arise from failure to apply the EU legislation in a uniform manner. At times it is a question of administrative matters, such as value added taxation in which difficulties are caused by different tax rates. In these questions, it is essential to harmonise and digitalise the procedures.

New challenges also crop up. Digitalisation as such is clearly of benefit to the internal market. Cross-border business has never been as easy as it is today. At the same time, however, it brings new challenges. In consumer protection policy matters, more consistent rules must be pursued and copyrights must become more harmonised.

Brexit has repercussions here too, because the UK has been a key promoter of the internal market together with the northern Member States. In the new situation it is more important than ever that Finland strongly acts in the interests of deepening the internal market and developing new coalitions.

Finns should hold their heads high and keep proceeding towards a genuine internal market. The better the internal market functions, the better we will manage in Finland.

Expansionary monetary and fiscal policy and the low price of oil have accelerated the recovery of the euro area, but a slow growth rate combined with high debt levels reduces the Member States' leeway and exposes them to shocks. Additionally, sluggish world trade, demographic factors, and poor productivity slow down growth in the euro area.

In addition to development of the internal market, it is important to constantly seek new instruments to respond to the challenge of slow economic growth. It is critical to strengthen the stability and predictability of the operating environment and to promote investments and funding options for companies. To promote growth and employment in Europe, we must also use effective trade policy and trade agreements that make it easier for European businesses to enter various markets.  

At the June European Council, we recommended that the work being done to complete Europe's Economic and Monetary Union be continued. Next we will need to focus on implementing and streamlining existing agreements and regulations instead of working on even closer EMU. The main items on the EMU agenda this autumn involve projects related to banking union and a capital markets union.

Finland takes the view that each Member State bears responsibility for its economic policy and for its debts. A robust banking union built on investor responsibility and market discipline lies at the heart of the Government's EMU policy approach.

Discussion about the EU has been dominated by crises and the management of problems. We will be discussing how to resolve and prevent crises this autumn too. But we will also talk about the common future of the 27 Member States. It's an exciting opportunity to build a Union that operates even more effectively and serves its citizens even better than before.

We will also be addressing these topics on Friday this week, when I will be meeting German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin together with the prime ministers of Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. The future of the Union won't evolve by itself; we need to build it – together.

Finland can be part of this building process only if its own foundation is sound. That is why we will work tirelessly to regenerate Finland, based on the principles in the Government Programme.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This year, Finland has held the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The Nordic countries are extremely valuable partners and friends for us – not only in Nordic but also in other international matters. Close interaction between us is important. In the course of this year, I have had many discussions with colleagues on the migration situation, the impacts of Brexit and so on. We shall continue these discussions next at the end of September when we will meet in the Åland Islands. 

Issues related to the Arctic are another set of important northern questions for Finland. We will chair the Arctic Council next year and I'm sure that we will have much to contribute to Arctic issues. Finland has both the vision and expertise to be able to contribute to, for example, the development of Arctic telecommunications connections. In the environmental sector, I hope that we will make progress in, for example, reducing the effects of black carbon emissions.

It is important that we have been collaborating ever more closely with the current chair of the Arctic Council, the United States, on these matters, too. At the same time it is essential that we remain an effective player in the EU's Arctic policy – and of course incorporate our Arctic identity in how we develop our own country in terms of the economy, infrastructure projects and so on.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted at the UN last year, will guide global policies on economically, environmentally and socially sustainable development for the next 15 years. Finland is treating the Agenda with the seriousness it deserves: the Government has decided to draw up a national implementation plan by the start of next year. Finland has already been acknowledged for its society's commitment to sustainable development, which is unique by international standards and is one of the means for promoting sustainable development in Finland. Finland's model stands out because of its combination of high-level and intersectoral approaches and active participation by civil society and private sector actors.

Such efforts should definitely be further promoted. Besides the pressing issues of the day, we must also shoulder responsibility for longer term questions.

One such question is the sustained work carried out in mediation, where we will now allocate more resources than before. To me it is important that this should mean the involvement of more Finns in international mediation efforts.

Another important question in an even longer term perspective is climate policy. The Paris Climate Agreement was a fantastic step forward. In connection with the implementation of the Paris Agreement, many have been taken aback by the European Commission's proposal to set a higher-than-anticipated reduction objective of 39 per cent for greenhouse gas emissions in sectors in Finland that are not included in emissions trading, such as agriculture and transport. Whatever the final outcome, I see this as an opportunity not only to bear our global responsibility but also as a way to advance and exploit our versatile technological knowhow and problem-solving skills.

And this brings me to Team Finland's work, which I've been able to take part in over the course of the past year. In the days when I was an entrepreneur, I did in fact participate in an export promotion mission to Brazil headed by the then President Halonen and the then Minister of Foreign Trade Lehtomäki, so I've seen the export promotion process from both sides.

In my capacity as Prime Minister I travelled with Team Finland to India in February. Once again I saw how much Finland has to offer in the global marketplace. At the end of the day it is up to the companies themselves to do the business, but we should all support them as best we can whenever we are needed.

The message I gave you before also applies to Team Finland work: the most important thing is to work together. It has given me great pleasure to see how much has already been achieved by Team Finland. We promote the cause of both our companies and organisations and that of Finland around the world. The essential thing in this work is that as representatives of Finland, you know both Finland and the Finnish corporate field. The Team Finland Day being held on Thursday is important in this sense too.

I've also been pleased to see the new steps taken in Finland's country branding. In the past, those who were involved in promoting Finland were essentially left in a position that can be summed up in the words of songwriter Jukka Kuoppamäki: now that I've left home behind, I wonder to myself – what can I tell of it to others ... But now, thanks to the joint efforts by Team Finland, we have powerful messages to convey and versatile instruments available - do use them!

Distinguished Ambassadors,

Let’s go forth and continue our work for a strong and internationally influential Finland, a youthful centenarian. And let’s do it together! 

English translation of the speech published on 23.8.2016