Opening speech by Permanent State Secretary Matti Anttonen Annual Meeting of Heads of Mission 2021

Distinguished Ministers and Heads of Mission, Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the 2021 Meeting of Heads of Mission! As you can see from the picture, I am here in the familiar Engel Hall in the newly renovated premises of Merikasarmi. While on the face of it this space may appear to be the same as before, the Ritarikatu Hall, where the panel discussions are being held, is not easily recognisable.

For six months now, the renovated Merikasarmi premises have been a home base for most of our colleagues in Helsinki. The rest of us will be relocating here in the next few weeks.


As the aphorism by Greek philosopher Heraclitus says: ‘All is flux’, meaning that the world is constantly changing and permanence is only an illusion.

COVID-19 has been affecting us in waves for almost two years, and the end is not in sight despite vaccines that were introduced in record time.

In climate policy, Japan, China and the United States, alongside the EU, reached a watershed point last year, turning the course towards carbon neutrality.

World politics was shaken to the core a few weeks ago when the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan.

Thirty years ago, I left Moscow for a new post in Geneva. But the Soviet Union was no longer the same one I had returned to two weeks earlier from my holiday. Our neighbours to the south, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, had regained their independence and the final disintegration of the Soviet system had begun.

Since then, many analysts have deemed the collapse of the Soviet Union almost inevitable. In the eyes of the young diplomat that I was, and one who kept abreast of the country's internal affairs, the situation did not seem so clear at the time. The economic impasse and the desire for independence of the new republics were naturally recognised, but we had no idea that the end was so near and that everything would evolve at such a rapid pace. 


In autumn 1978, I attended a course at the University of Turku involving China. As we know, it was precisely then that the country had made decisions that made private entrepreneurship possible and opened up the country for foreign investments. Being students of history, instead of discussing the opportunities opened up by the ongoing changes, our discussions revolved around China’s earlier experiments and trials in the recent past, such as the cultural revolution that had ended a few years earlier and the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s.


We are familiar with what economic reforms can bring. Consequently, China is now a world leader, challenging the United States as a superpower. The one-child policy that was launched in China around the same time has surpassed its original targets, and last year saw the lowest number of children being born in China in sixty years. China's population is expected to peak this decade, and the number of people of working age is already dropping. In the near future, India is expected to surpass China as the world's most populated nation. 

Experiences like this make you wonder: Is there something we might have missed?


The Unit for Policy Planning and Research at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs organised an event in the spring to review the recent publication “Global Trends 2040”, which was recently submitted to the new government in the United States. The publication seeks to outline the main forces of change that are expected to influence the United States and, of course, its foreign policy over the next two decades. It is the same world in which we Finns will be living.

These trends are grouped under four main headings: demographic, environmental, economic, and technological developments.


Climate change will remain centre stage in politics because it will continue to impact us even after the carbon neutrality targets have been achieved. Hopefully, though, the targets can prevent the worst scenarios from materialising. There is no prospect of returning to the way things were in this area, however.

In practice, the journey towards carbon neutrality means that the use of fossil fuels will be reduced and, hopefully, will eventually cease altogether. Finland is already moving forward on this path. Much of our production of electricity is already fossil-free and the burning of coal in energy production will be terminated completely this decade.

The consumption of oil and fossil gas are on a downward trend. The closure of an oil refinery that had been operating in Naantali for six decades is one indication of this. It has cut our oil imports by about one fifth.

Although diminished use of fossil energy is a positive phenomenon at global level, it is not so for economies that depend on the production and export of oil, gas and coal. So far, the oil exporters' cartel has been able to keep the price of black gold at a reasonable level. But what happens when most of their reserves will no longer be exploited.

This is a real concern, because the reserves of many oil-producing countries will last for decades. At the same time, though, we know that if all the reserves are used up, we will be saying farewell to limiting global warming to two, let alone one and a half degrees.

We have yet to reach the peak of consumption this decade, after which fossil fuel consumption will decline in the wake of a two centuries of ever-growing consumption. Time will tell how this will affect prices and production, but without significant political and economic consequences, such changes will not take place.


I mentioned China's successful population policy earlier in my speech. In fact, population growth is slowing down or has already ceased to rise in most of the rest of the world. In some countries, the overall population is actually diminishing. In Brazil, for example, the fertility rate has fallen to the same level as in the United Kingdom. In Bangladesh, India, Iran and Mexico, the figure is in the range of two, which will inevitably lead to a decline in population growth.

Demographic changes are slow. This is worth bearing in mind when we look at what is expected to happen in the EU's southern neighbourhood over the next decades.

Africa is the exception to this trend of deceleration in population growth. Africa’s population will grow fast for many years still. All ten countries where on average more than five children are born per woman are located in in sub-Saharan Africa. Among these, Nigeria has a population of nearly 220 million. Over 50 per cent of growth in the global population will take place in Africa over the next few decades.

Africa will also be one of those with the biggest process of urbanisation. Cities are engines of economic growth, because they have a high concentration of industry and services, where productivity and wages are higher than in the countryside.

It is clear that the meagre standard of living that subsistence agriculture provides makes young people want to find something better. How this desire for improvement could be translated into productivity growth and thereby prosperity is a tough nut to crack when the migrants possess inadequate education and most of them fall to the margins of the formal economy without the food security that subsistence agriculture provides.

It is readily apparent that such migratory pressures are not just limited to domestic cities, but that the migrants will look for better prospects in neighbouring countries and beyond Africa. It is naturally easy for American assessments to maintain that these migratory pressures veer specifically towards the north, across the Mediterranean. But it is not unrealistic from the European perspective either. Nor can the outlook appear any more favourable in light of the fact that studies show that a better living standard reduces migratory pressures very slowly.  


Africa's importance for Finland and for Europe as a whole will grow. It is therefore good that Finland has taken steps to deliberate the relevance of Africa for us in a broader sense and, at the same time, the potential that exists for strengthening the political and economic relations between Finland and the African countries. The Africa Strategy adopted in the spring provides a basis for such reflection and the search for opportunities.

Until the 1960s, we saw Africa as a destination for missionaries and partly as a market for the sawmill industry. Since then, development cooperation has become the strongest link between Finland and many African countries. Economic relations are still tenuous. Trade with Africa accounts for about two per cent of Finland’s foreign trade, and investments are negligible. 

Alongside the regional integration arrangements in Africa, a free trade area covering the whole continent is now being created.  The process has only just started, but it will eventually improve the conditions for trade between African countries and thus create a larger domestic market for local industry and the rest of the economy. In addition to the free trade agreement and its implementation, Africa will need more good-quality infrastructure to ensure the movement of goods and services.

Besides a demographic structure that mostly consists of young people, the limited role that the state plays and the importance of religion are characteristics that set northern secular welfare states such as Finland apart from Africa. For example, in Nigeria and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the state collects only 6 or 7 per cent of GDP in taxes. The highest rates in Africa are seen in countries such as South Africa and Morocco, where the percentage is just over one quarter. Similarly, the scarce resources of the state are reflected in people’s low expectations towards the state.

According to the Pew Research Center in the United States, about 90 per cent of Africans consider religion to be very important for them personally. The percentage was lower only in South Africa and Botswana, where it was below 80 percent. The differences between Christians and Muslims are small, but it is perhaps generally so that religion is more important among Muslims. An indication of this is that in the federal states of Nigeria where Sharia law is applied, the birth rate is much higher than in the states populated by Christians in the south of the country.

With its rapid population growth, the strongest breeding ground for both Islam and Christianity is in Africa. This will inevitably have an impact on the internal debate of these religions as well as on the relations between the two. It remains to be seen what kind of additional strain this could place on a situation where the borders of the colonial powers do not comply with the historical language and tribal borders.


Last week, I attended a seminar in honour of my former colleague and predecessor, Permanent State Secretary Veli Sundbäck, in which both Prime Minister Marin and a number of other key influencers in our EU policy spoke about the past quarter of a century. It was the best presentation on Finland's EU policy, past and present, that I have ever heard. A recording of the event can be found on the website of the Finnish Business and Policy Forum.

At the end of this week, the debate will continue at the Europe Forum Turku. Key actors in Finland’s current EU policy will be there.

The fact that people talk about policy on Europe and that it evokes interest demonstrates how meaningful the topic is. After all, joining the European Union was the most important decision Finland has ever made as an independent nation. Over the past quarter of a century, it has proved to be even more pivotal than we imagined in the early 1990s.

At the time, we naturally recognised that membership would be beneficial for our economy and that in the eyes of the world we would also anchor ourselves to Western Europe, a community we felt we belonged to. We also gained a seat at the table where decisions were being made on matters that matter to us.

The EU is a contemporary political community, within which we seek common European answers to major questions of our time. It is no surprise, therefore, that the number and magnitude of the issues the EU is dealing with have increased. This has benefited us in a situation where the relative weight of the EU and its Member States in the world has diminished, in terms of both the population and the economy. Together, we can make our voices heard more.

EU trade policy opened up markets for Finnish and other European companies. In climate policy, the EU is a frontrunner that others follow. With the help of a jointly adopted stimulus package, we will strengthen the wellbeing of Europeans while also making our societies more climate-resistant and digitally skilled. By acquiring COVID-19 vaccines together, we have saved taxpayers' money and improved our health security. Moreover, thanks to a common foreign and defence policy, we can strengthen the safety and security of our citizens.

The repercussions of Brexit in the United Kingdom were eased by contracting a free trade agreement, but we have a long way to go before the internal market can function smoothly. This is the especially the case in relation to the movement of people and services. Brexit will inevitably also impact the EU's internal dynamics, as the United Kingdom played a role not only in the liberalisation of trade and economic activity, but also in deeper integration among the sceptics.

So far, Finland has failed to recognise that the UK's departure underscores the importance of language proficiency in French and German, because the role of the English-speaking media is now limited in the internal discussions of the Member States on the direction and objectives of the EU. In light of the number of students sitting languages in the matriculation examination, we seem to be heading in the wrong direction. 

Alongside the United States and China, the United Kingdom has become one of the three main EU partners in the trade and economic sectors. From across the channel, the relationship is even more important. It remains to be seen what pressures we will witness for developing the network of relations and agreements once the emotional turmoil caused by UK’s departure has ebbed.  


In January next year, it will be twenty years since the adoption of the euro.  It brought predictability to our economy when our own stock of economic instruments had become depleted. In world trade, the euro has become the second most important currency after the dollar, and this has reduced the currency risks in our foreign trade. Equally, we can build up debt in our own currency. Confidence in the euro is not limited to EU Member States. Montenegro and Kosovo, for example, use the euro as their currency, and 40 per cent of Russia’s large reserve fund is in euros.


I remember from my time in Moscow a children's non-fiction book that loosely translates as “Machines serve us”. Technology evolves so that it can make people's work and life easier, but at the same time, technology affects societies and our environment in many ways. For example, passenger cars, which make it much easier to move, cause congestion, air pollution and changes in the urban structure.

Even though technology and harnessing it always spreads unevenly, we should try to ensure that there is as level a playing field as possible in terms of technology and that technological gaps between societies and within them are as narrow as possible. Political and educational parity has been one of the most important building blocks in Finland's developments. Now we must make sure to build an equitable society also in terms of technology.

To promote technological equality, Finland has pledged to join the leadership in the Innovation and Technology Working Group of the Generation Equality campaign, which is a campaign run by the UN Entity for Gender Equality. Four other countries as well as key organisations such as UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are participants too. Finland's objective in this work is to increase the share of women and girls in science and technology, narrow down the gender gap related to digital skills, and eliminate online violence against women.

Finland is also this year’s chair of Freedom Online Coalition, which promotes Internet freedom.

The activities of our societies are increasingly dependent on communication and control over the network. While this makes societies and economies more efficient, the risk of malicious actors in online operations are mounting. Cyber security has become a key element of the security policy of nations and societies. Finland is active in these matters within the framework of the EU. The legislation that entered into force early this year will bring into effect the measures on the security of 5G networks jointly agreed by the EU.


Global issues, such as climate change, pandemics or the exploitation of ocean resources, require global multilateral solutions. Finland is a strong supporter of the multilateral system and is also prepared to play its part in solving the big questions that humankind faces. It is not enough to take care of our own home base in Finland and in the EU.

Human rights and respect for human rights pave the way for a good life for people and make societies sustainable and competitive. Finland is seeking membership of the UN Human Rights Council for the whole three-year term of 2022–2024 for the first time. The campaign will run for another couple of months, but it is now opportune for me to thank you and your teams for all the work you have done so far. The campaign's priorities are women's and girls' rights, new technologies and digitalisation, climate change and sustainable development, as well as education. The priorities have already generated positive responses from various parts of the world.

However, the work is not yet done; it will continue until the vote. The programme of this Meeting of Heads of Mission also includes working together in groups to address the question of what the human rights-based nature of our foreign policy means in our work in practice. 

Alongside the prospective membership of the Human Rights Council, preparations for membership of the UN Security Council will begin in 2029-2030. Success in this campaign is based on our values and our actions. However, we need to secure a sufficient number of votes from the Member States and we must not fail a second time. This goal must become the objective for the whole Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the nation, and the structures of our organisation should also be examined so that we can reach the goal.

To promote discussion on the multilateral system, the Ministry has prepared a policy paper entitled: ‘Era of New Cooperation – The Contribution of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland to Strengthen Multilateral Cooperation’. It is worth taking a look at it and considering what the missions could bring to the joint table.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the activities of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the missions for the past 18 months. A big part of our staff has worked remotely. Broadly speaking it has worked, but the whole spectrum of external relations is impossible to manage virtually. 

A key objective this year has been to secure the vaccination of our staff members. We are now relatively close to the finishing line. Both the staff at the ministry and those posted abroad may have received at least one inoculation, and in a matter of a few weeks, the second one will have been administered.

The missions have had to contend with the effects of the pandemic, various restrictions on movement and morbidity far more than those of us in Helsinki. In most cases, there is nothing we can do about local regulations, but with regard to vaccines, possible evacuation flights and similar arrangements, we have done all we can in line with Finnish regulations. We are currently looking for a solution to enable those who have received vaccines approved abroad to register them in the Finnish Kanta Services system.

Efforts have been made to address the shortcomings that have arisen over the course of the construction project in Merikasarmi. Because of the recommendation to work remotely, there have been relatively few colleagues present so far, but once the ministers and the rest of the staff relocate to the joint campus, the occupancy rate of the premises will rise.

I expect that in the coming years we will be working remotely more than in the past, but less than at present. COVID-19 imposes various travel restrictions and quarantines, which means that travel remains restricted, but I believe we will gradually be able to travel more. It remains to be seen to what extent connections by virtual means will replace travel. It is easy to hold virtual meetings with colleagues who are familiar, but in my experience, such meetings are not particularly suitable for developing new contacts and engaging in confidential conversations.

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs has continued recruiting staff despite the coronavirus. Twenty Team Finland specialists have started or will start their work in the missions. Both the Preparatory Course for Newly Recruited Diplomats (Kavaku) and the Induction Course for Administrative Career Staff (Halku) will begin next week. A joint initial period for both courses was introduced as a new feature. This was a good move, because we are all in the same workplace, after all. In a couple of weeks, it will be the turn of the next thirty newly recruited diplomats and administrative career staff members. Last year's courses were carried out remotely, and so will the courses this autumn. Hopefully successive courses can be held face-to-face. This situation places even greater demands on line managers in terms of induction, and I hope that managers will bear this in mind when these new employees arrive at the missions.

Work to impact the wellbeing of families has continued. Last year, the day care allowance system was reorganised. At the beginning of this year, a general increase was made to the special allowance for spouses. Moreover, work has been put in motion to comprehensively review of the system of expatriation allowances.


Since the last Meeting of Heads of Missions, the following persons are no longer with us: Pertti Harvola, Erik Heinrichs, Marjatta Rasi, Ossi Sunell ja Richard Tötterman. Let us observe a moment's silence in memory of our colleagues.