Opening speech by Permanent State Secretary Matti Anttonen

Opening speech by Permanent State Secretary Matti Anttonen at the Annual Meeting of Finnish Heads of Mission 2018, Helsinki 27 August 2018.

Dear minister and colleagues, Good morning to everybody! Welcome to the Meeting of Heads of Mission 2018.

A warm thank you to all those who have assisted in preparing and implementing the programme.

The programme leaflet you have received contains both traditional elements and something new. We welcome any feedback because without it we cannot develop these events.


The Ministry for Foreign Affairs celebrated its 100th anniversary in the spring. In May, all of its personnel gathered at Finlandia Hall to celebrate. About a dozen occasions have been and will be arranged in different parts of Finland this year to present the operations and services of the Foreign Service of Finland.

Increasing public awareness of the work and services of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs throughout Finland is not just a theme for the anniversary year but should also be continued next year.


We are in the middle of accelerating technological change.  From today’s perspective, we can only wonder how we managed to run our foreign policy for most of the last one hundred years without computers, not to mention smartphones.

Technological development will not end with the tools we are using today. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs should carefully monitor how its colleagues and other operators in Finland and elsewhere are using modern technology and minimising the related risks. 

Let me give you a brief example from the time I was working as an ambassador in Moscow. When I started as an ambassador in Moscow at the beginning of June 2008, I could see a crowd of people on the pavement and in the street in front of our embassy, waiting to apply for a visa. Insurance was sold from rusty vans parked along the street. In St. Petersburg, the crowd standing on the pavement reminded me of people queueing for alcohol during the Gorbachev era.

Now, 10 years later, people wishing to get a visa can apply for it in clean indoor facilities in visa centres, and most of their applications are processed in our office in Kouvola. Our missions can now use the time previously spent on managing large visa departments and recruitments for matters other than promoting relations between Finland and Russia.

We should consider whether similar progress can also be achieved in our other tasks, such as collecting, processing and sharing information. What could be the role of artificial intelligence, for instance?

Technological opportunities are not confined to only making our internal processes smoother. We also need better and more reliable telecommunication solutions, as we all know.


I’m not a person keen on making organisational reforms. Instead, I believe in the continuous development of work and operating methods.

Long before I returned to Helsinki, I scheduled in my calendar visits to all departments and services of the ministry and their management boards. Unfortunately, the process took longer than expected. I had to postpone some of the visits due to work trips, and it was not easy to find other times.

The visits strengthened my impression of the skill and motivation of the ministry’s personnel. I also realised that we need more horizontal cooperation across department and unit boundaries. Among other things, this will be necessary in view of Finland’s EU Presidency next year and the preparations we need to make before it.

The challenges of the internal division of work are not limited to the ministry alone. As I see it, they also concern missions.


Although the chairmanship tasks we will receive during our EU Presidency will be less visible than before, the importance of the presidency for Finland should not be underestimated.  We can proceed with things important to us and make Finland and our expertise better known in Europe.

Our presidency will begin immediately after the European Parliament elections in the middle of the process of forming a new Commission. This gives us opportunities to influence the long-term plans and programmes of the Council and the Commission.

The Presidency and the elections of the European Parliament to be held in spring will bring the European Union and the related questions to the fore in public in Finland than usual. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs plays a role in providing information for this discussion.

A good example of providing information is the first Europe Forum arranged in Turku this weekend. In the Forum, we will arrange a discussion together with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs on the common foreign and security policy.  

Paradoxically, the decline in the relative importance of Europe at the global level will only enhance the role of the European Union in promoting and defending matters important to Finland.  The European Union is currently the most important defender of freeing up regulation-based trade. It has negotiated new trade agreements and will also continue to do so in the future. It plays an important role in showing the way in climate policy and the new energy policy.

I remember well from my time as the energy ambassador in 2007–2008 how the goal set by the EU for Finland on increasing the share of renewable energy to 38 per cent by 2020 seemed at least challenging. We have already surpassed that goal. The first wind power projects with no need for state support will be launched in Finland this summer.

The European Union is globally the biggest provider of development aid. We need European cooperation in order to control migration. Strengthening foreign and security policy is in Finland’s interests. We are persistently working towards building a common defence policy. 


Twenty-eight new Kavaku course participants will start their work at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in two weeks. In other words, 28 new and enthusiastic colleagues familiar with the world and Finland. As an organisation and as individuals, we should remember that "you can make a first impression only once".

Let’s make sure that the Kavaku course participants and other new colleagues are properly introduced to their work and accepted as full members of the work community. In the early years, I remember how important it was that my supervisors had time to share their knowledge and experience with me. Without talking to more experienced colleagues, I would not have had the chance to learn many of the things I know now. There should also be time for such talks today when we are busy with the upcoming social welfare and health care reform.


After this Kavaku course, we will face a two-year break, during which time we will consider what type of training system the Ministry for Foreign Affairs needs. Today, most of the training, including the Kavaku and Halku courses, is arranged at the beginning of the career. We will look at the experiences of our colleague organisations and others when evaluating the situation.

We welcome any ideas and proposals.


Your missions have access to 1,500 man-years among the 2,300 employees of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This is a resource that according to current plans will not decrease, although it will not increase either.

Our aim is to promote closer dialogue between regional units and missions. As you may have observed from the ministry’s guidelines for operating and financing planning, we will carry out annual discussions systematically.

When visiting the various departments in the spring, I was surprised by the differences they have in operating policies. However, there may be even bigger differences between missions, due to their differing geographical environments, size and tasks. We should nevertheless consider how we could share the good practices and innovations developed in the missions within our network.

Here is an example from a mission I visited: As we all know, financial administration in the missions is being centralised to Finland. The CFO position no longer exists in many missions, but invoices are scanned and sent to Finland for processing. In the mission I visited, scanning was delegated to a driver who had enough spare time between transports so that he could scan a few invoices. Not a traditional driver job, but easy to combine with it.

Another idea I recall was the habit of one our colleagues to have the desk official, who was in charge for the host state, with him at selected meetings in Helsinki. This allowed documentation of the meetings, where necessary, at the same time strengthening cooperation between the regional department and the mission.


Human resources administration has been developed in the last few years and the work will continue. As an organisation, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs is unique in that most of its personnel work outside Finland’s borders. This requires a lot of special expertise and we constantly have to consider how we can make sure that people responsible for human resources administration have strong HR expertise and the ability to apply it to our organisation. This work continues.


The Helsingin Sanomat newspaper last Saturday published a review of a book by Hans Rosling, a Swedish scientist and populariser of information. The book was recently translated into Finnish. I learned to know the author’s name a few years ago when I was advised by my son to have a look at his graphical presentations in which he described change and the state of the world.

During the summer holiday, I read Rosling’s posthumously published book that I had bought from Stockholm in the spring. Being interested in numbers, I was fascinated by Rosling’s sense of realism. The world right now is exactly what it can be and we must focus our efforts on building a better future.

Those of us who work at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs are, in a way, engaged in the ”realism business”. Senior foreign affairs executives and others who make use of our reporting must be able to trust that we report truthfully about what we see or hear, not about what we would like or hope to see or hear.

It is always difficult to make good and right decisions, and it becomes even harder if the basic facts and assessments on which the decisions are based are incorrect.

Another interesting point in the book was how difficult it is for us living in developed countries to assess the steps of progress made by poor countries. A person sitting in an air-conditioned vehicle on Länsiväylä may not easily understand how big a deal it is when you can replace your bicycle with a moped. In the same way, a person sleeping in a double-spring, king-size bed cannot understand why moving from floor to a not so comfortable bed can make you feel so much more comfortable.

However, we should remember that many big changes in our society took place when our standard of living was quite modest if assessed using modern criteria.

The appendix at the end of the book explains how the fact questions presented by Rosling on numerous occasions have been answered in different countries. In their answers, Finnish respondents, who presumably were quite well educated, systematically rated the state of the world poorer than it actually is.

This means that there is demand for the reports written by the missions. In addition to describing situations and trends, you are also expected to evaluate what their effects will be for Finland. 


I know that Minister Soini will be talking about Africa and its importance. However, I would like to say a few words about this topic, which became dear to me during my visits to 10 African countries on an IPE-related excursion when I was the Under-Secretary of State.

The relationship between Finland and Africa has traditionally been quite unidirectional. While the focus was at first on missionary work, it has been on development cooperation for the last 50 years. Trade and economic relations have been scarce, except for trade with North Africa, which is important for the sawmill industry. Our mission network is largely built on the above aspects.

However, we are now facing a new era. Africa is the last continent whose population continues to grow strongly. Its current population of 1.3 billion, which is about the same as that of India, will exceed two billion before the mid-21st century. During that period, the share of Africa of the growth of the global working age population will be 3/4.

Boosted by demographics, the political and economic importance of Africa will increase, which will also influence the European Union and Finland. Africa’s largely imbalanced economic and social development will ensure it remains as one of the most important target areas for our development cooperation efforts. At the same time, brisk economic growth makes some of the countries more attractive to both trade and investments. Political dialogue and the exchange of visits should also be increased.   


Although the political and economic importance of Africa and other faraway countries for Finland is increasing, the most important partners are found close to us. 

At this point, I would like to say a few words about Estonia, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year.

My first visit to Estonia during my career as a diplomat took place together with Heikki Talvitie, who was my supervisor at that time. We granted so many visas in Tallinn that we needed new premises. We went to see several addresses in the centre of Tallinn, including the building of the current embassy, which at time was in poor shape.

During the past thirty years, Estonia has developed in a way that nobody could have expected. Its brave decisions and secure orientation towards integrating with the West have borne fruit.

The relationship between Finland and Estonia is an important part of this story. Thanks to traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn, Helsinki has become the busiest passenger port in Europe and Estonia the most popular overseas destination for Finns. Estonians are the biggest group of foreign employees in Finland. Estonia is the third most popular target country among young people studying abroad. Finland is Estonia’s most important foreign trade partner. Exports to Estonia are slightly more than a half of the volumes that we export to Russia. This is quite an achievement considering that, in terms of euros, the Russian economy is 60 times the size of Estonia and the Russian markets generate interest among Finnish companies.

If somebody doubts the importance of the free movement of goods, services, workforce and capital for economic interaction, this is a good argument for that discussion. Without EU membership and its common rules, the intensity of cooperation between Finland and Estonia would be markedly smaller. It is not mere geography and the size of economies that matter.


A few words about the vital and innovative one-hundred-year-old that you represent out there.

Finland is doing economically better than ever. This year, economic growth is around three per cent. It is predicted to slow down to about two per cent next year.

New jobs are created in different fields throughout Finland. According to the Employment Bulletin of July, the smallest unemployment rate in Continental Finland was in Southern Ostrobothnia, followed by Ostrobothnia, Uusimaa, Satakunta and Pirkanmaa.

An interesting phenomenon is that, almost as a rule, the most prominent cities of the regions are less successful than the region on the average. Hardcore unemployment has shifted to large and medium-sized cities.

There are many reasons for positive news, and there were also many reasons for the less favourable times we had to face in the earlier years.

The European economy is thriving. The structural change in the forest industry is now bearing fruit. Cleanliness and safety are appreciated in tourism. Energy and material efficiency are the trends of our time. Finland has a wealth of expertise and other things to offer. We have also strengthened our competitiveness.


It is also our job to speak about Finland’s expertise and the things it has to offer. There is a lot of work to do in promoting exports as well as attracting investments and tourists.

Our most important domestic partner in this is Business Finland. We wish it every success. From our point of view, it is very important that the overseas network of Business Finland is strengthened as quickly as possible.

I have been engaged in the work of Team Finland from the very beginning. There has been good progress. One proof of this is the record high number of companies that will participate in the Team Finland day on Thursday. It was also nice to receive a message from the Finnish Chamber of Commerce about the various events they and trade associations will arrange in connection with the heads of mission days. According to my calculations, a total of 18 Heads of Mission participated in the occasions.

That’s great and a giant leap forward. The same can also be said of the activeness by which our ambassadors have travelled in different parts of Finland, talking about the opportunities available in the world.

People in Finland are strongly aware of the notion of crisis awareness. It is of course needed when making difficult decisions. However, opportunity awareness is equally important in coming up with new things.


A few words about real estate. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is responsible for government real estate overseas. They include offices, residences, a few apartments and four state-owned properties that house scientific and cultural institutes.

Owing to under-investments, a major repair debt has accrued for the premises over the years.  These issues are currently being considered in a working group together with the representatives of the Ministry of Finance. The aim is to complete a strategy for government-owned overseas properties and premises next spring. There is also interest in overseas properties in Parliament. Discussion with them will continue.

Another aspect related to properties is the renovation of our premises in Helsinki. As you know, the Department for the Americas and Asia and the Department for Development Policy moved from Meripaja to temporary premises in Kirkkokatu.

The next relocation wave will take place in October when the Merikasarmi buildings C-G will be emptied. According to plans, the renovation of the A, B and H buildings will also be left waiting for repairs at the beginning of next year.

Senate, the owner of the buildings, has not yet made a final decision about the renovation, however. We have prepared ourselves for moving to temporary premises—to Etelä-Esplanadi 4 and to Government Palace—and participated in planning the premises in Merikasarmi.

If everything goes as planned, we can return to the refurbished Merikasarmi building between spring and summer 2021. In the autumn of that year, the entire ministry personnel would then work in the same building complex after many decades.  


After the last Meeting of Heads of Mission, we learned that the following long-term colleagues have passed away:

Benjamin Bassin, Antti Hynninen, Risto Hyvärinen, Matti Kahiluoto, Erkki Mäentakanen and Ilkka Pastinen.

Please stand to honour the memory of these colleagues.


Thank you for listening! I would now like to welcome Foreign Minister Timo Soini.