Foreign Secretary William Hague's Speech at the Conference of Finnish  Heads of Mission

Monday 23rd August 

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I am delighted that Minister Stubb invited me to visit Finland and to address you today. Alex and I have become firm friends in recent months and it is a great pleasure to work with him as Britain’s new Foreign Secretary. We had our own gathering of Ambassadors in London last month and I am aware how important these occasions are as a time to share ideas and set a clear direction for the year ahead. Every country approaches foreign policy from a unique national perspective, but so many of the challenges we face are common to us all, and I am impressed by the spirit of openness and exchange that led the Minister to invite me to contribute to your debate. No doubt I have much to learn as well as to share and I look forward to taking your questions at the end of my remarks.

This is my first visit to Finland as Foreign Secretary. I had excellent meetings this morning with your Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, talking about how best we can give new impetus to relations between our countries. And I started the day with a very productive discussion over breakfast with Minister Vayrynen and business leaders looking at how we can make the most of commercial opportunities and encourage investment. I am determined to build on the excellent cooperation that already exists between the United Kingdom and Finland and to work together to strengthen that relationship over the next five years.

Our two countries have much in common. We share similar values and face common challenges. We believe in individual freedoms and free trade. We champion democracy and human rights. And we are justifiably proud as nations of our sense of history, national identity and our desire to play a dynamic role in the world.  So in our bilateral relationship and within the EU, you will find us an active and activist partner and a firm friend.

I should also add that we have a new, and perhaps to many unexpected, element in common. The Government I am member of is Britain’s first coalition in over half a century and the first outside a world war. Given that more than 80% of Finland’s governments have been coalitions I imagine that there is little to know about the art of coalition politics that is not recorded in your political annals or collective memory, and so I will not be surprised if I receive some friendly advice in the years ahead. Although there may be some limits to how transferable all that accumulated wisdom is. For example I know that you have a long and possibly unique tradition of resolving political difficulties in the sauna. President Kekkonen was a famous proponent of this during the Cold War and your Secretary of State Mr Torstila said in a recent speech that “decisions and negotiations take less time in the high heat” since “sauna cools down overexcitement and melts away political differences”. But I am trying to picture the expression on Prime Minister David Cameron’s face if I were to suggest that we adopted this practice. 

I was privileged to lead one side of the negotiating team that forged our coalition Government in just five days and without a single sauna, although certainly in the white hot glare of intense media scrutiny. The sense of overriding national interest at a time of economic crisis proved strong enough to achieve the melting away, or bridging, of political differences. We are proud of the Government that we have built, including features that are unusual even to some countries that have a long tradition of coalitions, notably a detailed programme for government and an agreed date for the next election in 2015.  The coalition is very much part of our foreign policy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office that I lead has a Liberal Democrat Minister within it and my first visit to Germany as Foreign Secretary was a joint visit with our Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrat Party Nick Clegg. In fact given that the foreign policy of any nation is strongest when it is understood and supported by the widest number of people in society and across political parties, the coalition could be said to bring additional stability to our approach to international affairs.

Our first task as a Government is to return our nation’s finances to a sustainable footing. This requires a retrenchment in Government spending as well as an intensified search for new sources of growth and prosperity to underpin the British economy. Both of these difficult but essential efforts are well underway. It was also clear to us as we took up office that we needed to chart a clear way forward in British foreign policy; to address a sense of drift and underachievement in some areas in recent years and to develop a distinctively British approach that protects our economic interests, promotes our values and builds up British engagement in the world.

I speak as a British politician, but the analysis of trends in the world that led us to that conclusion is common to other European countries as well as many of our other allies internationally.  So while taking this opportunity to give you an insight into the changes underway in our Foreign and Commonwealth Office I would also like to draw out some conclusions about ways in which European countries should I believe work together in the light of these changed realities. 

Foras nations of Europe we do face the challenge of projecting our influence and our values overseas into economic and political space which is increasingly occupied or contested by other nations.

Trends in the global economy are eroding the weight of our economies relative to those of the rising powers of the East, while the resources that we have available for our diplomacy, soft power and defence are constrained by the impact of the global economic crisis. This means that there is both internal and external pressure on the effectiveness of our foreign policy and our ability to influence others.

At the same time more countries are seeking an active role in the management of the global order and of issues that affect their interests as well as ours. Many of these countries do not fully share our conception of human rights, democratic government or equitable multilateral solutions to global issues. And while the circle of international decision-making is widening in some areas such as in global economic governance, its continued narrowness in other areas, including the United Nations Security Council, is weakening the legitimacy of bodies that we rely on to underwrite the international order. In both cases achieving our foreign policy objectives becomes harder. Today influence increasingly lies with networks of states with fluid and dynamic patters of allegiance and alliance, and to a lesser but growing extent with human networks of civil society, business and charities. All of these require new forms of engagement from countries like Britain and Finland.

The conduct of international affairs is changing too, not least of all in the growing diplomatic footprint of the emerging powers. India now has more sovereign posts in the Middle East and North Africa than the UK, and Brazil has more diplomats in more countries in Africa than Britain. At home, domestic departments are increasingly drawn into foreign affairs, so that the Ministries dealing with the environment, immigration, domestic terrorism and energy, to name but a few, all have an active stake in our diplomacy. This not only poses a challenge to Governments - how to coordinate these efforts so that their impact is not dissipated - but is also a challenge to diplomatic services – how to ensure that they lead foreign policy thinking and implementation. And finally, some of our ideas and assumptions have been challenged themselves, by the difficult experiences of peace-building in Iraq and Afghanistan and our failure to find satisfactory resolutions to the different degrees of endemic conflict, state failure, lawlessness and terrorism pervading strategically vital regions in South East Asia and the Horn of Africa. While different countries in Europe have been involved in these events to different extents, we are all affected by them.  

No Foreign Secretary or Government surveying these trends can afford to be complacent. On current patterns, our influence in the world is set to decline, with all that that means for our standing in world affairs and our ability to compete in the global marketplace. Some argue that European decline is now inevitable and in Britain there have already been calls for what I term ‘strategic shrinkage’; the scaling back of our ambitions for our diplomacy, of the size of our global diplomatic network and of the use and reach of our Armed Forces.

But we do not believe that strategic shrinkage is either inevitable or right for Britain. To accept this would be to retreat as a nation at the very moment when a more ambitious approach is required. Instead, if we are to make the most of the opportunities of the 21st century, securing our prosperity and tackling conflict and poverty overseas, then our foreign policy must become more ingenious and more energetic and we must build up our engagement in the regions of the world where opportunities and threats increasingly lie. We must summon the grit and resolve to do things differently – our own equivalent of the Finnish ‘sisu’ which so many rightly admire. In fact when it comes to grit and determination we could all learn a thing or two from Alex. In Britain we have had our own very famous Iron Lady, but I imagine that he is probably the only Foreign Minister in the world who technically qualifies as an Iron Man since he ran the race of that name in Frankfurt last month.

How are we therefore to stave off such decline and use our collective weight in the world to the greatest effect?

I would argue that as European countries we need to do four things. We need to think strategically, we need to make our contribution count, we need to learn to ‘think together’ to an even greater degree and finally we must be ambitious about what the EU can achieve. Taking each of these in turn:

We must be strategic in our outlook, recognising the long term shifts in the distribution of global influence and of sources of instability, and position ourselves to benefit from the positive winds as well as work most effectively to head off the negative currents.  Finland’s own remarkable transformation into one of the most advanced and progressive countries in the world in the space of just one lifetime is a reminder of how rapidly societies can evolve under favourable conditions and bold leadership. But all too often the transformation that most demands our attention in foreign policy is negative or has the potential to be so, whether it is countries teetering on the edge of failure or instability such as Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or the cycles of poverty, indignity and conflict elsewhere which our consciences and our security demand that we address.

As an incoming British government we have taken a series of actions with this strategic focus in mind. We have set out consciously to elevate our links with the emerging economies of the global economy as well as strategically vital partners in the Gulf and North Africa. For example, we have launched a taskforce with the United Arab Emirates with the goal of strengthening our relationship across the board and have begun a Gulf Initiative to look at relations with other countries in the region which we see as vital to our security and our economic interests.

We have also given the Foreign and Commonwealth Office an explicit mandate for a greater commercial focus in its work and made this a higher priority. We will shortly have a new Permanent Undersecretary who has extensive experience of international trade issues, and we have set up a taskforce to co-ordinate strategy towards the emerging economic powers.

We have simplified the Foreign Office departmental objectives so that the organisation has a clear sense of direction that reflects the Government’s priorities: safeguarding our national security; building our prosperity and supporting British nationals around the world.

We have set up a new European Affairs Committee of the Cabinet to coordinate European policy with the goal of a more strategic approach to Britain’s membership of the EU, and we are putting effort into encouraging talented British officials to enter EU institutions including the External Action Service – something that I know is a priority for Finland too.

And we have set up our country’s first National Security Council to bring together strategic decisions about foreign policy, security defence and development, overseen by a full time National Security Adviser. This body is a genuinely powerful new centre of decision-making which sometimes meets as regularly as twice a week. Part of its remit is to ensure that domestic departments of Government advance national policy goals in their work overseas. We intend using the NSC to make it possible to elevate entire relationships with individual countries, so that a decision to increase diplomatic engagement can be coupled with exchanges in education, health, trade and where appropriate in defence matters. We are working to instil a new culture of cross-government thinking so that foreign policy runs through the veins of our entire administration, with the Foreign Office leading in the development of policy and its implementation overseas, in a significant break with the practice of recent years where much of foreign policy was run from Downing Street and centred on the personality of the Prime Minister. David Cameron wants the Foreign Office to be restored to its role at the centre of Government, but has set the bar high for what it must achieve.

This is a major challenge for the Foreign Office I lead. We are being required to do more with less and to achieve a higher quality of output at a time of financial pressure. But I see it as part of my responsibilities as Foreign Secretary to foster the Department as a strong institution for the future, one that is astute at prioritising effort, seeking out opportunities, negotiating on behalf of Britain; that attracts the brightest talent and commands the highest expertise in complex issues and difficult parts of the world.

The second theme I would draw out is the need to focus on making our contribution count.No one country can do everything and be everywhere, particularly at a time of straitened resources. We must prioritise, drawing on our skills, history and values. In Britain this is currently part of the focus of a Strategic Defence and Security Review that will conclude in the Autumn, but areas that we have already identified are our strengths in education, our unique links to the Commonwealth, the human networks that link us to strategically vital countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the appeal of British culture and language and the global reach of the British Council and BBC World Service.

Finland offers valuable lessons in how to make the most of national advantages or capabilities in a particular area, whether it is the social policy that you are famous for – and I should congratulate you all on Newsweek’s recent recognition of Finland’s outstanding qualities - or your record of peace mediation and crisis management across the world from Namibia to Aceh and the Balkans. We are particularly interested in the new thinking that you are doing on Somalia, Chad and Darfur and your innovative work in civilian crisis management training and mediation.  I hope we will be able to explore the scope for great dialogue between our respective experts on where we can work together to prevent conflict. Another area of interest that we are examining is how we achieve greater alignment of our diplomatic, development and cultural efforts, where I know that Alex has advocated a ‘House of Finland’ concept and there may be scope for us to learn from each other.

Within the European Union we are also keen to work with new groupings of smaller nations alongside our traditional cooperation with the larger member states. The EU is at its best as a changing network where its members can make the most of what each country brings to the table, such as the immense wealth of experience many of the newer member states bring of transition to democracy.

Our diminishing ability to impose our way in the world makes it all the more important that we act as an inspiring example of the values we wish to encourage other countries to adopt. Human rights must be at the irreducible core of our foreign policy, but we must recognise that we serve them best if we work with the grain of societies and cultures around the world and from a position of moral strength ourselves.

Third, as European nationswe need to learn to “think together” even more and use our collective weight in the world to greater effect.The EU’s Member States will not always be of one view in external matters, but where the nations of Europe are able and willing to use their collective weight in the world we have considerable strength at our disposal, whether it is using sanctions to attempt to persuade Iran to return to negotiations over its nuclear programme, or buttressing US efforts to restart the Middle East Peace Process. This will be the major theme of the special European Council next month on Europe’s place in the world and I look forward to working with Alex and others to prepare for that.

As countries which attach profound importance to our shared liberal democratic values, Finland and Britain should look to see what we can do collectively to promote them, in particular in our neighbourhood. I applaud the active role Finland has played in the Eastern Partnership and in the Western Balkans and I want this to be one of a number of areas where our two countries work together closely to pursue our collective goals as effectively as possible.  We also appreciate your deep knowledge and expertise on Russia, especially given the fact that the UK’s bilateral relations with Moscow have been extremely difficult in recent years. And we also share common strategic goals in Pakistan and Afghanistan where we work alongside each other in both the civilian and military efforts. Finland’s response to the Pakistan floods disaster is extremely welcome.

We also agree that for the EU to turn its back on Turkey would be a huge strategic error and in Britain we welcome the fact that Finland continues to make this case alongside us in EU institutions.

On all these issues there is great scope for us to work closely together on specific initiatives where we believe we can add value. 

Finally, we should be ambitious for what the EU can achieve in all these areas. The EU allows us to do more together than we can alone. I would particularly single out economic growth as an area where we can work together. All our economies desperately need it and we look to the EU to help provide the best possible environment for it. We need to make the most of one of the EU’s greatest assets, the Single Market, and look for opportunities to expand it, particularly in services, digital technology, energy and in intellectual property.

A yet broader Single Market will give new openings for our businesses and create new efficiencies, contributing to the competitiveness which is crucial to our ability maintain our way of life. It is no secret that Europe’s competitiveness has been slipping, although Finland remains a leader, ranking sixth worldwide in the most recent Global Competitiveness Report. In many fields of business, European countries have possibly permanently lost their cost advantage. If we lose our knowledge advantage too then our future could be grim. We need, then, to raise the EU’s competitiveness. So we should collectively look at what is holding back competitiveness at the European level and we must avoid adding new unnecessary regulatory costs to business. In that respect I will mention one particularly British concern: the regulation of financial services. We should not let short-term political concerns lead us to legislation that might make some people feel better but would drive out businesses from the EU to our competitors. We need to get Europe back to work, to create jobs and attract investment. As well as making the case for the extension of the single market we need better regulation that can lighten the burden on business and progress on freer and fairer trade agreements between the European Union and third countries, including the rising economic powers.

I began by saying that European countries risk decline unless we set out to position ourselves for the 21st century and address weaknesses at home, which is what we have set out to do as a new Government. But we are also mindful that there are considerable grounds for optimism in the coming years, despite the thickets of difficult issues which always surround foreign affairs.  As Isaiah Berlin wrote, “men do not live only by fighting evils, they live by positive goals”. An abiding faith in human nature, confidence in the enduring appeal of our values and resilience and creativity of our societies should all give us confidence that we can position ourselves to make the most of the abundant opportunities of the 21st century while living up to our responsibilities to others in a safer and more prosperous world. This is very much the vision and ethos of Britain’s new Government, and we welcome the fact that we have a staunch and like-minded friend in Finland.

Thank you for listening and I look forward to taking your questions.