Speech by Mr Jukka Valtasaari, Secretary of State: Finland´s Presidency of the EU: the balance sheet, Paasikivi Society meeting, Helsinki 29th February 2000

Venue: Paasikivi Society meeting, Helsinki 29 February 2000

Mr Jukka Valtasaari
Secretary of State,
Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland

Finland´s Presidency of the European Union: the balance sheet

Mr Chairman,
Distinguished members and guests,

I must thank the Paasikivi Society for the opportunity to present to this eminent audience what I refer to as the balance sheet on Finland´s Presidency of the European Union. It is appropriate to present the final accounts, so to speak, primarily because the Presidency was for Finland such a big operation in external relations. The preparations for it involved almost every branch of state administration, well over a thousand people. Those earlier landmarks, the CSCE and membership of the UN Security Council, were managed by the foreign affairs administration on its own and required only a fraction of the resources needed for the EU Presidency. Secondly, the Presidency demanded the most fundamental change in our foreign policy thinking for decades. As a member of the EU we are no longer just outsiders looking in on any issues of the day. Far from it; as the Presidency holder we were speaking for the whole Union.

One of the luxuries of the period of Finnish neutrality was that we could decide for ourselves which carefully chosen subjects we wished to concentrate on, such as peacekeeping or the European security conference. In so doing, we virtually created our own ´brand image´ in international affairs. But I should add that the experience gained during the years of neutrality did prove useful for our Presidency as well. It taught us not to take sides, to be impartial and identify the common good, and it demanded of us the skill to move matters forward.

We in Finland are in the habit of gathering together to congratulate ourselves on a job well done, once the guests have departed. And the same thing still goes on; experiences of the Presidency are filed away and are judged to have been largely favourable. Of course, such therapeutic aspects of foreign affairs should not be dismissed out of hand but they do not serve the purpose of this presentation. Foreign policy is a target-oriented activity and setting targets requires accuracy in assessing the operational environment. I can assure you that during the end-of-millennium upheavals this was extremely challenging. The mood of those days is well expressed in the title of a work by the French philosopher Ignacio Ramonet - "Geopolitics of Chaos".

But the job had to be done. In our planning we paid full attention to four prominent features of international politics today.

The first is that the old familiar figure of cold-war jeopardy grew, in the course of the 1990s, several new heads. Sometimes he appeared as the greenhouse effect, sometimes as the threat of a nuclear power plant disaster, sometimes as over-population, or migration or epidemics or drugs or crime. The catalogue goes on. What those problems have in common is that they ignore borders, they are not limited to Europe and they do not merely affect the security of whole nations but also the sense of security of the individual. It often seems that the darkest hour is the not the one just before dawn.

Alienation and opposition to change have been visible in opinion polls in many parts of Europe for some time, since long before Austria´s last elections. Voter apathy could be clearly seen in the European parliamentary elections held just before the start of our Presidency. It looked as though when Europe was seeking answers to new challenges through regional integration, and when even that course seemed to be inadequate, a significant part of the electorate wanted to live as before, in a homogeneous, clearly profiled nation state led by its own government. What was being questioned was the relevance of the EU.

The second feature is that far into the future two contrasting development processes will be at play in Europe. They could be likened to fusion and fission; fusion representing integration, which is essentially the western European pursuit of bigger units or coalitions in order to improve the possibility of achieving political and economic objectives. Fission, in contrast, describes the break-up of former large units in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia have together splintered into some twenty separate states on the map of Europe. Both processes underline the strategic importance of EU enlargement.

Brussels jargon has long exposed the difficulty of blending the simultaneous deepening and widening of the European Union. As our Presidency period approached there could hardly have been a more concrete issue. Did we not ambitiously announce our intention to lead Europe into the new millennium? Among the more visible products of the Helsinki summit, the common foreign and security policy represented deepening whereas the opening of negotiations with six applicant countries, and Turkey´s position as an applicant, portrayed widening. To modify the words of Jacques Delors, to deepen the union Finland adopted a political approach and to widen it a geopolitical one.

The third feature is that Europe´s big challenges have world-wide dimensions; not even security questions can be treated in isolation. This became abundantly clear to us when we were fitting together the views of the EU and NATO in the area of crisis management, which was another new experience for non-allied Finland. Globalisation, too, manifests itself on a screen that encompasses more than Europe. For those who get to reap the benefits of international investments the possibilities are boundless. But those left on the sidelines feel that the exercise of power is slipping away from national governments into fewer and fewer hands and becoming opaque. Talk then turns to the unseen grasp of the market forces. The benefits glitter on the horizon but the minuses - inequality, unemployment and so forth - darken everyday lives. Again the relevance of the EU comes under scrutiny amid the consolidation of competitiveness and the calls of social responsibility.

Fourthly, at the start of the millennium information technology is wielding a growing influence on international relations. Technology has lifted the supply of information above the control of politicians. It has been a factor in the braking-up of states and caused a variety of surprises in intergovernmental politics. To the public it offers increasingly efficient channels to air their opinions and to influence international processes. An example of this that occurred just prior to the Helsinki Summit was the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle, which was attended by more than a hundred governments and more than a thousand non-governmental organisations. A few weeks ago we probably all saw the picture of Michel Camdessus, the outgoing head of the IMF, being struck in the face by a cream cake in the middle of his UNCTAD speech. Almost immediately the spectacle won the support of the organisation of "Pâtissiers sans Frontières". So the political scientist enquires: "Has the pattern for international decision making changed?" Others would do well to ask the same question.

How then is one to construct a policy for the Presidency out of this analysis? In practice the Presidency of the EU is like a relay race. We received the baton from Germany and passed it on to Portugal. Although an individual national effort may be admirable, the main point is that the baton is carried safely forward. In conditions of geopolitical chaos surprises always crop up. Trip over one and you may drop the baton. Then one thing becomes clear, namely that not even big states can provide effective leadership in international politics unless they form coalitions around common interests. The American historian Arthur Schlesinger frames this proposition in rhetorical terms, thus: "What kind of super-state is it that cannot cover the costs of its own interventions?" To non-aligned states building coalitions comes naturally.

The normal thing to do is to start off with an extensive programme for the Presidency, which is discussed beforehand with the Member States. Another normality is that the Presidency is subject to the realities of life, namely international events and their presentation in the news media. I offer you the following observations from the latter standpoint.

First of all let us look at EU enlargement. Developments in post-cold war Europe highlight the geopolitics of enlargement. Enlargement was to be an instrument for spreading stability from west to east by economic means. A depository of shared values had for a longish time been built up within the framework of the OSCE. Then fire broke out in the Balkans. History crept in again through the back door of a Europe thought to have already changed and moved on. Milosevic called into question the principle and the values of an integrated Europe, bringing indescribable suffering to his citizens, turning his country´s development back decades and spreading the crisis from the Balkans to the heart of Europe and to the entire territory of the Euro-Atlantic community.

The military escalation of the Balkans crisis and President Ahtisaari´s role in resolving it rapidly politicised the enlargement debate and intensified the challenges facing Finland´s EU Presidency. Did we foresee the gravity of this course of events when we were planning our Presidency? The answer is no. I remember emphasising, in a speech in London in early May, that the stabilisation and economic reconstruction of the Balkans could become the first test for EU enlargement. With hindsight those words may sound like diplomatic understatement, but such restraint is a recognised fault of diplomats.

President Ahtisaari´s efforts have been thoroughly analysed privately and publicly. Suffice it to say that they were products of the widespread trust felt towards our head of state, towards Finland´s position as an impartial country and towards its forthcoming duties in the Presidency of the EU. By the time the stabilisation process was getting under way the Commission had resigned and Javier Solana had not yet been chosen for his new position. Thus we had to take over the driving seat without the normal support mechanisms. The significance of Martti Ahtisaari´s efforts for Finland´s international standing is best illustrated by the television and press pictures that came out of the Cologne summit. A colleague congratulated Finland on its successful Presidency before it had begun.

Another example of the geopolitics of enlargement was the acceptance of Turkey as an applicant for EU membership. From the viewpoint of Europe and the United States, Turkey has an interface with almost every controversy in the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Caucasia and southern Russia. The fact that the EU and Turkey did not have functioning political relations was downright bizarre and certainly did not serve the aims of either side.

Pressure had grown to create a foundation for EU-Turkish relations. The forthcoming Presidency holder had to get to grips with the task even if it did look like being unrewarding. Fortunately the situation improved through the summer and autumn. The Turkish government´s room for manoeuvre increased and it used the extra space to advantage in negotiations with the Union. Greece showed growing flexibility over Cyprus and talks on the future of the island restarted at the UN. A suitable dash of drama during the final phase of the talks, including a night flight to Turkey while the summit was still under way, helped to ensure that Finland´s consistent efforts earned the acknowledgement they deserved. In the United States the Turkish question and the declaration on Chechnya were the principal bases on which our Presidency was evaluated.

Finland´s political choices included emphasising the importance of the EU´s external relations. This was logical because of our geographical position and the globalisation of the Finnish economy. The EU itself is happy to speak of a common foreign policy and of its role in resolving international issues. Russia is placed high on the agenda of Europe and the Euro-Atlantic community. So it was natural that the job of developing relations with Russia fell to Finland. We had already spent a good deal of time moulding the Northern Dimension concept into a suitable instrument for the needs of the Union´s Russia policy.
As early as the German Presidency period we had already actively contributed to the birth of the EU´s Russia strategy, we published its first implementation plan right at the start of our Presidency and we drew up a Ukraine strategy, which was approved at the Helsinki summit.

The guiding principle behind this activeness was that Russia is on either the global, the continental or the northern European agenda, depending on which perspective one has. The country is also in a deep crisis, which does not enhance the preconditions for cooperation. The result is that the policy of the Union and of the United States looks at times like the avoidance of the worst possible scenario. Obviously, long-term common interests including energy issues, the safe production of nuclear power and the prevention of cross-border pollution, crime and illnesses are among the issues discussed with Russia and other countries. But still it is difficult to create robust policies to deal with them.

In this context our Presidency was no exception. We were obliged to keep up long-term, target-oriented efforts in the thankless atmosphere created by the Chechnya crisis. There were weekly high level meetings from October till December. In the Finnish media foreign minister Halonen was pressed to respond to "Why not just tell the Russians straight?" In international assessments, particularly in the United States and France, the Chechnya declaration was regarded as a bench mark in evaluating the success of the Helsinki conference. In the political department of the foreign ministry they are still counting the hours it took to produce the balanced one-and-a-half-page statement. In the final paragraph long-term interest is expressed with typically Finnish terseness thus: ´Russia is an important partner of the European Union. The Union has repeatedly expressed its willingness to support Russia in developing into a modern, democratic state. But Russia has to honour its commitments if the partnership is to develop. The European Union does not want Russia to be isolated from Europe.´

Following events in the Balkans, the common foreign and security policy and associated crisis management took pride of place, as we had planned. This concerned not only the development of the Union as an institution but also, indeed above all, it concerned the core of transatlantic cooperation, the nature of future cooperation between Europe and the United States - between the EU and NATO in crisis management within Europe and beyond - as well as Europe´s contribution and how to divide costs.
The discussions were held amid the commotion that followed the bombing of Kosovo. The starting premises were the contradictory pronouncements made at the EU-NATO summit and the storm that they had raised in the United States Congress. Non-allied Finland´s role became that of mediator, not so much in order to seek solutions as to get the process started on the right track.

When President Chirac described the Helsinki summit as historic, the background to his remark was principally crisis management, the decisions to develop genuine crisis management capacity. On a lower level some expressed surprise that Finland had handled matters so well despite not even being a member of NATO. Hopefully, someone was quick-witted enough to reply: ´for that very reason´.

Also at the core of the EU´s external affairs are relations across the Atlantic. Part of the logic of the appropriately named new transatlantic dialogue in the post-cold war world is to base cooperation increasingly on economic interests. That work was hampered by an exceptionally long catalogue of problems that ranged from the problem of getting the new round of world trade talks started to genetically modified foods, and from bananas to noisy aircraft engines. The situation reached a point where the Washington summit just before Christmas had to be somehow built almost exclusively on the aforesaid transatlantic political issues. Fortunately they carried enough substance to attain a favourable assessment from Washington´s point of view. But nothing significant could be said on even one single economic issue, not even on the information society, on which the future of Europe and the United States will so greatly depend.

For the supplementary summit in Tampere, Finland chose legal and home affairs as the themes. The decline in respect for the Union in the minds of its citizens simply demanded concentration on issues in which the role of the Union could really be felt in people´s lives. Issues such as money laundering, drugs, immigration and criminality are at the top of the list of people´s worries. And they are issues that require exceptionally broad cooperation across the borders of the Union. Moreover, the harmonisation of laws is acknowledged as one of the most difficult questions in international cooperation.

Of course it is reasonable to ask: Why only now a summit meeting around these themes? The Union´s ability to succeed as an international economic power and to compete with the United States depends fundamentally on the mobility of production factors. Mobility of labour is still on a small scale compared with the United States, not to mention the mobility of capital and goods or the integration of energy markets. The Tampere summit elevated these issues to a high position in the Union´s order of priorities. Agreement was reached on a number of aims, grouped under ten pillars, and it was decided that the Commission would report at regular intervals on progress made in achieving them. These reports will provide long-term reading material.

Another objective of our Presidency was the attainment of economic conditions that would support stability, competitiveness and employment. This target calls for action that crucially affects assessments of Europe that are made elsewhere. In the conditions of European economic and monetary union the harmonisation of national and pan-European economic, monetary and interest rate policies is politics at its maximum in which concrete benefits at the level of states and citizens are often conflicting. Finland, the Presidency holder, became well aware of this when seeking better cooperation over questions of taxation, particularly the taxation of profits. The political solution that had been sought at two previous summits could still not be achieved, but Finland cannot be accused of not trying hard enough.

I have deliberately not described the great number of key issues that were addressed in more than fifty summit and ministerial-level conferences and countless other meetings. Not have I explained why our much praised practical arrangements cost much less than those of other Presidencies.

Instead, allow me a few words on how the Presidency looked in the eyes of others and how this perception improves Finland´s position in the conduct of foreign policy in the future.

In matters of this nature international assessments are influenced above all by the assessor´s own priorities. France was pleased about foreign and security policy, the United States felt good about the Chechnya declaration and the outcome of the Turkish controversy, and Canada praised the conclusion of a fishing agreement - and so forth. What each example had in common was that there was praise for the progress achieved. It was our good fortune that the catalogue of business during our Presidency covered a plenitude of big issues that were not only important inside the EU, in contrast to the situation during the German, and particularly, the Austrian Presidency. There were no audible allegations of EU clannishness.

The most trenchant words of praise that remain in my mind are the following. A member of the council of the Jacques Delors Institute told of a meeting of the institute in January at which Mr Delors had bemoaned the absence of a Finnish member on the institute´s board of directors, "because Finland had understood best the European cause". I do not know Mr Delors well enough to have ventured to enquire further into the matter but his ideas are known through his prolific writing. One of his credos is that Europe needs a nucleus around which it can develop, Europe needs a geopolicy to cover enlargement and external relations and Europe has to invest in people and keep income disparities under control so that nation states will be able to withstand the upheavals of change. When you compare that thesis with the position of Finland´s political leadership on EMU, enlargement, competitiveness and social policy we and Mr Delors are certainly not far apart. It is nice that the compliment came from a Frenchman. And I hope I will not damage any relations, domestic or external, when I suggest that the French, like the Finns, tend to be somewhat sparing in their praise of other nations.