Exclusive Interview with the Finnish Ambassador in Croatia: 'Our presidency will be focused on the key issues that the EU is struggling with today'

At the beginning of July, Finland took over the presidency over the Council of the EU after Romania had been presiding over it for the last six months. Croatia will take over the challenging task of promoting European interests for the very first time at the beginning of 2020.
Risto Piipponen, Finnish Ambassador in Croatia
 Neja Markicevic / CROPIX

Euractiv has decided to spend an afternoon with Risto Piipponen, Finnish ambassador to Croatia, to discuss important challenges that the youngest EU member could encounter during its first presidency.

According to the Finns which are in charge of the EU leadership for the third time, we should 'always be prepared for unexpected surprises'.

Are the biggest unexpected surprises going to be the rising Euroscepticism, climate change or budget issues is still uncertain, but Piipponen is still very optimistic. Quoting the PM of Finland Antti Rinne who said 'the influence we have depends on our own action', the ambassador believes that every country is more influential that the size and population initially imply.

1. The Finnish presidency has just begun; what are the expectations of your government?

Our government wants to have an active and positive presidency. We are very pragmatic and result-oriented and we will follow that line during our term. The Finnish priorities have been chosen carefully because we wanted to reflect contemporary issues while remaining very European.

2. Since this is the third time that Finland is taking over the EU, what is going to be different this time?

We joined the EU in 1995, thus we carried out our first presidency in the second half of 1999 and the second in 2006. Nowadays, the world is changing very fast, so we were forced to adapt our priorities to new challenges. For us, that meant putting climate action as a top priority, whereas in 2006 we were not discussing that topic very much. We want our presidency to address the key issues that the EU is struggling with today. The biggest difference is also the fact that now we have the Lisbon Treaty, which limits the tasks of the presidency. Moreover, due to the Lisbon Treaty, we have a permanent president of the European Council, as well as the institution of the High Representative and the External Action Service.

3. While you were preparing for the presidency, we heard a lot of news about the scandal that occurred in Finland due to the inability to implement health care reform. At the time, it seemed that the government was not prepared to take over the presidency. What were the preparations like from the Finnish perspective?

The preparations usually take a couple of years. Before beginning our term, we were a part of the so-called-trio with Romania and Croatia, so we had close cooperation with those two countries. Also, we knew that elections are going to be held in April and that the newly-elected government should start by June. We could not have waited forever, so we started preparing a year ago in the Parliament. All of the parties participated in the program, so there was no gap in the process.

In other words, the foundation was laid during the term of the previous government, so the new one had just some fine-tuning to do.

4. Well, you said that it took a couple of years to prepare. From what you just said, it seemed like it took only a couple of months!

People in Croatia keep saying that the government is late with preparations. The Croatian government has already been working on the presidency for several years. Being part of the trio represents intense political cooperation. I know that the Croatian government and Croatian civil servants have taken this very seriously. Croatian preparations for the presidency have been underway.

5. Which advice would you give for the next six months, before Croatia takes over?

I would like to draw your attention to the previous question. You need to prepare when it comes to the substance, the priorities that the presidency will focus on the most. You also have some technical preparations which mean that you have to have a large number of civil servants both in Brussels and in Zagreb. I know that Croatia has invested a lot in this and has sent more than 700 civil servants through extensive training. I got the impression that Croatia has been working hard on the substance and on preparing the persons involved to carry out the presidency. Citizens are stressed knowing that the presidency is approaching. However, when you are fully prepared the last day of the presidency will come in the blink of an eye.

You should always be prepared for surprises. As you do not know what surprises might be, you must be ready to react quickly when needed. Lastly, I would like to stress that it is necessary to follow the traditional role of the presidency, and that means promoting European interests and putting aside the national ones. It means that you have to have the leadership that is able to negotiate and achieve compromises, which might differ from what you, as a Member State would prefer. All the decisions and solutions, in one way or another, are always a result of negotiations and compromises.

6. So, you are saying that there is a misconception about the presidency being about national interests?

It is actually completely the opposite. For example, Finland will do its best to achieve a consensus about the Multiannual Financial Framework during its presidency and, in order to do that, we have to take into account different views. Of course, Finland has also had its national positions on the MFF, but they have now been put aside. What we are aiming at and what the result will be when we hopefully achieve it will be different from what we wanted to see as Finland.

7. During the Romanian term, corruption and the rule of law have been particularly emphasized. Do you think that this is just the beginning of a fight against corruption in the EU, given the fact what it presents in many countries?

No, I don't think so. When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU, one of the key conditions was to create a cooperation and verification mechanism (CVM). At the same time, that issue very important for Europe in general, because corruption has a negative economic impact and it makes citizens lose trust in institutions.

We are aware that there are problems within the EU regarding the rule of law and the corruption. There are also problems with the respect of democratic values and issues related to very basic human rights, freedom of expression, etc. That is why we have chosen to promote the EU's common values as one of our priorities. We have to work harder in order to gain respect for these principles in all Members States.

8. What issues and topics will be addressed the most during the Finnish presidency?

The slogan of our presidency is 'Sustainable Europe - Sustainable Future', which is very forward-looking. Most of our priorities are related to sustainability, so climate change is the bedrock of our program.

We want to become a global leader in climate actions, so we need to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050. Our PM said that time of „yes but...'' policies is over. Finland wants to be an example and we have set an even more ambitious target for ourselves and that is to be climate neutral by 2035.

You often hear that fighting climate change is very expensive. It might have been that at the beginning because you had to invest in new technologies. However, it is something which helps us create sustainable economic growth. If we are innovative an invest in advanced green technologies, bio and circular economy, we can become a global leader of the industrial change. That should induce growth and employment.

We can also link sustainability to our common European values.

Sustainable growth can be achieved by investing in sectors of the future. They are related to the fight against climate change but also to other environmental issues, like research and development. Doing so, we can increase the wealth of our nations and the wealth of our citizens. At the same time, we need regional and social fairness in Europe, which we achieve by supporting those countries whose level of development has not yet reached the level of the nations with higher income.

9. Do you think that Finland will be able to achieve that ambitious goal?

You cannot achieve anything if you do not try. I think that the goals we have set are self-explanatory.

10. Do you think that sustainability can be incorporated into the new Financial Framework?

That is our goal. The financial framework defines the budget for the upcoming years. We will definitely maintain our traditional policies, i.e. the cohesion funds and the Common Agricultural Policy also in the future. However, we must link them to sustainability. Emphasizing rural development should make agriculture environmentally friendly. The same applies to cohesion funds: we need to start supporting green investments. Sustainability is more than just a word; it has to be taken into account in all our activities.

11. Who do you think is the biggest obstacle in fulfilling that goal; is it the government, CEOs, politicians?

Understanding the importance of that issue is the key. A great majority of the Member States are ready to commit. Some countries may be hesitant, but we cannot allow having somebody opposing, as the issue is very serious. We have to start thinking about future generations. It is also essential that the EU's global leadership in climate action will allow us to assist the developing countries to adapt. In the end, no one will lose, but everyone will profit.

12. Most of the opponents are Eurosceptics. Is it true that they do not believe in this idea?

This is true. You have made a correct analysis of the situation. Those politicians who are opposing are not necessarily denying the threat caused by climate change. Their goal is to get political points. They understand that a lot of ordinary people might be concerned and reluctantly change their lifestyle. Populist politicians use that opportunity by arguing that Europe has already done enough.

We have to make people understand the necessity of dramatic changes taking place, changes that we see ourselves daily. France has never had temperatures as high as the one's last week. At the same time, in Mexico, you suddenly got two meters of ice in a hailstorm. The winds are getting stronger, and heavy storms are more frequent. We just witnessed that in Zagreb a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, those facts are being denied by some irresponsible populist politicians.

13. Brexit might happen during the Finnish presidency. What is the reason for growing Euroscepticism in Europe?

In general, Brexit has had at least one positive consequence: EU citizens in other Member States have understood that leaving the Union is a big mistake. They are not anymore contemplating the idea of their own country doing the same. The opinion polls show that the support for the Union has never been as strong as it is now. There is less Euroscepticism than there used to be before Brexit. It used to be easy to blame Brussels for all the problems. Instead, now people have started thinking about all the advantages Europe brings to them: common currency, no border controls, the internal market that makes it is easier to sell our products to other countries and no roaming charges when making phone calls, for example, from Berlin to Zagreb.

Before the European Parliament elections, there were a lot of representatives of traditional parties and governments who were frightened of populist and extreme right forces progressing. Now when we see the results they were not all that great for them. The populists and extreme right groups exist in all countries but they do not seem to gain that much of real power. For example in Denmark, the extreme right, the anti-EU party collapsed dramatically in the elections.

14. You often hear in small countries that we are not influential enough to make the difference in the EU, that everything is decided by the bigger Member States. Does Finland think that it is influential enough in decision making?

Our PM just stated that ‘the influence we have depends on our own action'. We have followed the same policy since 1995 when we joined the Union: We are an active member, we bring up new ideas to the negotiation table and we act constructively. We try to look at concerns that some member states may have and we try to contribute to finding a compromise suitable to all. This is how you increase your capital among the Member States.

The influence of Member States depends on their own action but also on the institutional system. In the negotiations on the Lisbon treaty, Finland, together with Austria, led the work of a group of small countries trying to find a balanced solution, which would also take into account the interests of smaller members. Of course, we didn't get all we wanted but we got important improvements to the final text. The present treaty is not ideal, but we can live with it. You just have to adapt and make the best out of it.

Answering your question, I would say that we are more influential than what the size and the population of our country would imply.

15. How do you comment the elections for top positions in the European institutions?

It always becomes dramatic. The nominations and other big decisions often look like a drama. But this time all went pretty well and didn't take that long. The situation after the European Parliament elections is different. Previously the Conservatives, or the EPP, and the Socialists had together a majority in the Parliament and it was easier to agree. They lost their majority, which means that other groups, in particular, the Liberals and the Greens now have a bigger say. That complicated the negotiations to some extent, but under the circumstances, things went relatively smoothly.

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21. svibanj 2022 17:31