Election interview: Teppo Säkkinen, a modern vision for the Centre Party

Teppo Säkkinen is the President of the young members of the Centre Party in Finland (Keskusta). He is 24, has studied management, and is a candidate for the second time for the Finnish Parliament. He has been involved in international projects, such as the set up of a school in Congo and actions in the Balkans, such as peace mediation in ethnic conflicts in Kosovo . He has also worked as an assistant of Tuomo Puumala, Member of Parliament. He is a good representative of the modern Centre Party, coming from Lapland to which he is attached, having been for some years a young urban, involved and particularly interested in international affairs, with interesting and original views on Finland’s challenges.

How did you come into politics?

During my studies, at first, I was one of these shy guys who does not want to step forward, but I was pushed to step up for student Council. We then had this project for the 100 years anniversary of our school where we collected funds for building a school in Africa. I ended up being in charge of it, we got 45 000 euros and the school was built. This has made me want to influence things for the greater good, and it has given me quite a lot of confidence.

During this time, I was ending up being at the union of school students, first at the Lapland district, then at the national level, and I was elected as the president of the Union, which is why I moved to Helsinki. During this time when I represented students, I also realised I did not want to talk only about education, I wanted to talk about environment, jobs, economy, international politics. So I felt a need to know where my values are, where to go. During the time, I compared parties, I met people from them, young people and leaders in particular, and I chose the Centre Party (Keskusta).

For which reason?

I felt that it had values, such as the responsibility towards people and the economy, social progress… We also place sustainable development so high on the list of our values: we need to use resources that nature is providing, but we need also to conserve it and value it. I felt in particular that concerning climate change we have the best set of tools to confront it, because we need to reform the way the economy functions, with fossil fuels and materials, and move to renewable resources. And it is not only about conserving, but also finding new technologies, new ways to use the resources. These are the main reasons.
Of course, my party is also for me the party that stands for the whole country, not only for Helsinki and its region. Whichever part of the country you are from, Helsinki, town suburbs, a village in Lapland, we consider that each and every person should have equal opportunities, for example for getting an education, for getting a job, for culture… Coming from Lapland but living in Helsinki, I feel that it is very important.

How did you become president of the Youngs from Keskusta?

It was a year and a half ago. We had a tight race with 5 candidates. When I started, I felt that I had a mission. In the party, we had difficult times in the last elections in 2011, we fell to the 4th place, a lot of people were down. At the time, I was an assistant to a Member of Parliament, Tuomo Puumala, who was then in the party’s leadership, and the experience left me with quite a fighting spirit. I felt that even though we were down, our party is needed, the values and policies we represent are needed, and we had to reform and refresh the party and come back. I wanted to be a part of that process, to be able to work with the leadership of the party, and to bring new ideas through and attract new groups of young and dynamic people. . I felt that in the position of the leader of the youth organisation, I could serve that purpose. We had a tight race, 5 candidates, and very good ones, and I was sufficiently lucky to win.

Is the party very present among the students in Helsinki?

Not that much. In Helsinki, generally, we have not been a strong party: however, we have a good student organisation, and a district organisation. One thing which stands out here is that we have a lot of immigrants or people with immigrant backgrounds among us, here in the Helsinki region, as they recognise themselves in our values. For the students, it is true that there are a lot of them who have moved from other parts of the country, and might find they want to join us in students’ activities.

You are now running for the Parliament. Why should people vote for you?

I think that we need now people that are problem solvers by nature. The business of politics is about solving problems and finding solutions. For this, you need a strong base of values, as a foundation, you need to be able to reach across the different sides and that it something that I am always doing. I want to talk with all sides and try to find solutions. It is not to try to find something which is good for my party and the people who voted for me, it is also to find something that suits as many citizens as possible. For example, if we take topics such as sustainable development or finding jobs, I think that the solutions are not only on the right side or on the left side, we have to find common, creative ways of solving problems. So what I aim to do is to bring this kind of approach into politics, not just say “I am right, my party is right, we have all the answers”. This is what I want to be, a problem solver without prejudice.

What do you see as the main problems that Finland will have to solve in the next 4-5 years?

We are in a situation of, if not stagnation, at least in a swamp, as we would say in Finnish. Our economy is not going well, people are getting older, our social expenses and our debt are increasing, and we have to face global problems such as climate change. In addition, the security environment is becoming quite instable. It is a perfect storm of problems coming from all sides.

We should begin with addressing the problem of jobs, we need policies which foster in particular the small and medium size businesses, to support their growth. It is not only about politics and policies; it is about the atmosphere and the culture in our country. There has been students’ initiatives in this field, and I find it encouraging seeing that there is a booming of small companies which emerged with a global view from the beginning, not limiting their activities within Finland’s border. It is not only about business, quite a lot of these new entrepreneurs have a set of social and ecological values also.

For the ageing population, we need to find ways to make the life of old people easier in their homes, so they do not need medical attention and stay at home as long as possible. There are many companies who can offer good solutions to make their lives richer.

Concerning ecology and climate change, we need more creative companies to develop solution for more in-depth sustainable development. What I look forward to being a major driver for job creation is energy technologies, first with the renewable energies with decentralised production systems where people can make their own energy with sun panels, biogas and other equipment, but also with the development of energy efficiency. In Europe, we spend one third of our electricity on electric motors, in industry in particular, and now we already have companies producing energy efficient motors for industry. That is an example of what we can do to solve global problems and create jobs, here in Finland. And there are other related topics: for cars, at the European level, we need stricter rules concerning the use of biofuels, as it would be a step towards a more sustainable world, and it would bring some advantages to Finland as we master better than other the technology necessary for the production of biofuel, in particular with Neste Oil for biodiesels. We also have factories producing biogas in some of the regions of Finland. We need to be the reference in this domain, so that Finnish companies would benefit from this reputation: for this, we need to develop the necessary environment for cars running with biogas in Finland and other renewable fuels. We need good standards for energy efficiency, and policies that encourage people to produce their own energy from renewable materials. You have remarked that this is an area I like to talk about very much!

When you will be in Parliament, what would be the first law that you would like to vote?

If it is one, I would like to see a law on experiments, policy experiments. The idea is that if we try to do all the reforms at once, at national level, there are too many obstacles and diverging interests which are hampering the reforms and prevent to see their real impact. So some reforms could be experimented in some regions, or on certain groups of people. This way, we could test more policy reforms, and then we could decide based on the results of the experiments what should be made at the national level.
For example, what the party has proposed, and what I strongly advocate for, is the reform of our social security system. We are pushing for an experiment of basic income. Our present social security system is so complex, with so many different benefits, and also different ways to cut the benefits, so that beneficiaries have very little incentives to take a job, because suddenly the income they would get from a job might cut away all benefits, and their life would not improve or even deteriorate. Or simply they would immediately lose the benefits, and get their salary only after 3 or 4 weeks, which may be extremely difficult to go through. So we need a social security system which has incentives to come back to work, and at the same time gives you the income necessary to live. The basic income system provides for this.

If you take our employment rate which is around 70 % and you compare it to Sweden’s, which is around 80 %, closing the gap would solve a lot of problems for us. It does not mean that it is easy, but we need to find ways to have more people at work. There should be possibility and incentives to have part-time jobs for people who are under social benefits and are not able to have a full time job right away. We need in fact a middle-job market, in the same way as the Germans with the minijobs, where people on social benefits can get part-time jobs to improve their income.

In this way we could provide both demand and supply of jobs, as there are difficulties in the private as well as in the public sector to offer jobs as in a number of cases the cost would be too high compared to the benefits or the production. On the other hand, the people who are on social benefits taking the jobs would lose the social benefits. And it is an issue of social justice, it is not only about the money, people need to have a purpose in their lives, some function in the society, where they give something.
If you look at young people, for them getting their first job, it may be a useful way to start in the working life. Or if you have been a long-time unemployed, you have no more any valid references from a recent job, and it would be a first step to go back to the working life.

We need to have a reform that gives you incentives to go back to work, but not punish you if you do not take a job. We have these punishing mechanisms already in place and it does not seem to change anything. On the other side, when you look at small companies who have a high threshold to employ another person because of all the taxes and social security formalities and contributions, we should find a way to lower this threshold.

What is your position on immigration, that some are linking to the employment question?

My first point is that it is a topic we have to look at in a human way.
In fact, there are plenty of people with a lot of different stories. There are many sides of immigration, it is a phenomenon with many faces and we should not take it as one global topic. For example, the biggest reason for immigration in Finland is relationship, love, people who get married or in a relationship and come to Finland. For these people, it is obviously not people looking after social benefits or something like that.

Then on the other hand we need a bigger workforce. There, we have this mechanism in Finland where you need to check if there would be somebody in Finland able to perform the same tasks, before hiring a foreign worker, even for specialised engineers and for an urgent task. This is something that we should probably get rid of: we want companies operating on global markets, and they need expertise from very special individuals. What I heard from the start-ups is that they want to hire this specific person who has this very special skill and experience, but they need to go through this paperwork, which can take weeks or months, and it is a problem when they would need him or her right now, not 6 months late! This should be reformed.

On the question of refugees, we have around 770 persons sent by the UN, every year. These are people coming from very difficult places, with dramatic histories, and they need quite a lot of help to get adjusted to a new society, and many do not have a basic education, in partiuclart if you consider Somalians. There should be quite a lot of support for them. So we should not take too many, stick to our international commitments as they are, and ensure that we give sufficient support to them.

And also for Syria, where there are so many people on the move, they are in camps at the borders in Turkey or Jordan: through our humanitarian aid, we should work in refugees’ camps, and make their life as dignified as possible in these circumstances. For example the water management is a major issue. So if we have a refugees’ camp with tens of thousands of people, we cannot take them all in Finland, but we can make their life easier there, with the aim of their return in their country.
For this, we would have to act to stop the war in Syria. Finland cannot do it alone, but it is one of my main themes to have Finland as one of the players on the international stage, by providing our specific skills and our talent. For example, in the case of Syria, we were mediating the solutions on how to deal with chemical weapons. It did not stop the war, obviously, but it was one step forward, and it is still going on. It was one step.

I have seen that M. Sipilä is agreeing with the National Coalition Party to cut into Finland’s public expenses. Do you know which kind of domains would be affected?

If we look at the budget, the main domains are social and health expenses, education and defence. So it is clear that these are very tough choices. Our line differs from the projects of the National Coalition Party because we think that we should have 10 years to fix the economy, because if we do it right away, it would just crash domestic demand, so it would only be creating a downward spiral. The main elements we can play on are growth, productivity, expenses, debt and taxes and what we do with them… Some taxes need to be lowered, to foster entrepreneurship, and on the other hand we need to increase some to focus the economy differently, for example with environmental taxes, to finance the ones decreasing. So here we differ quite a lot from the NCP because they want to lower the taxes in general.

On the cuts, the first action would be to cut the automatic indexation of certain expenses, such as social benefits, in order to freeze the funding at the level of 2014 for example. This would be a way to control the raise of current public expenses.

What is your party going to do about the fact that at the present rate all Finnish people are going to move around Helsinki, if the present tendency continues?

We do not want that. In the past, we had these government funded programmes to make state companies invest in different parts of the country. It is finished, but the modern way to proceed would be to foster entrepreneurship in regions that have a natural strength: for example, if we think bio economy and renewable energy, forest industry, and the idea to not only turn wood into only paper, but use it also for building and producing plastic and oil, and to use the forest to produce pharmaceuticals, which is totally possible as the research proves, then we would use our green gold, our most abundant natural resource. And the amount of biomass per capita is higher in Finland than any other country in the European Union, and the 4th biggest in the world. So these is our natural strength and thee resources are in the regions. And what we have seen recently is a number of major investments announced in different regions for example by forest industry, and it could be a turning point

Of course, we need that other policies support it. For example, we need to have good education and high level universities everywhere in Finland, and it will foster innovation, it will foster new entrepreneurship. And if you take Lapland for example, there is the possibility to develop mining. Of course, not all mines are a good thing: if you take municipalities where a lot of people are working on tourism, people are looking for pristine nature, and if you open a mine which will stay open for 10 years only and let a huge hole which can be seen from everywhere around, it will harm the touristic activities. But on the other end, there are some places where mining can exist without harming tourism, and can provide activity, jobs and local development down the chain, including for example transportation and logistics. That is promising.
The development of the arctic region is a specific topic as well. Due to the climate change, new opportunities are opening, and we are discussing at the national level if we should build a railway to the Arctic Ocean. If we could make Finland some kind of centre of a logistic network, that would be beneficial for the whole economy, and also for the regions.

About the Arctic region, I don’t mention development based on oil, as I am against it. The big problem we are going to tackle is climate change, and if the natural strength of Finnish economy is in our biomass, it is not in our interest, nor in the climate’s interest to develop oil resources and use. If the arctic region develops, Finland has expertise also in building ships and icebreakers which can function under these climates. That is also the kind of opportunities that exist.

A last word about decentralisation: there is one trend which is developing, digitalisation, which actually supports very well the decentralisation of activities. It allows to work from different parts of the country in a team using teleworking methods, videoconferences, etc… In the same way, 3D printing is something that can lead to a lot of the production being decentralised.

About the trend of urbanisation, there is nothing bad about people wanting to live in the cities. I am from Lapland, and now I am living in Helsinki, and maybe some other time of my life I might move back to Lapland. So during different periods of their lives, people may choose different lifestyles. And that should be also possible. For example when somebody living in a city want to start a family, they might want to live in a quieter place… So people can create their own path, and not be forced to adapt to some kind of model. And the trends such as digitalisation, decentralisation, digital developments, they actually support this way of thinking. So it is not about resources in the regions, it is about technology supporting lifestyles: it allows to live close to nature and still work in a very big company.

What will happen after the election? What kind of alliance can we expect?

The first thing is that we can work with anyone. With the social democrats, we have a history of creating the Finnish model with them and maybe reforming it with them would also be possible. We all hold social matter very dear, we are much attached to entrepreneurship and they have strong links with trade unions, we could be a formidable coalition and we can find agreements on what reforms are needed. We could get then strong support both from companies and from unions for them.

On the other hand, there could be quite a lot of disagreements, for example on how to reform the labour market. In addition, when I talk about the basic income model and ways to find more part-time jobs and minijobs, it is something that the social democrats are traditionally against. I understand that idea of permanent job and security, but we are past this time when most jobs could be like that. If we want to employ people and if we want more jobs, we need to be able to look at alternatives as well. There would be some elements of disagreements with social democrats, but if we can get through them, we would have a formidable coalition.

With the National Coalition Party, we could get policies which are more pro-entrepreneurship. We just must not forget that in order to get jobs, we need to get new activities, and for that you need capital. So if you tax it too high, which the left wishes, you do not get your jobs. On the other hand, the proposal of the leader of the NCP M. Stubb is major tax cuts, bigger cuts on spending to limit the deficit and in addition fund the tax cuts, which is a lot more than what we propose, and I don’t think that it is socially just and along the idea of getting support from a majority for our reforms.
We can achieve a bit different things with the major possible partners.

You seem to have personally a lot in common with the young greens?

The Greens is a young party, and the Centre Party has a long string of environmental thinking, and it comes naturally to us. With the Greens we can find many common issues, very close ideas. There are also some issues on which we can argue, which for me are minor, but have a tendency to heat up the discussions. Often, people from the Greens are academics from the cities, and our voters are generally living in rural communities, so there is a disconnection, with our people considering that the Greens want to dictate the way they can live their lives. For me, it is a worrying phenomenon. If you look at my life, I have been living in both of these environments, and I like to think that we can bridge different types of people, people living in cities and people living in rural communities, entrepreneurs and trade unions. I suppose this is what is meant by being in the Centre party!

And what about the Finns Party? Is it possible to see them in the government?

We need a strong coalition with a common agenda. The previous one with 6 parties, no common agenda, diverging views about Finland’s economic situation and what is possible to achieve, was not a strong coalition. So 2 major parties, maybe one or two other ones. If we can find a common agenda, the Finns Party may join the coalition….

Is there anything you would like to add?

One of the things I am used to talk about is foreign policy. I would just like simply add that, as a country, we need to work to build trust and stability in the region, not to create problems, and be strong on our own. In this period when there is quite a lot of instability and uncertainty, the return of military means to solve conflicts, we need our own strong defence to guarantee our sovereignty and also through our foreign policy try to mediate, try to create connections between Russia and the West. Of course, we are part of the West, we are not between, but we have a tradition of keeping channels open. That is something that is an added value to the West that Finland has this, and we should not get rid of that. So no NATO, even if it is an option which can be kept open.

Categories: Elections, Environment

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