Exclusive interview: Erkki Tuomioja, candidate for the Parliament and Minister of Foreign Affair , about social democracy, Russia, the EU and the elections

Photo TuomiojaErkki Tuomioja, Minister of Foreign Affairs and candidate for the coming elections in Helsinki, is a remarkable person in the Finnish landscape: he has not only been a successful politician, Member of the Finnish Parliament at 23,  has occupied ministerial positions regularly since 1999, when the Social Democrats have been in a coalition, but isalso an historian and a writer, and known to be independent-minded. He is very respected in Finland and internationally, and presents here his views on Finland, Russia, the EU and the coming elections.

How did you come into politics?

I come from a very political family, because 3 of my 4 grandparents were at different times members of the Finnish Parliament. My father was also in the government, so politicswas quite familiar, as I came from a socially active milieu. But I am also belonging to the generation of the sixties, and itwas quite natural for the people at the time to become politically active, very much through the influence of international affairs. The Vietnam War was one thing, which had also an effect in Finland, created movements and so on.

Why choose the social democrats?

At the time, that was the mainstream of radicals and leftist students who went in the Social Democratic Party. As far as it was a rational choice, for me, it was by elimination, because none of the other parties at the time corresponded to what I thought was the right thinking. 

And if you would not have chosen politics, what would you have done?

What I am doing also, or what I try to do more precisely is history. I have written quite a few history books, and if possible I will try and do something similar later on. I was also a journalist, I did some TV programmes.

Are there things you would like to do more?

I would like to write more about many historical subjects, I would like to make more research. It is never ending, history is always an open matter…

What would be your topic of choice?

I have written some biographies of people that one can like to learn more about. Also, to mention a specific example, I am interested in the Finnish foreign policy in 1919, after the collapse of imperial Germany: we went over closer to the Brits who established a military base in Koivisto, from where they made torpedo boat attacks against parts of the Red Fleet around Saint Petersburg. And there were never any formal agreement between the governments of UK and Finland to establish such a base, and the Parliaments were never involved. That is an interesting subject, to see how this came about! (for those who are interested, there is a reference in the following conference given by M. Tuomioja “From power politics to interdependence )

Jumping from history into the future, it seems that all social democratic parties in Europe have difficulties in elections. What is your opinion on the future of social democracy?

I feel that there is still a demand for social democracy, for social justice, for universal services, for social benefits, for human rights, and so on. But it is no longer necessarily the social democratic parties which are seen as able or willing to, or interested in delivering this. So I would say that support the social democratic ideals are much more widespread than the support for social democratic parties. 

But this varies from country to country, because the biggest explanation for any election result today in Europe is mostly who has been in the previous government: the governmentsare ousted out, irrespective of what they have been doing. This happened to the Norwegian social-democrats, the Labour Party, although nobody had anything against what they had been doing. And now again, if there were elections in Norway, the social democrats would win handily. In Sweden, it did not quite worked out, because when the right-wing parties were voted out, some of the protest and support wasnot channelled into the left parties, but into the right-wing populism, in Sweden as in France, as in many places.

In Finland, we have been in the government now, so again we seem to be losing, although people would support social democratic ideas and policies in Finland if we were able to deliver. But in Finland, what we are suffering from is the legacy of the previous economic crisis, more than 20 years ago: it was the Lipponen government, these rainbow governments (meaning with almost all parties), which were seen and are still remembered as the ones who developed policies where the dismantling of the Finnish welfare state began, where the income differences increased and so on. We are still paying that price.

So the Blairism, the third way is not a solution?

Actually the British “Third Way” as put forward by Giddens and others was very much about reinventing the wheel, which has been known for decades and known as the Nordic Model. And I do not think there is any quick panacea for re-establishing social democratic parties, but it varies from country to country. Some countries are doing well, but other not so well. But I would say that it is back to basics, so the social democratic parties should be seen as the vehicle for social justice and for resolutely be the opposition to neoliberalism. It has not always been the case, because many social democrats in government have been also part of the neoliberal policies. This has happened in Finland, we have of course New Zealand with the Labour Party which destroyed itself, when New Zealand had a very Nordic welfare state at the time. 

In the domain of foreign affairs, how do you see in the long term the relation between Finland, the EU and Russia?

We are members of the EU, and we have had no problem in agreeing and applying the common policy in the EU to which we have been contributing. At the same time, and the Russians know that, we are not seeking any derogation or special favour, and at the same time we do not want to introduce any bilateral issues between Russia and Finland.This has a general approval and is understood among the general public and in the Parliament in Finland, and also among the other EU countries. Our President’s and the Foreign Minister have had contacts with their Russian counterparts, about which we have always informed our EU partners, and there is no problem with that. And in fact we don’t have any bilateral issues and problems with Russia. 

But obviously the general level of tension and the reactions in the Baltic region are also reflecting on Finland, although not necessarily directly between Russia and Finland because from our point of view and from the Russian point of view, our 1 340 km common frontier is the most stable and peaceful in Europe. And it is certainly the frontier the Russians have least problems with, if you look at frontiers in all other directions they have huge problems, which of course they sometimes may have created themselves. But I don’t think they have an interest and we don’t have an interest in creating any new issue on ourborder. So we have seen that the Russian military build-up has not be directed against Finland in any way, it is part of their policy and presence in the Arctic region, and on the Baltic frontier and in the Gulf of Finland, which is the NATO-Russia frontier. 

How do you see the relation between Russia and the EU in the long term?

Much depends on what happens with Ukraine, and how the Minsk agreements are respected or not. Even in the best case, meaning that the Minsk agreements are respected and implemented by everyone, the issue of the Crimea will be unresolved, that will be an open wound, and the sanctions directed against Crimea annexation will remain in place, even if the others can be removed. And I believe that we will have a long period, five years at least, of tense relations with Russia.

But on the other hand, it does not mean a return necessarily to a global Cold War, because the rest of the world is not going to join it, that is quite clear, and also Russia and the Western Europe have no interest either in creating new difficulties for the cooperation, for example with the Iran files, for which the cooperation in the P5+1 is still working (the P5+1 means US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany  who have worked with Iran to agree on a Joint Plan of Action  to achieve a comprehensive settlement regarding Iran’s nuclear program, for which the support of Russia is key) or with the Middle-East peace process where Russia is a member of the Quartet (United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia) or the fight against terrorism which is as much a security concern for Russia as it is for Europe. And the cooperation in regional organisations, such as the Council of the Baltic Sea States, the Northern Dimension or the Arctic Council, where Russia is an active participant, has been moving normally and nobody, neither Russians or the Americans in the Arctic Council for example, has wanted to introduce new confrontations in these organisations. 

Do you think that there is a temptation in Russia to turn to Asia, with some kind of Eurasian framework?

Well, it is quite clear that they have been cutting themselves from Western Europe in the recent times, but I don’t think that they will find much relief in new friends, such as China for example. The Eurasian Union will never become a rival or a competitor of the European Union, and if you look at it today, countries such as Belorussia, Kazakhstan are highly nervous and apprehensive also about their relation with Russia. Yes, they need Russia for economic reasons, but they don’t want to give Russia any possibility for taking over, that is their great fear.

There are discussions about military cooperation between Sweden and Finland, do you think that there will be one day a treaty of mutual assistance? Is Sweden ready to sign such a treaty?

No, and neither is Finland! But we do not rule that out. It is a very pragmatic cooperation where every step is and has to be beneficial for both parties in terms of both cost efficiency and increasing the credibility of our defence. But every step will be workable without the next step, and  a military pact between the two countries is not a present goal, but it should not be ruled out: five years, ten years from now, it may be possible.

Considering what happens in the European Union, and the evolution of public opinions in different countries, what is your long-term vision for the euro and the European Union?

I think that it will continue as before. Our method of muddling though looks sometimes messy and awful from the outside, and it may be even more awful from the inside, but Europe usually just about manages it and takes some steps forward. So I expect nothing dramatic. The most dramatic thing that can happen is a UK exit, and the Brits, the conservatives, have managed to paint themselves into a corner from which they have big difficulties to get out! And if the exit happens, Scotland will surely be independent very soon, because they want to stay in the European Union. So we may have a very different map of Europe. It is now less likely to happen, but it cannot be ruled out.

Except that, I don’t see any great change, nobody wants a new intergovernmental conference, nobody will try to rewrite the Treaties because nobody thinks that they would be approved in referenda in many countries at the moment. That does not mean that we cannot go forward, on the basis of creative arrangements, as it has been done with the euro crisis. It is a way to agree on something which is outside the treaty framework, which then becomes part of the acquis de factowithout reviewing the Treaties. (The acquis being theaccumulated legislation, legal acts, and court decisions which constitute the body of European Union law).

You are now campaigning. What are the main themes of your campaign?

In my personal campaign and my party campaign, the most important priority is to stop the growing inequalities that we have experienced in the country for the past 20 years. I think that it should be the main issue, because in some cases, like for the health services, we are at a threshold, at a moment when we can save the public service, or it may be finished tomorrow. 

This government has managed to stop the widening of inequalities, even if it has not managed to reverse the trend, it has at least put a stop to what had taken place during the past 20 years. But this is not enough and not satisfactory, for most people. 

What would be the best coalition government for Finland?

Since the Centre Party is going to be in the government in any case, it would be presumably a Centre/Left government with the Social Democrats. We would not have anything against the Left Alliance and the Greens, that in fact could be a majority, but the Centre Party would probably want the Swedish people Party and/or the True Finns in the government. So it would be a very very tricky negotiation process, and of course it depends on us doing well enough in the elections. 

In France, none of the other parties would now accept to govern with the Front National. How is it different in Finland?

The True Finns are not the Front National, they are an old centre populist party, with roots back to the fifties. And the party leader is certainly not a racist, even if he has allowed either through weakness or opportunism a nationalist xenophobic right wing to be entrenched in the party. That is a problem because it is unacceptable to other parties. It remains to be seen: can he actually have enough control over his own people.

Would it be a problem in the field of foreign affairs?

Not a great one, because Soini has been trying to act like a future foreign minister for a long time, stressing that there is only one foreign policy in Finland that he supported, that it is a consensus… Of course, there would be difficulties, but not great ones. 

And on EU matters?

Even on the EU, Soini is a pragmatist or should I say opportunist.  He is critical of the EU, but if you challenge him to say that he wants Finland to opt out from the euro, he does not answer! They may make an issue about reforming it, but Soini definitely wants to become a Minister. The question is: can he control his own troops?



Categories: Elections, International

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  1. Demain, résultat des élections: à quoi s’attendre? | Finland politics
  2. Tomorrow the elections: what can we expect? | Finland politics

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