President of Finland

Speech made to the Assembly

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Secretary General, Madam President, distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly, ladies and gentlemen.

(The speaker continued in French)

Madam President, allow me to congratulate you on your re-election.

(The speaker continued in English)

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to talk to you today. This year, 2019, is an important year for the Council of Europe, not only because of its history but for what is at stake for the future. Looking back, we celebrate the first 70 years of this Organisation, a cornerstone of the rules-based international order on our continent. The founding idea of that order, established after the horrors of the Second World War, was clear: never again. Never again must Europe fall into a state of war. War always comes with a cost of terrible human suffering. It often leads to serious violations of human rights and, at its worst, even to crimes against humanity. Human rights, democracy and the rule of law, the values the Council of Europe stands for, can only thrive in a state of peace. Maintaining the absence of war must be our highest priority. At the end of the day, peace is the most important contribution we can make to human rights. Everything else comes after that. In 1948, this principle was put at the very beginning of the Statute of the Council of Europe: “the pursuit of peace based upon justice and international co-operation is vital for the preservation of human society and civilisation”.

Ladies and gentlemen, throughout the past seven decades, peace and the rules-based order have been remarkably enduring in Europe. The picture has never been perfect, but for a very long time the overall trend continued to be for the better. The Council of Europe and its convention system has played a key role in that development. It has successfully upheld the core values that define us as Europeans. What worries me, however, is that today we increasingly talk about the success of those values only in the past tense. When looking at the present, let alone the future, we tend to speak with a lot less certainty. In fact, many of the current divisions in Europe seem to be exactly about our own core values. Instead of exporting them as we used to do, we now have to concentrate on defending them at home. On top of our internal difficulties, we are also living in a rapidly changing global environment. We can all see that the direction of change is not only positive. The entire rules-based international order is under growing pressure. We are witnessing a negative turn in the level of commitment to international law. Jointly agreed standards and norms are being challenged.

Secretary General, Madam President, the fate of the rules-based order is not an abstract question, nor is it only an issue of power politics and relations between States. The standards and provisions that order consists of, and the multilateral institution to guard them, have profound implications for our daily lives. If they are weakened, ordinary people – individuals, all of us – will suffer. At its essence, the Council of Europe is a forum for peaceful and constructive dialogue. It is the opposite of the rule of the most powerful. On the contrary, the focus of the Council of Europe is on the rights of individuals. Its convention on human rights and the European Court of Human Rights allows people to seek justice when they feel they have not received it nationally. People really do use that opportunity. There are currently over 57 000 applications pending before the Court. To put those figures in perspective, we should not forget how large a population enjoys this protection today. When Finland joined the Council of Europe 30 years ago, we became its 23rd member. Since then, the number of member States has doubled. We are now 47 member States and 840 million people. The Council, the convention system and the Court are there for every one of them. That is major achievement, but also a big responsibility.

Ladies and gentlemen, I know that the Council of Europe is currently going through a process of reform and acute budgetary issues. Administrative reforms need to be addressed of course, but even more important is to use this opportunity to discuss the future vision and focus of the Organisation. My hope is that the Council of Europe remains the backbone for all its members. The reform process should be built on the unique strengths of the Organisation. They are, in particular: the European Court of Human Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights and the monitoring mechanisms. The commitment to legally binding treaties by member States must not weaken.

If we are to succeed in safeguarding those invaluable fundamentals of the Council of Europe, we cannot close our eyes to the changes in the world in which we live. The signatories to the Statute in 1949 could not have imagined many of the phenomena that surround us, which we take for granted. Additional surprises will surely follow. To remain relevant, the Council of Europe, like any organisation, must be agile and able to address new issues that arise. Living in the present sounds like a commonplace objective, but it is not an easy task.

The need for dynamism in the Council of Europe’s work may come from completely new sources. New technologies, such as artificial intelligence, and climate change, with all its repercussions, can have unforeseen consequences affecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Surprises can also come from issues that are new not in themselves but simply in their volume or nature. In the past few years, migration has been one of the most divisive issues in Europe, within countries as well as between them. I believe that the main responsibility for responding to that challenge lies with the European Union. Unless it can agree common rules for migration, we run the risk of a race to the bottom, with member States competing with each other to be the least attractive destination. That would be bad news for the core values of the Council of Europe.

In the coming years, we may have many difficult discussions ahead of us. The Council of Europe can bring added value to those debates on the political, legal and ethical levels alike – values in plural, to be precise. It has the responsibility to ensure that its principles continue to shape the future of Europe, as they have for the past 70 years.

Yesterday, the Foreign Minister of Finland discussed the priorities of the Finnish presidency of the Committee of Ministers. Let me say a few words about one of the key themes: gender equality and women’s rights. Gender equality has been a central element in Finland’s success story. Our rise from poverty to prosperity would not have been possible without equal opportunities for all. What has worked out well in Finland applies to the world at large. We simply cannot afford to undermine the rights of half the population. Gender equality, in addition to being the right thing to pursue, has an important economic impact and contributes to more sustainable development.

A crucial element of gender equality is the prevention of violence against women. In that respect, the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention is a ground-breaking document in its ambition and scope. It sets clear targets for us all to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. In Finland, we have taken several concrete steps since ratifying the document, but much still needs to be done. Decreasing violence against women in Finland is one of my commitments, as a HeForShe champion for United Nations Women. The persistent high level of violence against women and girls, not only in Finland but globally, is a source of deep concern for me. If we are to build more equal and sustainable societies, that violence must stop.

The Council of Europe is currently in worrisome political difficulties, and faces the acute risk of losing one member. Let me be clear that there are no doubts about the origin of the situation. Finland was among the first countries to condemn the annexation of Crimea publicly. None the less, Russia’s departure from the Council of Europe would be a loss for all sides, and would ultimately be yet another blow for the entire rules-based international order. I trust that the Council of Europe will solve its current crisis, as it has solved all previous ones. Finland will actively support efforts with other member States and stakeholders to find a way forward. The problem cannot be solved with the Parliamentary Assembly. I therefore call for close co-operation between the institutions – the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly – to work for a common, sustainable solution.

Distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly, you are the best experts on your forum. In the dialogue that follows my speech, I would be particularly interested to hear your concrete ideas about a possible way forward.

The PRESIDENT (interpretation)

Thank you very much, President, for your speech, which was of great interest to the members of our Assembly. A large number of colleagues have expressed their desire to put questions to you. I remind members that questions must last only 30 seconds, not more, and that they must ask a question, not make a speech.

The first question is by Mr Vareikis on behalf of the Group of the European People’s Party.

Mr VAREIKIS (Lithuania), spokesperson for the Group of the European People’s Party

Mr President, people of my generation remember that, during the Cold War, Finland was the place where West met East. The Helsinki process was very important in ensuring world peace. We are now talking about a new Cold War. Perhaps it is time for Finland again to start global diplomatic efforts for world peace.

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

Many people now say that we face similar circumstances to those that we saw during the decades of the Cold War. Someone has even said that we face an ice-cold war. Finland appreciates and respects dialogue, and we are trying to enhance that all the time. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet President Xi of China, and I have also met President Trump and President Putin recently. The world order has changed. I mention those three gentlemen, but we others – 7 billion of us – depend on what they think and how they handle their policies. However, those others can also have an influence through dialogue – by telling them what we think, and hoping we return fully to a rules-based order, which has been beneficial for every human being – including in this Parliamentary Assembly, every time you meet.

Mr ÇEVİKÖZ (Turkey), Spokesperson for the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group

Finland is a direct neighbour of Russia, and the two have good neighbourly relations. Do you think you have an opportunity to contribute to the resolution of the current crisis in relations between the Council of Europe and Russia? Soon after Finland leaves the Chair of the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe it will take the presidency of the European Union. In view of this double role, what are your plans to develop co-ordination between the two organisations?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

Yes, we have a big neighbour, and I have already said that we want to have dialogue. Finland also has a dialogue, as I do personally, with the Ukrainian President Poroshenko. There is only one aim for Finland: trying to have a dialogue and thus enhancing the peace, which is most important for all of us.

We also chair the Arctic Council at the moment, so this is a year of three presidencies for Finland. The visit of our Foreign Minister yesterday and my visit today has opened our eyes to the fact that the Council of Europe and the European Union have a lot in common. Like you said, we are a player now, with our presidency of the European Union starting mid-year. This is a good lesson for us, too. Your idea about trying to enhance co-operation between the institutions is a good one that I gladly support.

Lord BALFE (United Kingdom), Spokesperson for the European Conservatives Group

Mr President, you referred to the three presidencies. I notice that Japan, China, India and Korea have had observer status at the Arctic Council since 2013. However, the application of the European Union has been deferred since then, and it appears that the Council of Europe has never applied. Do you see a more tied-in role for the Council of Europe and the European Union at the Arctic Council in future?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

I have said many times that, if we lose the Arctic, we lose the globe. How we protect the Arctic is vital. There are historical and geographical reasons why the Arctic Council has only eight permanent members. We have observers, as you said, and we have noticed a lot of increasing interest in becoming an observer, from the very South to the very North. On the European Union’s observer status, that was tabled a long time ago and has been discussed year after year. We might try it again someday. However, we are all aware that Russia has vetoed it. As long as that is the situation, it is difficult to go further. Let us put it this way: I fully agree with you.

Mr BILDARRATZ (Spain), Spokesperson for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) (interpretation)

Thank you, Mr President. This morning, you addressed two very important concepts.

(The speaker continued in English)

First, preventing radicalisation, and secondly, developing inclusion. What is the role of education in Finland in preventing radicalisation, and what role does universal basic income play in developing inclusion in Finland?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

In Finland we face a problem – specifically with young boys – where they somehow fall out of society. What we have been thinking and doing about that and about the radicalisation of youngsters fits together. The key is that everyone, especially young people, should feel that they are part of society. When people feel a part of society, they behave in a decent way. How do we make youngsters feel that? Education is surely one way, and so are financial solutions to help them.

I have also pointed out the responsibility of each individual. I suddenly remember words from here or there from when I was a youngster, such as somebody saying to me “Don’t do that again” or “Now you’ve made it fine”. Such reactions from people near to us either bring us in or take us out of society. I think everybody will have similar experiences from their youth. It is very odd, actually, how one sentence from a total stranger can still come into our minds after decades. Why? Because it had an impact. We all have an impact on each other.

Mr KOX (Netherlands), Spokesperson for the Group of the Unified European Left

Mr President, I fully support your call to recognise it as the shared responsibility of the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers to overcome our internal problems, which have persisted for too long and have cost this Organisation and especially our citizens too much. We are happy that the Finnish presidency is now leading this process, but what role could you play as head of State of Finland, an honest broker country? More concretely, will you meet President Putin, or have you already met, to make it clear that there is also a shared responsibility on the Russian side to overcome this problem and that it is also in the interests of the Russian side to be part and parcel of this Organisation and to live up to their obligations, in the interests of the citizens of our biggest member State?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

As I said, I have been in discussions with both President Poroshenko and President Putin, including about the Council of Europe and the current situation. I hope to be able to try to enhance that dialogue so as to enable us at the end to find a common solution. Surely it is not in my hands; it is more in your hands. However, I have said today to Madam President and the Secretary General that if it is needed, or if they think it would be useful, I am always there, trying to help.

Ms PASHAYEVA (Azerbaijan), Spokesperson for the Free Democrats Group

Threats to the future of Europe such as populism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are obviously serious concerns. Are combating these negative tendencies and strengthening dialogue between cultures and civilizations among your priorities as the President of Finland heading the Committee of Ministers? My second question relates to refugees. Do you consider the activities of European countries and institutions to be adequate to the increasing refugee problem in Europe, which is the result of conflicts and wars, and what further steps should be taken?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

If we find populism or new kinds of opposition arising in different countries, we cannot just say, “Well, they are wrong.” We also have to look in the mirror. Have we done something wrong that has raised these kinds of feelings? Trying to find the answers is a very difficult task.

I think the situation in many countries is similar to that in Finland. If I compare the situation now with 30 years ago, I see that almost everything is better for ordinary people, but I am not sure that people are more satisfied than they were at the beginning of this era. We should also bear in mind that we human beings are such that we get used to good things, and we also get used to demanding more good things. That makes politics more and more difficult, and maybe it makes populism easier and easier.

One of the new elements we face is social media, but somehow I am optimistic. As we can all see, sometimes it is very aggressive and not necessarily truthful, but I am optimistic. I somehow feel that this trend will pass. People get bored when they keep seeing things that make them think, “Well, that really wasn’t quite true” or “That was throwing the ball too far.” I am a strong believer in democracy. To refer to the Finnish experience again, we have had two periods, the first in the ’70s and the second just 10 years ago, when a new party made big gains, and we called them populists. Both of them, in the ’70s and now, ended up with governmental responsibility and they changed – they vanished also. We have to think carefully about these kinds of elements. If we say to some of these movements, “You’re totally wrong. Get out. Shut your mouth,” that does not work and often only generates more criticism.

On the question of refugees, I would repeat what I said. The migration problem is specific to the European Union area, and the European Union has to take a leading role in how people get into Europe, how we interpret asylum legislation and, if at the end there are people who are not entitled to stay, how we return them together. If different European Union members create their own systems, I am afraid that we will end up with chaos.

Mr FOURNIER (France) (interpretation)

On 10 December last year, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the signature in Paris of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This text is today identified as a common achievement of humanity, but it is not at all certain that it would be accepted today. That is something that was recently said by the German Chancellor, and I very much fear that she was right. I would like to hear your view on this issue and, in particular, on the calling into question of the universal character of human rights that we are alas witnessing today.

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

I have not seen the comments of the German Chancellor. Surely times have changed, and it is indeed possible that if there were a new round or a totally new situation, we should make an agreement like the one that we did. The context might be a bit different, because we are facing different times and different phenomena, but basically, as I have said, I am a strong believer in a rules-based order and, in the end, I think it would very much be possible to end up with an almost similar convention.

Mr HUSEYNOV (Azerbaijan)

Azerbaijani-Finnish trade turnover is steadily growing, and today 13 Finnish companies are registered in the fields of industry, trade, services and construction in Azerbaijan. How do you see the prospects for economic relations between our countries? Secondly, when the OSCE Minsk Group was established in 1992, Finland was chosen as a co-chair in finding a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. You retain your place in the Minsk Group today. What new efforts can we expect from you towards finding a solution to what is a critical problem for Azerbaijan?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

I think Finnish industry will be very happy that you have given me the chance to tell you about everything it can offer. We all face the phenomenon of urbanisation, which is a huge challenge. In Finland, many companies are co-operating on how to solve the problems of urbanisation, such as wastewater, access to clean water and traffic. We need a lot more of this kind of thinking. We know that people tend to move to cities but it is a huge environmental challenge, which we must try to clear up.

Turning to Minsk, Finland fully supports the ongoing process. I understand that there is a bit more optimism at the moment. We hope that there will be a solution; surely Azerbaijan and Armenia are the key players in what will happen.

Mr HOWELL (United Kingdom)

Mr President, I understand exactly what you said about migration but the press also reports that Finland is looking to revise its immigration treaties. Could you tell us where immigration policy in Finland is going?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

I am not aware that Finland is changing its treaties. I am aware, however, that Finland is going through the existing treaties and how they are interpreted. One example is the Dublin Agreement, of which we still hear two different interpretations. We should be clear about what the international agreements and conventions demand and what they do not expect from signatories. This is the work we are doing. I do not believe that there will be any huge change in Finnish migration policy. The problem, however, is that we received quite a lot of young men who were not entitled to refugee status but are not leaving the country. That is a dangerous situation for them and for others. Feeling yourself to be, in a way, empty is not good for a young boy.

Mr TILKI (Hungary)

Mr President, I would like to ask another question about migration. It is a very serious problem and there are a lot of asylum seekers in Finland who pose a security risk, burden the social security system and create pull factors for further migrants. What kind of solution does Finland apply?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

As I said, it is quite a difficult situation. If you have people staying in your country illegally, which is their situation if they do not have refugee status, it is difficult to give any good answer to that question. You cannot treat people, even if they are staying illegally, in a way that does not follow human demands. That is why all the countries in the European Union face the same problem. Thus, it is most important that the European Union should take a leading role so that we do not see country-by-country solutions, which are not always the best ones possible.

Mr KITEV (“The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”)

Given that I come from a Western Balkan region that has been at the centre of the international community’s attention for the past decade in terms of Euro-Atlantic integration, I would like to ask: what is Finland’s position on the enlargement of the European Union? It is a topic that remains high on the agenda of the European institutions. Does Finland support these processes, which are very important, particularly for my country and the wider region?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

Finland has been supportive of enlargement. The last major enlargement wave was decided in 1999 in Helsinki during the Finnish presidency. However, we must also recognise that the European Union has quite a lot of problems at the moment. There is European monetary union and financial problems. The global importance of the European Union has been declining. Why? My explanation is that it is because we have difficulty in agreeing and making compromises to find a clear path. That also damages the possibility of our having a place at the global table, which we should have.

I think the European Union needs to improve a lot. During its presidency I want Finland to take this question back to the table: where is the European spirit? I felt it in the 1990s when Finland joined the European Union, but I am not sure that I feel it in totally the same way today. We should find it again. That would also give rise to the possibility of enlargement. But enlarging something that needs fixing is a kind of paradox.

Earl of DUNDEE (United Kingdom)

Mr President, considering the correct priority given to education for the future of democracy and human rights, and taking into account the excellent standards already set by Finland’s education system – now recognised by the OECD’s PISA measure as the best in Europe – what plans do you have to help improve education systems elsewhere, not least this year in connection with your country’s current chairmanship of the Council of Europe and your imminent chairmanship of the European Union?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

Let me start with a couple of words about our success story. Some say that you have to use a lot of resources for this, but our educational budget is average among those of OECD countries, so this is not achieved by money. Our teachers do have a university education, unlike the position in many other countries, but the basic element here is totally different – it is respect. I am talking about respect for education and respect for teachers. If you have pupils who clearly respect education and the teacher, who has given them knowledge and information, that makes for the best result. You ask how we can export that. We have created a clear combination as to how we can export “the Finnish education” to different countries, and it is being exported quite lot. However, my answer still is that this lies in attitudes. You have to respect what you do, as then you do it well.

Mr Espen Barth EIDE


Mr President, I flew in yesterday from the deep Arctic, from Tromsø and the Arctic Frontiers conference, so I was happy that you mentioned the Arctic. One topic we discussed there was the fact that an institution that was built in better times, the Arctic Council, is working well, to a large degree unaffected by the difficult east-west relations we are seeing elsewhere; credit should also go to the chairmanship. I wonder whether one reason for that is that the Arctic Council has been able to focus on its core purpose and its core issues. Do you think the Council of Europe has a lesson to learn from that experience?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

Yes. We planned to have an Arctic Summit, the first ever where the heads of State could meet, This was going well until something happened and it now seems that we are not able to arrange it. As for the Arctic area, one explanation for what is happening is surely that the surroundings are cool enough not to have hot talks. This is being tested now, because of the environmental element; the melting of the ice is dangerous for the whole globe. However, huge economic interests are involved, and how these eight Arctic countries can handle and combine them is a test now. So far, as you said, we have not seen any major problems, and it seems that the big members – the United States and Russia – are both trying not to bring to that table issues that raise only problems. That is a good attitude to have. As I said, the two elements of the environment and the economic interests may create a new and testing situation.

Ms GURMAI (Hungary)

The priorities of the Finnish presidency include the protection of human rights and gender equality. You also want to pay particular attention to the ratification of the Istanbul Convention – the convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. I am the rapporteur on this, so I would love to know what to do. What can you suggest to those national parliaments that refuse even to negotiate in respect of the convention. Onnea! Good luck!

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

Kiitos. Thank you. That was wonderful Finnish spoken. As I said in my speech, in Finland we have a lot to give thanks for on equality. Finland was the first country in the world to give full political rights to women. This is key to our success story, and I hope that all nations find out the same truth. I also mentioned the HeForShe movement, which is led by United Nations women; and we talk specifically about Africa. We Europeans – this is more for the European Union – must do concrete things together. All the EU countries must do things together, with a clear plan of how to enhance the position of women and girls in Africa. That would help us a lot in the future. My answer has to be that eyes have to be opened to understanding that it is to our benefit if women are strong – we all benefit from that. Sometimes you have to be “selfish” and give possibilities to others in order to help yourself.

Mr JALLOW (Sweden)

We have seen, and continue to witness, the rise of fascism and nationalism in Europe. These people have not only occupied our public space, marching through our streets and intimidating others, but occupied our corridors of power and institutions of policymaking. This is highly relevant in Finland, as in December 2017 a court in Finland banned a neo-Nazi group called the Nordic Resistance Movement. My question is: what do you intend to do, now that you have the presidency of this great institution, to defend our core democratic values from these racist and fascist terrorists who are taking over Europe?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

We can have but just one opinion: racism is totally wrong. That has been written down in our conventions and it is a guideline for every covenant. On Nazism, you mentioned the Finnish experience of having flags. I want to tell you that the police took them off these people quite quickly and they will continue taking them off them. The problem with those movements is how to respond legally to them. In a modern society it is difficult to ban certain groups, especially if they are not legally organised; you do not know who they are. But the position must be very clear: you have to react to everything that is not in accordance with legislation. I am sure that that is the Finnish answer, against both racism and Nazism.

The PRESIDENT (interpretation)

Thank you. The last speaker on my list is Mr Fassino.

Mr FASSINO (Italy) (interpretation)

I will be brief. You were right to emphasise that the Council of Europe is faced with the serious political problem of Russia’s membership. It is a sensitive and vexed issue. We are all aware that if Russia were to leave the Council of Europe, it would change the very nature and identity of the Organisation. Finland has had complex relations with Russia. How does the Finnish chairmanship see the issue and how can it help?

Mr Niinistö, President of Finland

We are helping in every possible way, especially where you see that we can or should do something. In the end, I underline that it is in the hands of the Council of Europe; the Committee of Ministers and the Assembly have to work together to try to find an answer. By all means, however, we will be as helpful as we can be. We will try to help with whatever is needed.

You rightly mention that even the nature of the institution might change. I am worried not only about Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe, which is surely important, but that it is the only institutional link between Europe and Russia. If even that is cut away, how can we continue the dialogue?

The PRESIDENT (interpretation)

That brings to an end the questions that members wish to put to you, President. I thank you very much for your address and for replying to questions.