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19 Jan, 2018 06:39

US losing interest in global decisions – Finland’s ex-PM

The European dream of a pan-continental liberal order is faltering as economic inequality triumphs over common prosperity. Political bickering and resistance to eurocrats is stalling common decisions, and the common foreign policy is failing to find solutions to global problems. Will the EU stay united while trying to take care of itself? We ask former Prime Minister of Finland Esko Aho.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Mr. Aho, thank you very much for being with us today, so much to discuss regarding Europe and what's going on inside the European Union. You were very instrumental in bringing your country to the EU, you’re a pro-EU figure. Lately, we’ve had high-profile voices like that of German Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker who are calling for setting up a eurozone finance ministry to streamlining foreign policy decisions, to have pan-European elections. Is the United States of Europe what you were aiming for when you were bringing your country to the European Union?

Esko Aho: No, I don’t think that that is the right call in these circumstances. I think, we need stronger European Union but it’s very important that the union will analyse very carefully what are those areas where integration is urgently needed. Economic growth potential, creation of the real single market, it’s not yet fully completed, environmental protection and security matters in a broad sense - I think, in these areas the European Union can play a major role and it’s needed. Small countries in Europe need a scale and the European Union can provide that scale. That was the reason why Finland decided to join.

SS: Also, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has said that the European Union needs to become politically stronger in order to become sovereign in decades to come. I mean, sovereign from Russia’s, China’s and U.S. opinions. Do you feel Brussels should have more power than the national capitals of European states? Becoming stronger politically means that as well...

EA: I think, it’s a very critical question everywhere in the world. What is the foundation of strength? Is it political integration, stability, what kind of capacities you need to be influential and politically powerful? I strongly believe that at the end of the day everything depends on your scientific and technological capacity. Those nations, those regions in the world that are able to create best potential for scientific and technological development and innovation are going to be winners today and especially in the future. And that is what, I hope, the European Union is able to do. We have a lot of potential in Europe and Europe should use that potential in a much more efficient way. And then, political integration is secondary. It’s needed but it’s secondary to this, let’s say, foundation to technological and scientific potential. 

SS: I think, that’s a great vision of how Europe should develop, but politicians who are in charge of Europe right now do believe that the political integration is No.1. I mean, it seems so. And everything else comes second or third. So what would you say to those politicians who actually believe that tighter European integration and more Brussels’ control is needed in order for Europe to be stronger on the world map?  

EA: I think, it’s very important to understand that yes, we need political control and coordination in specific areas, not everywhere. It’s very important to understand that the European integration doesn’t compensate for national decisions, in certain areas we need even local decision-making. So this is very important to be understood. We’ve had this kind of feeling in Europe from time to time that constitutional development is the most critical one and there’s this kind of federalist approach still alive. I think, that more and more people in Europe understand that economic growth potential is the most important. We’re worried about those populist movements and they are creating a lot of concern. 

SS: Talk to me about those populist movements. I mean, should they be taken seriously? Is that something that can really shape the future outcome of how politics will work in Europe? Or is it a thing that will pass? 

EA: It’s a good question. I think, these populist movements are an indication that economy is not doing very well or it hasn’t been doing very well…

SS: Also, I feel like those movements score their votes on the anti-Brussels bureaucracy...

EA: Yes, but it’s always so when you’re looking at populism in the world. This is not the first time in history we’re facing populist movements. We’ve seen previously even more dangerous and complicated processes than what we’re experiencing now. And they have always been linked to social and economic development. When times are tough, people are disappointed, you immediately start to ask for simple solutions and you’re easily taking seriously movements that do not have realistic political platforms. And that is what’s going on.  

SS: So you don’t view them as realistic political forces? We have Brexit after all, Marine Le Pen was the second in the French presidential election. I’m not even citing other countries where these parties are becoming third or second in the parliament. That’s something to actually take into consideration…

EA: I think, Brexit is a good example. The reason why the majority of British people wanted to say ‘yes’ to Brexit was because of the circumstances. And if you look at the consequences, the political movements that were in favour of Brexit - what is the role of it now? It’s not that relevant and there’s more and more discussion about what is going to happen at the end of the day. I think that in France this nationalist movement has difficulties in a similar way. So I don’t believe… These populist movements - we have to take them seriously, they are relevant forces, absolutely. But I don’t believe that they are able to create any kind of alternative for Europe.  

SS: I feel like all that we’ve just talked about - the alternative forces, Brexit - it has created a tough consolidation between the pro-EU figures. For instance, Martin Schulz said a European Constitutional Treaty should be proposed to member states and those who refuse to sign it should be forced to leave. Do you feel like this sort of stick-before-carrot approach will help consolidate the European Union?

EA: I don’t believe in that. And I think, Mr. Schulz should ask why his party wasn’t that popular in Germany. That is my personal opinion that Europe should analyse very carefully why we had these difficulties we’ve faced and why Europe actually is now coming out of that crisis as well. If you look at the last 3-4 years the European economies have been growing faster than the U.S. Since 2014 the EU economic growth rate has been higher than in the U.S. And it’s not by coincidence, it’s because of the fact that we’ve made certain reforms. And we have to continue with these reforms not to return back to this constitutional debate that we had in early 2000s which didn’t lead to anything. 

SS: Also, I’ve heard a lot of talk about how EU needs to be reformed, how EU and its current state isn’t working any more, that it has become obsolete, it needs to change...  Do you feel like any real change will take place or it will never go beyond declarations?

EA: It hasn’t always been as good as most excited people are saying. But it has never been as bad as those who are negative say. The European market works, many of the European economies are doing quite well now, we have achieved a lot in Europe. But the fact is that the world is changing and you have to be able to preserve your competitiveness. And Europe has to work for that. And I don’t believe, as I’ve already said, that better constitution is the right call. The fact is that we have to concentrate on these foundations of wealth, prosperity, economic growth and creation of jobs which can lead to positive results.       

SS: Is that a fair assessment if I say that overall European politicians are content with nips and tucks and they just go with a flow?

EA: I think, it’s typical that old legacies play a big role in politics. It’s not only in the European Union, it’s elsewhere as well: in the United States, Russia, Japan, China and in many countries. I have to say that I’m coming from a small country. Sometimes those who have imperial history or great successes in their history don’t fully understand that the world is changing very fast. And we have to be able to change our model of operation or our concept in a way that it’s in line with a context. If you look at the technological development now, the context we’re living in is going to be changed dramatically within 5-10 years. If you don’t wake up, you don’t understand what’s going on and you’re doing wrong conclusions, you cannot survive.

SS: There are other politicians who believe that technological progress doesn’t change the core human nature and that’s why that should be fought in the first place. I’m sorry to bring in again the quote from Sigmar Gabriel, I thought it was hilarious. He actually said  that European voice isn’t heard amongst Russia, China and the US, and that’s because the EU is a vegetarian amongst meat-eaters. I thought it was a very vivid quote. Do you think the EU should become more predatory? What would that look like?

EA: I think, Europe has values that are foundation for the future of Europe as well. I don’t want to say that technological development means that you have to neglect human or culture aspects. But the fact is that technology is moving forward much faster than cultures. Cultural changes are very difficult to be done. And these legacies are a big problem for political decision-makers. And Europe has its own legacies and it has to be able to store these legacies. These legacies are linked to the fact that the European story has been a great story but those factors which were behind the success story of Europe 20, 30, 40 years ago are not that much relevant any more. 

SS: Let’s talk about media’s favourite subject - Donald Trump, the President of the United States. He’s kind of making it harder for the EU to pursue foreign policies, isn’t he?

EA: It's difficult to interpret what the U.S. is now trying to do. I think, that it’s quite clear that the influence of the United States on the world stage is in decline. That’s is my conclusion. Especially if this kind of trend is going to be continued.

SS:  But do you feel the way Donald Trumps is might result in America’s losing its influence over the European Union?

EA: Yes, absolutely. That means that Europe is going to play a bigger role because U.S. is not that much interested in certain issues any more. Let’s look at the environment protection…

SS:  Maybe it’s not that bad after all. Europe can become independent and make its own decisions...

EA: Yeah, this is one aspect and than there's another aspect. If you look at the global environmental protection, for example, if the U.S. is not active and is not playing its role, I think, it's going to be very difficult to save the world. Despite the fact that sometimes it’s easier to make decisions without the United States, the decisions without the U.S. influence are not as influential as they should be. 

SS: On one hand, if you talk about the global issues. But on the other hand, if you talk about foreign or geopolitical issues, maybe you won’t be forced to be involved in wars that you don’t know what you fighting them for? I mean, look at how many wars Europe has been dragged into by the United States that at the end of the day resulted in a disaster for everybody. 

EA: I personally believe that the world should be rule-based and that’s in the interest of everyone that there are as many common rules as possible in trade, in economic collaboration, in security area. Finland was hosting the ESCC - the European Security Collaboration Conference - in 1975. We spoke about confidence-building measures. And I think that is what the world needs - confidence. And confidence is based on common rules. I strongly believe in that. And the U.S. and Europe have a big role to play in that. The U.S. has been a partner in creating that rule-based system. I’m afraid that true efforts and especially language President Trump has been using… I’m not confident that the contribution of the U.S. in that rule-based system is relevant as it used to be.  

SS: Let’s talk about Europe’s worrying trends. I know that according to the latest data the European Union may be facing a demographic crisis in the near future. You’re neighbours with the Baltic states, and their numbers have really dropped drastically and a lot of people are thinking twice before actually getting pregnant. Is admitting refugees going to actually revitalise the aging workforce?

EA: The fundamental issue is that people are living longer. That means that the whole economic system that has been based on the idea that we can survive on our social systems when people were living 10-15 years less than today, I think, it’s going to be a major challenge. The second issue is the supply of labour. The fact is that digitalisation can help us a lot in both. Digitalisation can help us to take care of those millions and millions of citizens who need care and more care. Secondly, It can help us survive with this demographic challenge of labour force. For sure, thirdly, we need immigration. But refugee policies and immigration policies in my opinion should be separated. You cannot solve labour force challenges by using refugee policies. Canada is maybe the best example. Canada has taken a lot of immigrants for a long period of time. And they have tried to balance between immigration and refugee policies. And that balance has worked quite well and the integration of people has succeeded. We have to learn from that experience.     

SS: Your country, Finland, will accept 750 refugees next year. Is that a correct number?

EA: I think that’s a bit higher, but anyway…We have a quota.

SS: I mean, that’s a small number. Do you think that countries should be forced into accepting more refugees if they don’t want to?

EA: I think, we have to take share of our responsibility. That’s needed in the present world. Countries cannot ignore… We have sent refugees to other countries as well from Finland from time to time. I think, it’s very important to understand that people need protection and we have to share our responsibility.

SS: I want to talk to you a little bit about how Russia is perceived in the European Union. I mean we seem to have this love-and-hate relationship lately. In different European elections last year we heard a lot about the supposed Russian involvement. I just really wonder, you tell me, does Europe really see Russia as an almighty country that can decide other countries’ elections over the internet? I mean, do they really think we’re that powerful?

EA: I’m not an expert, I cannot comment on that. But there are a lot of discussions going on. I think, the fundamental problem is that we have to start to understand this interdependence between the Western Europe and Russia. The good example of what’s going on is trade between Russia and the European Union last year. Do you know what happened? Trade increased. EU’s exports to Russia increased more than China’s exports to Russia. And trade figures increased more than 20% last year in spite of sanctions and counter-sanctions. So, there’s an interdependence and we have to be able to find ways and means to cope with each other. I spoke about these confidence-building measures. I think, it’s very important to go back to 1975. Let’s look very carefully at what we decided to do in Helsinki in 1975. I believe that many of these ideas would be and could be extremely relevant in today’s world. And we committed to stand behind those principles. Circumstances were different and the world was different, but those principles are in my opinion quite relevant today.

SS: I’m sure they are and I’m not debating that. But in today’s Russia, the way Russia sees it there are two fundamental problems. First is anti-Russia sanctions and second is NATO enlargement. Let’s talk about the anti-Russia sanctions. I know that your president said that sanctions are hurting Russia and Europe. Do you think they could be damaging enough to reverse them? 

EA: As I told, trade has increased in spite of sanctions.

SS: Imagine, how much it would have increased if sanctions were not in place…

EA: That is the point. We can do much more if there aren’t this kind of political problems. But, as I said, you need confidence-building measures. And it’s not one-sided effort, it’s two-sided effort. You have to go back to why sanctions occurred and you have to solve those problems behind it.  

SS: That is something that is almost unsolvable. What we have right now? Do you think the sanctions are working?

EA: In the present world you can’t say that there are problems that are unsolvable. There have to be solutions. We had solutions even during the Cold War period. Why not have solutions in today’s world? 

SS: The EU and NATO have established a joint center in Finland to fight hybrid threats aiming to destabilise Europe. NATO’s Assistant Secretary General said Russia will be the one object being watched closely. Finland is partially financing that. Do you feel that Russia presents a threat to Finland?

EA: I think we have to be prepared to many threats...

SS: But do you believe that Russia is a threat to Finland?

EA: That’s not relevant to look at where those threats are coming from. I think, that’s relevant that even small countries have to be prepared for this new type of security risks. I understand that almost every country in world is doing that.

SS: But what will these security risks be? I mean if it’s not Russia, then what?

EA: There are many kinds of risks: criminality, traditional security risks are there… For sure, when tension is there, risks are higher. And small countries have to prepare for that. Finland is doing that because of our national interests, at the end of the day we’re doing that on our own.  

SS: I think, Finland has been able to carve out a balance between good relations with Russia and the West. Somehow you’ve just managed to juggle better than other countries. Do you feel like Finland could be mediator between Russia and other European countries? Should others take example of how you guys do it? 

EA: It’s difficult to say to others “please, follow our model”. I’m quite satisfied with how Finland has been able to succeed even in these quite difficult circumstances. And dialogue between Finland and Russia works on the highest level as well and that’s a good thing. I don’t mean that there are no problems between Finland and Russia from time to time as well. But we have been able to solve those problems because of the fact that this dialogue goes on. And we accept the fact that the circumstances are a bit different than they used to be. And, hopefully, we can solve those problems with, let’s say, external environment. But Russia and Finland or Finland and Russia cannot do it alone. 

SS: Mr. Aho, thank you for the interview. I wish you all the best and have the nice rest of your stay.

EA: Thank you.