Speech by Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade Ville Skinnari at the meeting of Finnish heads of mission on 23 august 2021
Excellencies, Distinguished Colleagues, It really feels good to be Finnish right now. Our team may not have brought home gold from the Olympics in Tokyo, but our efforts to tackle the Covid crisis are surely worth a few medals. This is a good opportunity for me to extend my thanks to you for your hard work. This is also a chance to for us to take a look ahead together.
To begin with, I would like to thank you and your teams for your resilience and hard work in difficult circumstances, especially in the missions. The Covid crisis has only reinforced my view that, in exceptional times, foreign missions are invaluable in their ability to gauge the global debate. The work of missions to ensure security of supply, to assist citizens, to support decision-making in Finland and to identify market opportunities for companies is paramount.
I firmly believe that we are doing the right thing in expanding our network of missions during this government term. Out there, our missions are the eyes, ears and working hands of Finnish society. And I know we have high hopes for you. Opening the missions in Doha and Dakar will bring us new opportunities, but also new obligations. The opening of such new missions should always be justified by the benefits they bring for Finnish taxpayers.
By international standards, Finland has done well in managing the pandemic, and we have good reason to be proud of our efforts. This success in crisis management may turn out to be a great opportunity for Finland. But we must also reflect on the difficulties we have faced. For example, silo mentality has hampered our efforts, as shown in unclear communications, especially towards citizens and businesses. The most important lesson from the Covid crisis has been the need for cross-sectoral thinking, action and especially implementation, both in central government and within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A clear focus on solutions must be at the heart of everything we do.
The pandemic has taught us that we still have a lot to learn in prioritising action and managing big issues, such as climate change and digital transformation. Only by learning these skills can we truly stand out globally.
Finland enjoys a vantage point for observing changes in the international landscape. To succeed in a world where only change is permanent, we must have the ability to anticipate and quickly respond to change. We should therefore boldly shift the focus of our reporting to foresight and analysis, and take part in the national debate. In this, our missions play a key role.
As ambassadors, you will know your host country like the back of your hand, but it is just as important for you to know the whole of Finland. To this end, we must become more active in the Finnish regions and consider the needs of Finnish businesses from several different angles, outside the decision-making bubble in Helsinki.
While being mindful of information security, I would encourage you to offer the full potential of the Finnish missions to our businesses and all parts of society. Finland and all those living here are our customers. In this work, you will always have my support.
I would also like to stress that there is no need to fear failure. Paraphrasing Thomas Edison, we have, after all, never failed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We've just found numerous ways that won't work.
The most important thing right now is to get Finland moving. The economy is growing at a record pace, both abroad and at home. Together, our task is to ensure that Finland has its share of this growth and can maintain a sustainable growth trajectory of about 2 per cent until the end of the decade. Only in this way can we safeguard our welfare.
To succeed, we must increase the value of our exports significantly. Getting to the level of our close comparators – from the current 40 per cent to around 60 per cent of gross national income – must become our common goal. In its spring spending limits discussion, the Government set ambitious targets for exports and access to the international markets.
The allocation of the billions of euros from the stimulus package has already started. We need to be at the forefront of providing solutions, especially for the green transition and digital transformation. There is not a moment to waste. We only have a time window of a couple of years to get properly involved in the opportunities opened up by the recovery. With this in mind, we must now build customer-oriented offerings in all directions and remember that our location can also be a strength.
Regional departments and missions have already done an excellent job of mapping out real demand and business opportunities. This is great news, and I would like to extend my thanks to everyone involved in this effort. But the work has only just begun. Opportunities are being created and the market is being realigned right now. It is our job to work with Finnish companies to create results.
For a long time, we have not had as many resources on our frontlines as we have now, including 20 new export promotion professionals around the world. Business Finland has also strengthened its own network of contacts. The reorganised Trade Policy Unit will start next week,Team Finland will be reinforced and the Business to Government platform will be transformed to provide genuine help for exports. In your host countries, the strategic focus of Team Finland planning is being improved. These measures will strengthen our business focus, making it even more customer-oriented.
An understanding of the climate and technology transformation must be at the heart of our Ministry. These developments have great potential for Finland and the opportunity to truly become a globally influential nation.
Despite the challenges, I have sought to set an example through my own actions. In the early summer, I took targeted action aimed at our key markets, and we will continue with this same approach during the autumn. Our position among the first movers has guaranteed new openings everywhere. I would like to express my special thanks to our missions in Kazakhstan, Russia, South Korea and the United States for their excellent preparation and organisation of the visits.
I recently asked the business community to list countries that would be particularly important to visit right now. This list complements the proposals we have already received, helping to plan the autumn programme. I would also urge you all to think about how to make creative use of our high-level presidencies and other positions of trust to advance our financial interests.
For example, the chairmanship of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council beginning this autumn is not only politically important to us, but also an excellent chance to strengthen interest in the opportunities of the northern market. During our chairmanship, my goal is to organise a high-level investment conference focusing on the circular economy and waste management. The same themes can also be found in the Russian chairmanship of the Arctic Council and will provide an opportunity to seek synergies between them.
Other similar opportunities are sure to emerge.
The European Commission's communication published early last spring sets out the direction for EU trade policy in the years to come, and its open strategic autonomy will also determine the direction for our trade policy. Accordingly, trade policy must be open, sustainable and responsible, and assertive, with a strong multilateral, green and digital emphasis.
Finland supports these kinds of priorities and goals. For us, it is important that the EU remains open to trade and investment, while tackling trade-distorting practices. Whether we like it or not, our credibility in an environment characterised by competition between superpowers sometimes requires an ability to use both carrot and stick.
The goals related to green growth and the digital transition, which are central for Finland, are comprehensively addressed in the strategy. We now need to make effective use of this emphasis to keep our knowledge and innovation moving forward with others. We also need to pay special attention to technologies where our financial and security interests intersect. 5G / 6G is the most prominent example of this, but the same is true for many other areas of our excellence. I should also note that the competition between the major powers will only increase the role of strategy and export control.
Strengthening sustainable development in the Union's trade policy is also essential. However, care must be taken to ensure that trade agreements are not unduly burdened by non-trade demands. When we impose conditions on market access in the name of sustainability, we should commit ourselves to supporting our trading partners in meeting these conditions. This will help us promote good regulation globally.
Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that competitiveness cannot be based solely on trade defence instruments or market openings. Genuine strengthening of competitiveness requires mutually reinforcing action in many policy areas, such as industrial and innovation policy. Here, too, a holistic approach that transcends silos is key.
The new trade strategy will provide a good basis for EU trade policy, as long as we ensure that protectionist trends do not become too prevalent. I have some concern that the Member States did not reach a consensus in the Council on the conclusions concerning the strategy. It is important to remember that trade policy cannot solve all problems.
Covid-19 has caused enormous suffering in the poorest countries. The situation of children and young people in particular, along with reduced food security, are very worrying. School closures left more than 370 million children without school meals, often their only source of nutrition. The famine in Ethiopia or Yemen, for example, is very serious.
Next month's UN Food Security Summit will be a watershed in this regard. Personally, I intend to highlight Finland's example as a model country for school meals, and I will be attending the summit as the World Food Programme's special envoy for school meals.
Development cooperation will continue to be under severe pressure, especially due to natural conditions and conflicts. The situation in many countries is very difficult and under our constant monitoring. Last week, we suspended development cooperation in Afghanistan, but our life-saving humanitarian work continues. We have achieved successes, but we have also faced disappointments.
I am proud that, even in the midst of a pandemic, our Government has been able to respond quickly to the needs of development cooperation and humanitarian aid. The forms of support available to Finland's development cooperation and humanitarian aid will continue to be directed at helping civilians only, in other words, ordinary women, men and children.
We are doing this work because we are trying to solve even the toughest problems. As we said in the Government Programme, development policy is part of Finland’s foreign and security policy. Recent events in Afghanistan attest to this fact. The need for humanitarian aid in the world is now greater than ever. We cannot simply blame climate change and a pandemic, which is why the role of the UN and international cooperation is more important than ever. The European Union must also improve its joint efforts.
Finland is known around the world for its unwavering support for women's rights and for our work on education, disability issues and minority rights. Concerning such matters, it takes a great deal of skill to get things done in a situation where even some Western countries are questioning our values. Defending our values, democracy and the rule of law is certainly not an easy task. Still, we have to fight for them.
I welcome the fact that attitudes towards combating climate change are changing rapidly. This work to protect our planet is not only a matter of development, but also a matter of prosperity. Rather than feeling that the fight against climate change has been imposed on them, companies now see it making business sense.
Climate policy is the number one priority for our Government. The rise in global temperatures can only be halted by reducing CO2 emissions to zero – rapidly. There are major pressures for making COP26, held towards the end of the year, a success. Finland will base its contributions to the debate on its strongest areas of expertise.
Our forest knowhow is the best in the world. In energy technology and smart grids, we can provide solutions for the sustainable electrification of emerging and other markets. The Government is determined to replicate our Finnish solutions around the world. Coal is no longer an option.
These matters are also linked to our efforts to promote Finnish expertise in the projects of international organizations and development finance institutions. Despite some improvement, our position in the international crisis management business and in UN procurement is not at the level I would expect as a minister. Individual projects are not enough; we need to learn how to manage the big picture.
We have long recognised the fact that the goals of Agenda 2030 will not be achieved without the involvement of the private sector. We also need more innovative partnerships between public and private operators, such as businesses, investors and NGOs, along with flexible forms of support. What we need now are those skilled and courageous people who can transform these speeches into action.
It is important to continue developing the international financial architecture and to remove structural barriers that make it difficult for developing countries to access financial markets while keeping their own markets underdeveloped. The fight against illicit capital flows and the developing countries' taxation also play a key role. For this, the Taxation for Development programme we launched last year offers some good tools.
In this exceptional year, we have made positive progress in the field of development policy. In 2020, Finland's development cooperation budget increased by about eight per cent on the previous year. The EU Member States’ joint Team Europe initiative has demonstrated its skills, for example in setting up vaccination centres in Africa.
The launch of the EU's new external relations instrument, the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument – Global Europe, is also a great achievement. However, its success will require a marked shift both in the implementation of financing solutions and in the EU's external action as a whole. Finland's recently completed Africa strategy provides a basis not only for our own action but also for genuine cooperation at EU level. Now begins the most important phase, implementation.
I expect a great deal from the new Helsinki Rule of Law Forum, launched in the spring. Now is the time to put our ambitious vision into practice and engage rule of law actors around the world.
The report on development policy, applicable across parliamentary terms, will reinforce the long-term approach of Finnish development cooperation with regard to its principles, values and goals, and sharpen the focus of Finland’s development policy. I am pleased that the report was submitted to Parliament this autumn, but there is much work to be done to reach the common goals.
At the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, we implement Finland's development policy to a high standard. While there is always room for more efficient processes, most important for us is to demonstrate that our actions are delivering results. To this end, we need to learn to prioritise, because we cannot succeed in everything.
We also have a long way to go in raising public awareness. The Partners in Development series of virtual debates held in the spring was a good example of how development cooperation is communicated in a way that people find interesting.
Last but not least, I am pleased to give you a piece of good news: we are currently in the final negotiations with UNICEF on finding a location for two of its innovation centres in Finland. As part of the transfer of its innovation programme from New York to Europe, UNICEF is planning to establish hubs for learning and innovative financing in Finland. This will further strengthen our position as a significant UN centre of expertise.
However, we must be able to package and promote this idea to attract a wide range of stakeholders. I am convinced that the vision of a large UN campus in Finland is very much worth pursuing.
Right now, the world is seeking solutions to the challenges of climate change, sustainable development, conflicts and human rights. Finland is known for its technological and social innovations, and we have the ear of the international community. Many major individual challenges require far-reaching solutions in order to be addressed sustainably. We have a strong interest in influencing these developments across the world, and both the ability and the expertise to create solutions. Bringing together the expertise of our entire society, we will continue to pursue this work as individuals, as teams and as one Ministry for Foreign Affairs for the benefit of Finland, our citizens and the wider world.
Thank you once again to everyone.
I wish you success in your tasks ahead this autumn.