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Speech by Permanent State Secretary Matti Anttonen at the annual meeting of Heads of Mission 2020

Ministry for Foreign Affairs 24.8.2020 9.28 | Published in English on 25.8.2020 at 12.30
Speech

Distinguished Ministers, Heads of Mission, Colleagues

Welcome to the first virtual annual meeting of Heads of Mission. We decided in the spring that the meeting would take place and that organising it virtually would be a sensible choice.  In the midst of the crisis, we need be together and we need common institutions and traditions. That’s why I am sitting here in an almost empty auditorium of the Little Parliament, and you are sitting at your computers.

As usual, the programme lasts for three days. The speeches open to all will be conducted from the auditorium, but the discussions between the Heads of Mission on Skype will take place from another room. This is a little complicated and naturally does not compare to face-to-face meetings, but hopefully it will be a functioning arrangement.

The programme includes speeches by our foreign policy leadership, panel discussions on topical issues and other traditional elements. This time, the inspirational speech won’t relate to sports or missing the gold medal. 

It is my hope that during the group work you will share your thoughts about the changed operating environment and what we can learn about it to succeed even better in the future.  Because the reception and evening events will not take place this year, there will be more time for rest.

Thank you very much to all of you who have planned and organised this meeting. Thank you to the Parliament as well for lending us its premises.

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Writing the opening address was even more difficult than usual this time. Two years ago, I focused on Africa. Last year, on climate change and energy. These issues are as topical today as they were then.

Finland is currently drawing up a strategy on Africa. The European Union already has one. In the EU, Finnish Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen is responsible for the partnership between Africa and the EU. Relations with Africa have a clear direction. A lot remains to be done, for both the representatives of the State, like us, and for companies and non-governmental organisations.

Climate change continues. Heat waves are getting worse. Forest fires are raging from Siberia to California. Glaciers are melting in the Alps and Greenland. Ocean levels are rising.

At the same time, a record number of wind and solar power plants are under construction.  Transport is going electric – in the first part of this year, more new rechargeable cars than diesel-powered cars were registered in Finland. Only last year, three times as many diesel-powered cars were registered compared with rechargeable ones. About 30% of the European Union’s stimulus package adopted in July and the budget for the next seven years will be spent on climate projects.

The era of Finland as a carbon spender will have lasted about 80 years, as by the middle of the next decade we will again become carbon neutral – a situation we last found ourselves in the early 1950s. 

This sends a strong signal that it is possible to combine environmental considerations, well-being, equality and the market economy.  It provides hope and a model for all those who fight climate change. And it’s not a bad thing for our country’s image either.

Forests are essential in achieving carbon neutrality. Without carbon binding of forests and soil, our objective will not be achieved. Finland has a long history of utilising forests and we have a lot of forest-related expertise. Sustainable economic use of forests, increased amount of carbon binding of trees, recreational use of forests open to all and private forest ownership are a globally unique combination that Finland can proudly present to the world.

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In the next three days, you will probably not hear any speeches in which the coronavirus crisis will not come up in some way. After all, the meeting is organised in this manner because of the virus.

We are facing an unprecedented health and economic crisis. For the first time since the Second World War, the world economy is expected to shrink by several percent this year. The World Trade Organization predicts a 13% reduction in the value of world trade compared to last year. Absolute poverty and hunger are on the increase, and pharmaceutical and health care are struggling.

The coronavirus crisis was foreseeable. It was equally predictable that the seriousness of the situation would not be initially understood in most countries. If last autumn someone had presented the state administration’s preparedness exercise that was then outlined as a scenario for what is going to happen this year, I don’t believe that it would have been chosen as the scenario. This cannot happen, right?

I don’t know what image you’ve had most strongly imprinted on your minds this year. For me, the most memorable photo of the year or, more accurately, a video clip was of hundreds of excavators working at a construction site in Wuhan in January-February.  When a hospital for a thousand patients is being constructed in a week, I intuitively realised that something exceptional was happening.

At that point, we were mainly concerned in Finland about whether the disease could be stopped in China and how much it would affect the country’s economic growth. Those estimates and forecasts from February now sound like they were written in some other era. In fact, they are just a little over six months old.

Some have spoken about the end to globalisation. In fact, the pandemic belongs to globalisation, a risk inherent in it. When the world’s most important cities are connected in a network where millions of people travel daily, infectious diseases can also spread much faster and more efficiently than before.

How can we allow movement of people while keeping the risk of spreading the epidemic as low as possible is an equation to which we seek a solution in Finland and elsewhere. At this stage, the measures are largely national, but I believe that the practices will gradually become regional and also global. Absolute protection from diseases and other risks is not possible. 

The mission network should monitor these issues and report on the development and solutions that you consider to be significant for us. For example, Russia has decided that everyone arriving in the country must have a negative test result not older than three days.

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The crisis has demonstrated the preparedness of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and our missions.  In the initial phase, we played a key role in the repatriation of Finnish tourists. Consular services together with all of you and your teams did an enormous job here, and we have received positive feedback about this from both Finland and other EU countries. A large number of citizens from other EU countries returned home on our repatriation flights, and correspondingly, Finnish people were repatriated on flights by other Member States. European cooperation worked in this area. Thank you very much for your contribution. Please also pass on my thank yous to your colleagues at the missions.

I would also like to thank you for the reports you have produced on the development of the situation in your host countries. They have been and they will be necessary, when the Government plans and implements measures to curb the epidemic.

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From the start of the epidemic, maintaining the operational capacity of the mission network and ensuring the safety of our staff were our key objectives. The staff was temporarily withdrawn from some of the missions.  Some colleagues and family members returned to Finland. With the work at the Service Centre for Entry Permits in Kouvola coming to an end, colleagues there have shown their flexibility and alleviated the personnel shortage at Kela, the State Treasury and elsewhere. 

I know that the past spring and summer have been very burdensome for you and your teams. I hope that as many people as possible have had time to go on a holiday, because in many countries the coronavirus situation will become more difficult in the autumn and returning to work as usual is unlikely. For my part, I promise to continue to engage closely with you in small groups and in one-on-one meetings, as we did in the spring.

Our emergency management organisation established in March has outlined the situational picture and anticipated the development and impact of the crisis. In this work, the status reports and analyses from the missions have been essential for our activities. Thank you for these reports. We will continue to need them.

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With the Ministry and the missions largely shifting to remote work led to a huge increase in virtual interaction. After the initial trouble, the systems have worked and the capacity has been sufficient to communicate and work together. In the future, there will be more focus on system security, improved functionality and staff training for the use of virtual tools. It is important for our actual work and the internal dynamics of our work community that we invest in improving the digital competence of our staff.

Thanks to remote work, we were all as close and far away from each other. A virtual meeting with colleagues on another continent is now as natural as a meeting with colleagues in one’s own unit. The administration has created new practices, such as Q&A meetings with colleagues in Finland and the missions abroad on alternate weeks. The lessons of the past six months must not be forgotten even at a time when we finally have a chance to meet as a larger group in Merikasarmi. 

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Our staff is the Ministry’s most important resource. Without competent and motivated public officials, even the finest strategies, programmes, buildings and information systems are meaningless. We, the staff at the Foreign Ministry, our expertise, our network, our enthusiasm and our courage is the strength with which Finland implements its foreign policy.

A career in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, especially working in a Finnish mission abroad, affects our family members in many ways. Spouses find it difficult to maintain their careers, which in turn affects their pension cover. This shortcoming has been addressed with special allowances. Ulpu and I have taken steps to ensure that the special allowance will be increased. There are also plans to change the system to permit increases in the allowance with a less rigid procedure than a legislative amendment. 

Another reform involves the parents of small children who have been concerned with the inadequate day care allowance in many locations. We have taken their concerns to heart, and I believe that the new day care allowance system, which came into force this month, will meet the needs of families with children.

Next week, both the Training Course for Newly Recruited Diplomats (Kavaku) and the Induction Course for Administrative Career Staff (Halku) will begin. This will mark the 43rd Kavaku course since the very first one held fifty years ago.  Many of you have already become acquainted with colleagues from the previous Kavaku course, and I have every reason to believe that this time we have a group of more than twenty skilled professionals together.

Thanks to Kakaku and Halku, we have the most comprehensive and thorough early-stage induction and training system in the central government.  Regrettably, things get less systematic further down the career path.  We are making every effort to have more systematic mid-career training in place. Multi-local work arrangements that require new management tools increase the need for management training.

To get a better picture of modern adult education and, of course, to  learn a thing or two, I participated in the Uudistajat (Reformers) training course organised by Finnish Institute of Public Management Ltd (HAUS) during the winter. I am not entirely sure how extensively a person can reform at this point in life, but four words from Bishop Emeritus Huovinen’s presentation became imprinted in my mind. These were the four virtues of the Ancient Greeks: wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. I have used these as guidelines in different situations, and they have provided me as a manager with much support in the difficulties we have experienced this spring. The list is short enough to remember, and easy to use in all walks of life, not just for professional purposes.

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This year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Finland’s EU membership. I was not personally involved in the negotiation process, but I was able to follow it in Geneva. As the youngest member of the EFTA team, I participated in the process of establishing the institutions required by the European Economic Area, and in the free trade negotiations that EFTA countries held with the former Communist countries.

EEA membership was an important step on our road to the European Union, and it gave us an opportunity to practise in many policy areas involved in the EU membership for a year.

EU membership, which began in early January 1995, was the most important point in Finland’s post-war history. We were finally in a place where we had been wanting to go for decades. For the first time, we had a seat at the tables around which the fate of our continent was decided.

As an avid historian, I am tempted to delve deeper into the history of Finland’s EU integration history, but for lack of time, let me instead recommend “Vapaakaupan tiellä” by Juhana Aunesluoma. This book should be mandatory reading for every Finnish diplomat, considering the importance of free trade and European integration for Finland.

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As we all know, membership of the EU was much more than just a financial arrangement for Finland. The European Union represents a community of values that gave us better opportunities to promote our values and objectives, in Europe and beyond.  Consider, for example, a list of things that the Union will promote in its external relations under its strategic programme for 2019–24 — climate change, Agenda 2030, neighbourhood policy, Africa, values, multilateralism, UN, WTO and strategic partners — and you will see that this list could not be any better suited for Finland.

Although the coordination of EU affairs no longer takes place in our ministry, we cover a wide portfolio of EU affairs: CFSP, enlargement, trade policy, development policy, immigration, many legal issues, to name but a few. It is easy to lose sight of this big picture when responsibilities are so widely divided within our organisation.

Of all the big players, the European Union is the key promoter of free trade. Although there has been little global progress in the liberalisation of trade, the EU has been able to negotiate new free trade agreements at a steady pace, most recently with Vietnam. This agreement came into force at the beginning of this month. EU and its Member States are hands down the largest donor of development aid in the world.

The European Council’s seven-year budget for 2021–27 included an important reform of the financing of external relations. Of the total budget of EUR 98 billion for the programming period, EUR 71 billion will be channelled to a new tool called the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI). It covers all geographical areas and hopefully improves the EU’s ability to flexibly react to global change. Finland can be satisfied with the result, having strongly advocated the new instrument.

In addition, EUR 10 billion will be earmarked for humanitarian aid, EUR 12.5 billion will be allocated to countries undergoing the accession process, and EUR 5 billion will be channelled to the new European Peace Facility. Some may find these figures boring, but I personally think they provide us with better tools for pursuing the goals mentioned above, and, at the same time, they offer opportunities for Finnish companies and other actors. To facilitate follow-up and access to information in Finland, a senior specialist will be recruited to the Finnish Mission in the EU to promote the participation of Finnish actors. Nonetheless, missions in the countries where the Union’s funds are used will also play an important role in keeping us informed of the priorities and solutions required.

Despite the continuous integration of the EU and the gradual spreading of activities to new areas of life, interest towards the EU has not followed suit and, in some respects, interest has declined.

For instance, the number of young Finnish people applying for jobs in the EU institutions has fallen sharply from the early years of membership. For now, the number of Finnish civil servants is quite sufficient, but things will change radically for the worse following the retirement of Finnish citizens who were recruited in the early years of Finland’s membership and advanced in their careers. This trend has to change, because the European Union will continue to be the most important decision-making forum for our foreign policy and many other policy areas. 

We have been able to fill some ambassador positions in the EU External Action Service, which is important for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, but there are no Finns in line organisation management positions at the Brussels headquarters, which is where policy formulation essentially takes place. 

This year’s recruitment success comes from the OSCE, where our colleague Tuula Yrjölä took up the position of Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Centre and Deputy Head of the OSCE Secretariat at the beginning of the year. Since consensus on the reappointments of the Secretary General could not be reached in the summer, Tuula will now serve as the acting Head of the OSCE Secretariat. I wish Tuula the best of success in her interesting and important role.

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For us who work with the EU on a daily basis it is easy to think that the European Union and its importance are familiar and self-evident issues for everyone, and that we no longer need to bring them up. We are ourselves no strangers to this line of thinking; after all, we did shut down the regional network of Europe Information offices.

With less fact-based information available, people tend to resort to other forms of “information” and speculation. A case in point is the simple reduction of the costs and benefits of the EU into cash flows between Brussels and the capital cities of the Member States.

With this method of calculation, the inevitable result is that the EU costs the Member States more than what they receive from the EU. However, this “net contributor logic” fails to take into account the wellbeing and security created by the internal market, trade policy, economic and monetary union, the common foreign and security policy or development policy. We also benefit from the Union in other ways. The improved transport infrastructure in the Baltic states, for instance, provides Finns with better and faster transport routes to central Europe and the Balkans. 

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Earlier I mentioned returning to the Merikasarmi property. The responsible architect told me last week that the refurbishment project is progressing almost on schedule. This means that all regional departments and the Political, Development Policy and External Economic Relations Departments will be able to relocate to the refurbished premises some time in January–February. According to the current plan, the shoreside buildings H, A and B will be completed and move-in ready at the end of next summer. For the first time in decades, we will share a home base.

The majority of workstations in the Merikasarmi property are located in activity-based work environments, as is already the case in Kirkkokatu or Etelä-Esplanadi. I deliberately used the word “home base” because I don’t think we will go back to the old office-based work style. Returning to Merikasarmi means much more than just refurbished facilities. We will make sure that the Ministry and the missions abroad stay in close virtual contact even after we can resume normal travel.

The prolonged epidemic highlights the role of the missions as the ears and eyes of Finland, and as the advocates of our political and economic interests. Our ministers have worked hard to maintain contacts with their colleagues, and practised diplomacy over the telephone and in video conferences. Virtual diplomacy should be embraced more actively among civil servants. Even though travel is limited, political and economic consultations can be carried out virtually.  The alternative – gradual loss of communication – can not be our goal.

In the spring, we may have imagined that the circumstances were exceptional and temporary. Now we know that the circumstances will continue at least until a vaccine can provide protection to at least a significant proportion of the risk groups. How long will it take, I don’t know. What remains certain, however, is that we can not postpone the management of our external relations until then.

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As Heads of Mission, you now have an even greater role to play as the spokespersons for Finland. I hope our upcoming meeting will be inspirational. I wish you wisdom, courage, moderation and justice in your work and in the challenges ahead this year. You will need all of them. 

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Since our previous meeting of heads of mission, the following ambassadors have passed away: Jörn Donner, Kari Karanko, Unto Korhonen, Ulf-Erik Slotte. Let us honour their memory with a moment of silence.

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