Finnish president: 'We've overestimated the Lisbon Treaty'

By Daniela Vincenti Mitchener

The EU has overestimated the importance of the Lisbon Treaty and the international community is still wondering who speaks for the European Union on the international stage, Finnish President Tarja Halonen said in an exclusive interview with EurActiv.

Tarja Halonen is president of Finland and was the first woman to assume the position. She has been president for over 10 years and is currently co-chair of the UN's High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability.

As co-chair of the UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, do you think governments are taking the right action to tackle scarcity of raw materials, peak oil and rising populations? Or are we heading for a worst-case scenario?

The panel takes into account a number of factors. I call it a 'modern trinity' of economic, social and environmental priorities.

It means that we welcome economic growth. It's needed. But we also respect planetary boundaries and we want economic growth to also be inclusive and contain social justice. A few words on what I mean by this...

First, as repeatedly said over the years, we should remember planetary boundaries. We have only this planet. We have now scientific evidence that 'business as usual' concerning environmental issues cannot continue. This is the first part.

Second is the problem of 'jobless growth', that is growth which doesn't provide jobs or earnings for the people. It is thus crucial to have 'inclusive growth' so that people can get decent work and also get a share of economic results.

The third element is that with the international community bypassing the Millennium Development Goals they have plainly confessed that social justice is not working. And so, there needs to be a big effort, united effort, to correct this.

In 2015 we will see the results, but already now when we assess the situation, we can say that despite some timid achievements, something is still left to be done, also considering that not all important issues were mentioned in 2000 [when the MDGs were launched].

And that's why now we are trying to find the new paradigm, the new system where we can combine growth, ecology and social justice.
Precisely so: A reflection on going beyond GDP to measure growth started years ago. Do you think European governments are taking the right steps to change the way we go about business in terms of social and economic growth?

We don't say that we don't need GDP. GDP is one good indicator but it's an indicator for production and economic growth.

If you ask people if they are better off now, they might answer 'no'. This is why I spoke about jobs, because people want to earn money by themselves as an employee, as an entrepreneur or as a farmer.

And another aspect is that they also want to get a fair slice of what they earn. These issues have been affected by globalisation and now they are difficult to get a grip on because of the financial and economic crises. The EU has of course quite a challenging task to sort this out, because the European Union is not a state but a strong union of states.

With the Single Market we have tried to create as free and fair domestic markets as possible — the euro-currency is one part of that. But as independent states, without a common budgetary framework, we are trying to find a way to go further.

I think after all our common experiences, we must try to reach more cohesion in this system while still keeping in mind that we are independent.

So I don't comment on what the Commission has done concerning economics, partly because this concerns the government in Finland, but as co-chair of the UN panel, I can have my own opinion.

Personally, I see the need for better governance, which would lead to more sustainable economic growth.
Finland is one of Europe's top-rated economies, like Germany. You recently said that the EU needs a fair system whereby countries like Finland and Germany should stop paying for the fiscal sins of the euro zone's weakest members. What do you mean by 'fair system'?

It means really that we have to stand by what we have agreed. In the euro zone we have a crisis system, and we expect that it be respected. Simple as that.
Yes, but…

No, there's no 'Yes, but'.
But what was agreed is being reviewed – for example the European Semester, the Stability and Growth Pact, solidarity…

Yes, but that should be done together. That should be done according to the regulations: Not just saying that 'This works for me and this doesn't work for me'. In this way we are very puritan. We think that what we have agreed together, we will live by together, and if we want to change it we change it TOGETHER.

It's not a question of whether we need solidarity or not. Yes, we believe in solidarity but I can say that the response to the crisis cannot be that of 'doing the homework' of other countries.

Finland cannot be the good girl of the crisis who is doing the homework for those who have not done it.

All these states which are having difficulties have different stories behind them. We are trying to be constructive, we are constructive, and I am sure even after elections we will be constructive.

But we are very strict on that. We should be prepared in the future to keep to what we have agreed together.
The Finnish people have given huge support to the True Finns party, whose contingent of MPs has risen from five to 39. You said you hoped for a new co-operative government that could deal with unfinished domestic and international policy issues. Would you say your wish is being fulfilled? What are the implications for the EU?

We have 200 seats in the Finnish Parliament, so the True Finns have not achieved a majority. They have been the fastest-growing group and this is also a sign of a trend.

I have said already, much earlier, for instance in my New Year's speech and also in the parliament, that these questions raised by the True Finns and others are serious questions.

Political parties should give answers to these citizens' questions and I am sure that all political parties do not have the same answers.

But I think True Finns voters were just not satisfied with recent political developments in Finland and in the EU. Nonetheless, the majority of Finns have voted in a different way.

This said, I think that now we're forming the government and this new trend should be reflected in the government.

Indeed, they have tried to invite the True Finns to be part of the government. Minister [Jyrki] Katainen, who is the present minister of finance in the conservative party, he has had discussions with different persons, different political groups.

The True Finns have also been in these discussions. The True Finns themselves have said they will not participate in the government because they do not accept the Portugal package. The political parties decided that the parliament will discuss the Portugal package as a separate package from the programme of the new government.

We will see where we go. We have tried to make the threshold lower for the True Finns to take part.

Of course one of the basic features is that they are more critical of the European Union.
You are a social democrat. Do you think the True Finns have filled the vacuum left by a retreating centre-left in Finland or by the wobbly Scandinavian welfare model?

No, the welfare state has not faulted. If we count who has lost the most, it is the one party of former prime minister, the centre party, they have had fraction years ago.

The leaders of the True Finns party belonged to this centre party fraction in the past. So I would say that it goes back to a political history. But I think, not only in the True Finns but among our farmers, they are small in number, but other rural people have been quite critical. There are also some others.

We have had an increase in unemployment at the same time as we have some enterprises wanting to import more labour to the country. So those are the key issues. So there are several reasons why people have been not so happy, not so satisfied.

So I would say this is not one fraction against the EU. It is more that one group said clearly to those that are in power 'enough'. I cannot say if they have a long future or not, but I will we see today the result of history. It is not quite a new event, but it's a new version of it.

When Finns become annoyed they go to vote.
Do you think the Lisbon Treaty has changed the way the EU is regarded and perceived by the international community?

I think we overestimated a bit the importance of the Lisbon Treaty. It was an EU domestic issue. We were so enthusiastic about the Lisbon Treaty because we had worked so long on it.

But I think the outside world has not been surprised with the new EU. It has taken them a little more time to know 'what is what'.

For example we have a new EU president but then we say it is not a state. Then the EU foreign policy service has not really started to act so this would be a good question to ask after two or three years.
Do you think it will take that much time to take off?

It will take some time, yes. But what we need in Europe is that the European Union wants to honestly speak with one voice.

It doesn't always work and of course we still have to sort out the seats in the UN Security Council for different states and the EU as such is not a member.

But I think in the recent political arena the EU has done a serious effort to be seen as 'the EU'. I welcome this very warmly.
If you had one wish for the future of Europe, which would that be?

I would hope that the European Union could take the opportunity to work together with the south, east and west.

So many countries outside the EU have hoped for to find a way to reach sustainable development.

Not only to have a market economy but also have the political will to have ecological and social development: And that's what they think Europe can do!