Finland’s foreign minister urges Irish to lead EU security debate

Timo Soini says post-Brexit EU can only survive if it prioritises citizens’ concerns

Finland’s foreign minister Timo Soini (third from left) with prime minister Juha Sipilae:  “What has happened in Ukraine has had a negative impact on the security situation in Europe and the Baltic Sea . . .” Photograph: Timo Heikkala/AFP/Getty

Finland’s foreign minister Timo Soini (third from left) with prime minister Juha Sipilae: “What has happened in Ukraine has had a negative impact on the security situation in Europe and the Baltic Sea . . .” Photograph: Timo Heikkala/AFP/Getty

 

EU member states outside Nato should lead the growing European debate over enhanced foreign and security policy, according to Finnish foreign minister Timo Soini.

Ahead of a visit to Dublin, Soini argued the post-Brexit EU could only survive if it prioritised citizens’ concerns: jobs, growth and security.

The recent terrorist attacks across Europe have raised citizens’ awareness of the need for closer European integration on security policy.

“Neither of our countries have had a major attack but my message to the Irish is that it is simply a matter of time,” said Soini, a controversial populist figure at home who is in Dublin on Tuesday to address the Institute for International and European Affairs (IIEA).

For him, agreeing to deeper foreign and security integration “doesn’t mean guns, tanks and planes but border co-operation, refugees and . . . a more efficient, co-ordinated approach to [financial] resources”.

Mindful of opposition to Nato membership in Finland and in Ireland, he said he had “no hidden agenda” in calling for greater co-operation between the EU and the military alliance on peacekeeping and other challenges.

Sanctions against Russia

But given Finland’s 1,340km border with Russia, and unresolved tensions over Crimea and Ukraine, Soini welcomes renewed EU sanctions against Russia and a shared Nordic interest in greater EU security co-operation.

“What has happened in Ukraine has had a negative impact on the security situation in Europe and the Baltic Sea, and that has to be taken seriously,” he said.

For two decades, the bearish Soini was the dominant leader of the True Finns, a populist party mixing left-wing economics and conservative social values.

While party colleagues specialised in xenophobic attacks and racist slurs, Soini restricted himself to political attacks, describing the EU as a “Soviet Union for rich people” and its bailout programmes as “pyramid schemes”.

In the 2015 general election, his party finished second with almost one-fifth of the vote and entered office for the first time. But, in hindsight, Soini admits his newly inflated, heterogeneous parliamentary party was “not an easy horse to ride”.

The ride became particularly bumpy as the Finnish economy slid into the abyss of zero growth and spiking unemployment, prompting painful austerity measures by the coalition headed by Centre Party prime minister Juha Siplä.

Other government decisions – backing for a further Greek bailout and to accept refugees – decimated what was left of Soini’s campaign promises.

Soini feels vindicated by the painful compromises, pointing to growth of 2.5 per cent and a sinking jobless rate. But when he stood down after 20 years as leader, party members took their revenge: electing as his successor Jussi Halla-aho, a controversial figure with a long history of convictions for religious and ethnic incitement.

Price of power

That brought Helsinki’s coalition to the brink and prompted Soini and other moderates to form the breakaway New Alternative, salvaging the government.

Soini’s opponents flag his fate as a model of how to deal with populists: bring them into power and hit them hard with the responsibility of office. But Finland’s foreign minister is sanguine about the price of power.

“Things I talked about in 2009, which the political elite then thought very radical, are now mainstream,” he said, pointing to the growing debate about European integration and greater repatriation of powers to member states.

“Not every wisdom is in Brussels,” he said. “We have to have co-ordinated policies: on security, cutting red tape and the fight against protectionism.”

Finland’s foreign minister doesn’t mince his words on Brexit, calling it a “bad thing” for both Finland and Ireland.

“We lost a vital, good friend in the fight against red tape and protectionism,” he said. “Now we must agree a deal that is good for all. I oppose any kind of revenge mentality.”

But as Brexit talks finally get under way, Soini warns remaining EU governments to be vigilant of how the divorce deal is negotiated on their behalf by the European Commission.

“I think the governments are more practical but the commission feels insulted in a way that the UK left,” he said. “I don’t want to blame or mock the commission, we need its expertise, but the national governments are elected by the people and they are the ones who make the [final] deal.”