Finnish presidency to emphasise climate change and rule of law

Helsinki’s third term at helm of EU likely to have implications for Poland and Hungary

Finland’s prime minister Antti Rinne:  “The rules-based international order is an existential question for us.” Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq

Finland’s prime minister Antti Rinne: “The rules-based international order is an existential question for us.” Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq

 

When one member state passes on the baton of the EU presidency after its six-month incumbency, its successor brings not so much a new agenda but its distinctive style in managing the common rolling EU agenda that it inherits.

So Finland’s assumption of its third presidency on Monday is being accompanied as usual by a lengthy listing of the big familiar issues already on the table, from migration to Brexit, to championing the digital economy, to completing monetary union, climate change and brokering a deal on the difficult next seven-year budget (the multiannual financial framework) for 2021 to 2027.

But, as a group of Brussels-based journalists in Helsinki to meet prime minister Antti Rinne and senior colleagues from the new Social Democrat coalition government are finding, there is a distinctly more aggressive Finnish repositioning on a couple of key issues that may have languished somewhat under the outgoing Romanian regime – as they did under the Austrians and Bulgarians before them.

The Finns are determined to use their time to strengthen both the EU climate change commitments and the EU’s ability to uphold the rule of law – a clear allusion in both cases to wayward Poland and Hungary.

Minister for European affairs Tytti Tuppurainen spoke of their presidency challenge like that of an orchestra conductor’s: “We don’t write the music, but we can make everyone play together.”

Nordic values

Or that’s the idea. And the key tool in both cases will be the negotiations on the MFF, which Helsinki hopes, most optimistically, to conclude by December.

Finland brings to the MFF strong “Nordic values” on democratic issues and the sensitivity of a net contributor to the proper management of the finances of the EU. They, like others, including Ireland, will be expected to dig deeper into their pockets for an ambitious budget that includes new areas of spending and must take account of the loss of revenue represented by Brexit.

More money will not be forthcoming from net contributors, Rinne warns, unless they can be sure it is properly spent and accounted for under new mechanisms that will allow clawbacks for rule-of-law breaches. The logic is clear – Poland will surely not want to veto a budget package that has a lot of cash to offer it even if it brings new constraints.

Rinne acknowledges that this could be the most difficult challenge of the presidency. “A small member state – such as Finland – sees the rule of law in international politics as a most important principle,” Tuppurainen says.

“Indeed, the rules-based international order is an existential question for us. We need a multilateral rules-based international order in trade for our economic wellbeing. We need a rules-based geopolitical system for our security. It is far from self-evident that these systems are preserved.”

Security focus

Rinne also warns the possibility of EU “global leadership” on climate change may be frustrated by the three member states who blocked agreement last week at the leaders’ summit on a common EU commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Finland, followed in the last few days by the new Social Democratic government in Denmark, has itself signed up to being carbon neutral by 2035 and wants to make significant progress on the issue during its six months at the EU helm. And Rinne makes clear that the issue is not just about the threat to EU economies – it is intrinsic to a broader understanding of security that strikingly informs the Finnish approach.

After all, he says, in a comment that reflects a former neutral Finland’s evolution politically and might jar in Dublin, “the EU is a security organisation for us”. Not least, he argues, because the climate issue relates to the danger that global warming is likely to force millions of Africans to migrate to European shores. Helping to build Africa’s capacity to create jobs must be a key priority, he says.

Rinne is determined the presidency will win over the climate doubters, and Finland sees the MFF discussions as important leverage. That will mean a battle to ensure that a substantial part of the MFF is dedicated to “greening” issues, notably helping Poland, for one, afford a transition from a coal-based economy.

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