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Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
We Finns are part of a Nordic family that shares a common history. For Finland, the Nordic countries constitute a framework for social development, a group of close friends, a community of values, a neighbouring market and a source of stability. There have been no wars between the Nordic countries for more than 200 years – which is a rare case, globally speaking.
Today, Finland is more closely integrated with the Nordic region and Europe than ever before. Nordic integration has been a key element in the westernisation of Finland.
Finland has more historical and geographical reasons than any other Nordic country to safeguard its ‘Nordicness’. This applies not only to foreign policy and country branding, but also to cultural and education policy. It is not in our nation’s interests to separate ourselves from the Scandinavian community or identity. Both commercially and in our security, we benefit from being seen as a Nordic country. Our influence in international forums is also greater when we can work together.
The new Finnish Government has hit the ground running. The Nordic dimension is a common thread in the Government Programme. There are some thirty entries in the Government Programme that involve the Nordic region. And for good reason; nearly all of the key objectives of the Government can involve opportunities for deeper Nordic collaboration. Finland and our Nordic neighbours should continue to learn from each other, share experiences and work together. A “globally influential Finland”, as the heading in the Government Programme states, can also be created through Nordic cooperation.
The Government Programme includes a special section on bolstering Nordic cohesion and Baltic cooperation. It states that Finland supports the work of the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers and that the Nordic countries must become “the world’s best integrated area”. Finland wants to facilitate mobility between the Nordic countries and actively work to overcome regulatory and administrative complications that make it more difficult for people in the Nordic countries to study, live and work in another Nordic country, as well as for Nordic entrepreneurs to establish themselves across borders. We also want to pursue practical results in Nordic cooperation, for example in the field of digitalisation, in the cultural sphere, in defence and at the forefront of the fight against climate change.
Other important Nordic points can be found in the Government Programme section “Carbon neutral Finland that protects biodiversity”. It highlights the Nordic climate and energy cooperation as well as the Nordic electricity market. The Government Programme also mentions that digital systems will be developed together with partner countries such as the other Nordic countries and Estonia. The Government is keen to introduce a joint Nordic system for electronic identification. Another objective is to continue Nordic cooperation in asylum and refugee policy. The Government Programme also highlights the importance of a common Nordic brand.
The Government Programme often uses the Nordic region for comparison. Targets are set to achieve a comparatively better Nordic level in the coming years, for example in terms of voter turnout, employment rate, participation in early childhood education and care, and the scale of the creative sector.
The Nordic welfare model is a fundamental starting point in the Government Programme. The model must be further improved to meet the grand challenges of our time. Challenges such as the climate crisis, the sustainable use of natural resources, a competitive economy, and securing a sufficient funding base for tax-financed welfare and education services.
According to a survey carried out just over a year ago, 88% of Finns consider Nordic cooperation to be “important” or “very important”. As many as 74% of Finns consider the cooperation to be increasingly important as a result of international developments in recent years. In all Nordic countries, citizens see common values and similar social models as the most important starting points for cooperation. The proportion of language and culture is also high, but not as high.
According to the survey respondents, the most important Nordic value is the freedom of expression. And of course, although freedom of expression is a European value and a universal human right, it is the Nordic countries that are the leading countries of freedom of expression both historically and today.
Freedom of expression is of course not the only value emphasised in the Nordic countries. Our values also include equality and non-discrimination, and the high level of citizen trust based on them. Trust ties different societal actors together, and trust is also directed at authorities. This builds great social capital – and it does not work in societies where equality is lacking.
Our Nordic values are highly competitive in a global context. The Nordic countries constantly top the charts in quality of life and the functioning of society. The Nordic success story is based, for instance, on well-functioning public services, which have facilitated and supported women’s employment. This was stated again in the Nordic Council of Ministers’ report “Jämställdhetens ekonomi”, published last week. A significant part of our GDP growth comes from gender equality.
If we look at the world, which you all do on a daily basis, we find that these values are not universal. Democracy and freedom of expression are being challenged by fake news, hate speech and alternative facts. Gender equality, which is a central value of our societies and has experienced significant progress over the past century, is now experiencing a real decline. And values such as trust and transparency, worth more than gold for the Nordic societies, risk being replaced by distrust and fear.
Finland’s foreign and security policy is based on human rights. A key objective is to promote equality between women and men and support the fulfilment of human rights. The other Nordic countries are natural and important partners for Finland. Together, we are leading the way in gender equality and non-discrimination across the world.
However, we are not always among like-minded nations – the equality and rights of sexual and gender minorities divide opinions between EU member states. Conservative countries have a negative attitude towards, for example, same-sex marriage and gender diversity. The will of certain member states to airbrush gender terminology away is a sad example of this.
Excellencies, unfortunately, the polarisation of social debate and the increase in hate speech and hate crime in our countries and around the world are serious threats to the preservation of civil peace.
Systematic harassment, threats and targeting endanger freedom of expression, official activities, research and communication. As stated in Finland’s Government Programme, cross-administrative measures are needed to tackle this more effectively than at present. The Finnish Government will also work to promote the systematic monitoring of discrimination and hate crime at both national and international level.
Building a Finland that is equal, accessible and supportive requires investments in different sectors of life and the identification of the special needs of different groups of people.
The Government Programme also outlines measures for reforming the Equality Act with regard to pay transparency and early childhood education and care. These measures include the Government Action Plan for Gender Equality, the equal pay programme and the Action Plan to prevent violence against women. Gender mainstreaming will play a larger role in the Budget process in particular and gender perspective should be taken into account in the major reforms as well.
Equality also has a central role to play in Finland’s international activities. Finland wants the new EU Commission to draft an equality strategy and to consider equality issues in both its Budget and its appointments for management positions. Rights of women and girls are still in the core of development work.
Violence faced by women is a central human rights and equality issue both on national and international level. Finland strongly supports the Council of Europe Convention on combating and preventing violence against women and domestic violence – the so-called Istanbul Convention. We are strongly committed to the objectives of the convention in the Government Programme. We are committed to increasing the number of places in shelters for victims of domestic violence, to amending criminal law to be based on the lack of consent and to establishing the position of an independent Rapporteur on violence against women.
We want the EU to ratify the Istanbul Convention. Advancing this objective is not simple and that is why I appeal to you: Finland’s Presidency gives us a great opportunity to work for this goal.
Agenda 2030 clearly defines the objectives on gender equality, with a focus on the agenda’s fifth goal, which seeks to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” The Government Programme outlines that gender equality should be mainstreamed into all development work.
Finland launched the International Gender Equality Prize (IGEP) to celebrate its centenary in 2017. The prize, which will total 300,000 euros, will be awarded for the second time at the end of this year. Through this prize, Finland aims to encourage discussion on equality and thereby advance the goal of equality globally.
Increasing the quality and access to sexual and reproductive health services is one of the best ways to combat poverty and to improve the health and financial situation of women and children. As we know from our own experience, Finland has a respectable record of accomplishment in these matters, including our system of maternity and child health clinics. Unfortunately, sexual rights in particular are being challenged on international forums. We need to be aware of this and adhere to the principles that we hold dear.
When we try to meet the goals of gender equality, it is also useful to look at the experiences and practices in other countries. I will be very interested to read your reports about this matter. The development of international cooperation and a united front will be necessary to curb online hate speech, combat extremism and improve the conditions of Europe’s Roma.
During Finland’s Presidency, the discussion on combating discrimination will be brought to the political level. It is important to discuss the goals included in the proposed directive on equal treatment, which was presented in 2008. The new Commission could make use of the conclusions of the discussion. Equality features strongly in other parts of the Programme too. For example, the Finnish Presidency will organise a high-level conference on advancing equality of sexual minorities together with the EU Commission in September.
Paula Lehtomäki took office as Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers in March. In Finland, this gives more exposure to Nordic cooperation. She is the first woman to hold this position and the youngest of all time. At my first ministerial meeting in June, ministers prepared with her a new vision for Nordic cooperation until 2030. The goal of our vision is to “make the Nordic region the most sustainable and integrated region in the world”. The vision is to be approved by the Nordic Prime Ministers on Tuesday in Reykjavik. Like Finland’s Government Programme, the vision is based on three areas of the sustainable development goals. The strategic priority areas that will guide the work of the Nordic Council of Ministers are climate, circular economy, innovation, digital integration, mobility, gender equality, culture and welfare. Many of the priorities have direct counterparts in our Government Programme.
I am convinced that the Nordic Countries look very similar if you observe them from a distance. The common Nordic brand is considered very valuable for the Nordic countries. When other countries look for ways to meet the challenges of sustainable development, this common brand translates into a strong demand for Nordic technological and social solutions. The Nordic Council of Ministers has sought to utilise these possibilities. The initiative “Nordic solutions to global challenges” was launched in 2017. Within this initiative, Nordic countries have shared their experiences on the transition to a green economy, sustainable food systems, equality and welfare solutions with the rest of the world. The programme has increased the Nordic countries’ profile and raised awareness of Nordic innovations, products and solutions. Many of you are familiar with the Nordic branding programme “Traces of North,” where embassies can apply for project funding. In addition, a funding scheme for small-scale foreign policy projects will be established this autumn. The Nordic Council of Ministers has innovation houses in the United States and East Asia and the plans for the Dubai Expo 2020 are currently underway.
Your commitment and contribution is very valuable and your work for Finland is very much appreciated. It is important to keep the flag of equality and Nordic cooperation flying in the future too. I challenge you to look at your own work and consider whether there is any room for improvement in this regard. You could, for instance, make contact with local grass-roots organisations, organise a publicity event or bring all Nordic operators together under a new theme. By cooperating with others, Finland will achieve the aims of the Government Programme: Finland will become globally influential and a leading nation in equality.