President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö’s New Year’s Speech on 1 January 2021
My fellow citizens,
I would like to extend my warmest thanks to all of you. So far, we have coped with the coronavirus pandemic rather well compared to many other countries. Particular thanks go to those who have worked to look after the health of others. This is something we achieved together, however. Finland has again proven its strength and resilience in a tight spot.
The coronavirus has put us all to the test. To highly varying degrees: some have faced irrevocable losses, while others have got off more lightly with only inconvenience in their normal daily lives.
However, this is an experience we all share. No one has remained unaffected.
Our future success also depends on each one of us. Even if we already feel tired, we must find the strength to go on.
The hardship is not over yet. While vaccines have already given us some hope, even in the best case the exceptional conditions will continue for several months. Complying with the restrictions is the only way of getting rid of the restrictions. The vaccines will only help if we get ourselves vaccinated.
Our shared future is built through the actions of each individual, here and now. Also this responsibility we share.
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As we turn our backs to year 2020, we also leave behind the world that preceded it. There will be no going back to the life we had, even when we have overcome the coronavirus pandemic.
The game-changing transformation we are currently going through is difficult to fully understand as of yet. There is something we do know, however. We will face something new.
The pandemic has changed us. The way we live our lives was transformed in a heartbeat. It was bewildering to realise how vulnerable we are – and how far humankind is from being all-powerful. Each one of us has done some serious thinking, to take stock of ourselves and our resilience in an unfamiliar situation. Loneliness, as well, has unfortunately also become a familiar feeling for many of us. On the other hand, the shared hardship has also brought us closer together. It has made us realise how much we depend on each other and taking care of each other. I hope this is something that we will not forget.
However, the transformation is not only about the pandemic. Global warming continues to advance, even faster than was feared. Power relationships in international politics are in turmoil. In monetary economics, millions have become commonplace, and not only billions but also trillions, figures with 12 zeros, crop up more often. At the same time, new transitional technologies ranging from artificial intelligence to quantum computing are making a rapid breakthrough.
Facing a new situation offers us fresh opportunities to do things better and more wisely than before. Facing a new world may also feel frightening. However, trying to hang on to the something old that will not return would be much more dangerous.
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We recall periods in our history when the goal of our shared effort was clear in our minds. We upheld a young democracy and brought Finland on the world map. We defended our country and paid war reparations. We rebuilt the economy and reformed our society. We based our welfare on a foundation of education and culture. We made it clear, through determined efforts, that we are part of the West.
At the previous turning points in our history, the old foundation never disappeared completely. We have been able to find a new direction by building on our strengths. Now, once again, we find ourselves at a new turning point. Each of us must ask ourselves: what defines today our common resolve in facing the new?
On Independence Day, I had an opportunity to talk to General Jaakko Valtanen. He had some wise words to say about the “sense of belonging”. “Is not a society in which the status and rights of an individual citizen are safeguarded worth defending?” he asked.
This sense of belonging, or inclusion, sums up many things in Finland whose value we sometimes overlook ourselves. They are often easier to see from the outside. It is not by accident that Finland is successful in international comparisons. A society like ours is indeed worth defending.
For those who have it, Finnish citizenship is precious capital. Someone who has been granted asylum in Finland is also in a better position than most people in the world. Discussing and even debating the extent of freedoms and rights enjoyed by all those who live in this country is quite justified. Less attention has been paid to the other side of the equation, duties and responsibility. When weighing these issues, the objective should be balancing the equation: without responsibility, the rights cannot be upheld, either. Finnish society is indeed worth taking responsibility of.
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Recent discussions on security lead us to reflect on a certain dilemma of a civilised state, separate of individual cases. In brief, it is about giving protection to those against who we may need to protect others.
This raises difficult further questions. To what extent can everyone’s safety and security be balanced against everyone´s right to security? Or the other way around: can we put the security of entire society at risk by prioritising the rights of individuals?
This is what civilised European states are considering, and so far they have come to a wide variety of different conclusions.
A little over a year ago I was concerned over Finland ending up in a situation where we address security risks less firmly and have laxer legislation than our peer countries. We must constantly stay on top of the security situation, which is what we are now doing by renewing Finland’s terrorism legislation.
Our feeling of security has also been eroded by new digital threats. Whether the target is Parliament or individual citizens’ health data, the word ‘data breach’ is not strong enough to describe the problem. Cyber attacks threaten security; they are attacks against not only individuals but also our entire social order. We must improve our ability to foil them, also at the international level.
It has been said that the authorities look after our security, subject to their liability for acts in office. They certainly do what they can, each one within the framework of the applicable legislation. This framework shall be kept up to date. We should never have to acknowledge that our policies have been naive.
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Another encounter on Independence Day has also stayed with me. The main message of the child group Biolapset from eastern Helsinki was ‘catch the ball’. They were worried about climate change, and not without a good reason. The same concern has been strongly present in the messages I have received from children and young people throughout the year. We must be able to respond to this demand.
At the beginning of the year, we could never have imagined having to avoid close contacts and social interaction, limit our movements and walk around wearing face masks. All these impossibilities are commonplace today – to avoid the danger, we have modified our behaviour in ways that are difficult to believe. Could we learn something from this that would help us combat another danger, the threat of climate change? Because climate change is all about human behaviour.
We also have plenty to learn in other areas of life. While we are not all-powerful, we can still do many things. As we encounter the new situation, we should strive to do things better. This is what the pandemic has led us to. The need to take others into consideration in the way we behave, willingness to help others, and an ability to adapt to exceptional conditions all build a more human society. Let us continue on that road.
I wish you all a happy New Year and God’s blessing.