European Parliamentary Yearbook 1996)

Martti Ahtisaari:

Looking back on over a year of membership of the Euro-pean Union, I can say that our experiences are predominantly positive. That would also be the opinion of the majority of the Finnish people.

The mainly favourable assessment is partly due to the fact that we had realistic expectations. We did not - and do not - count on the EU to solve our problems. We could not blame it for our economic difficulties or high unemployment, nor did we believe that it could solve them.

What was important for the Finns when deciding on EU mem-bership, was to become part of the group of countries with which we share common values and interests. We wanted to be around the table where decisions that directly affect us in any case are made, and where we could promote our interests.

Another explanation for our generally positive attitude towards mem-bership is that experience has proved many of the gloomy warnings unfounded.

Membership has not meant an end to our sovereignty - on the contra-ry, we now have a say in many matters that were previously beyond our reach. The traditional equality between women and men has not been undermined, and our culture is by no means threatened by the EU, just to mention some of the arguments often used against mem-bership before the referendum in October 1994.

As for concrete and measurable results from membership, the one that has directly benefitted all citizens, is the almost 10 % drop in food prices. Another is the noticeable increase in business investments since membership, which shows that general trust in the Finnish economy has strengthened.

It is true that in the countryside there is anxiety over the future. The agricultural income and support system was revamped practically overnight, which has caused problems of adjustment and of prolonged uncertainty. This did not happen unexpectedly, and our hope is that in the longer run structural change will result in a healthy and viable agriculture in Finland.

Many of the fears expressed before accession were related to the impression that the EU is monolithic, remote and dominated by a few.

Against that background, I have been especially encouraged to notice that practically all the regions in Finland have been active in crea-ting their own links with Brussels, especially in the regional and structural policies, as well as with other European regions.

Regional and municipal administrations and organisations have not been sitting back and expecting the central government to arrange everything. They have taken their own initiatives, established their own networks with respective organisations in other member countries, and learned about the possibilities available to them.

I find it of great value that ordinary people, associations and organisations as well as all levels of administration gain their own first-hand information and experiences. That way, prejudices disap-pear and knowledge increases.

Our experience from the first year of membership shows that we can and do influence the decisions of the Union. We have learned much about its internal dynamics and institutions, and about how to act together, defending our own interests and understanding those of the others.

Much depends on ourselves, our skills in presenting arguments and negotiating, as well as on the image that we have as a cooperation partner.

It has been a tremendous challenge for our administration across the board - and for political leaders as well. For much of our administra-tion, the EEA negotiations served as a useful introductory phase to the EU system and legislation, and it was easier to build on that foundation. The accession negotiations and the observer phase conside-rably helped us to understan-d the Union structures. All this contributed to a relatively smooth induction into full membership.

In the Union structure, the arena in which governments operate is the Council of Ministers. We have been in many respects positively surprised at how well member countries work together in a spirit of equality and seek solutions acceptable to all. It may often take time, but the system has some important merits as well.

The Council is sometimes criticized for seeking a consensus even in matters which can be decided by majority vote. But that can also be seen as an asset, if applied correctly. It guarantees everybody's commitment to the decision and strengthens mutual cohesion and trust in the negotiating process. Of course the fact that the decision can then be taken by majority vote is an important part of the dynamics at play.

The Union system is complicated even for those who work with it daily. The complexity is understandable when one takes the va-riety of subject matters, countries and institutions involved into account.

Nevertheless it poses a real problem from the point of view of public understan-ding and control. For any system to enjoy legitimacy it is important that the people can reasonably understand who decides what.

I do hope we can find ways and means of increasing the transparency of the system. In the longer run it will be essential for public acceptance of and support for the EU. This is a challenge that the Intergovernmental Conference has to meet adequately.

It has also been necessary to adapt our own internal procedures in order to deal with EU matters. As for the parliamentary scrutiny of those matters, we are rather proud of the system that we have developed. We think we have been able to strike a good balance between efficient parliamentary control and the political responsibility of the government.

Our parliament is active, demonstrates a high level of expertise and has kept the government tightly accountable in EU matters. On the other hand, the system allows the government to bear its political responsibility and enjoy sufficient margin for manoeuvre when it negotiates with the EU partners.

Turning to the European Parliament, the sixteen Finnish members have by and large been favourably surprised by their possibilities to influence the decision-making there.

The present Finnish MEPs were chosen from among the members of our national parliament. The first direct election for the European Parliament will take place on 20 October, simultaneously with the local-government elections. We hope the turnout will be high.

In the economic field, I mentioned some positive signs since accession. However, unemployment is persistently high, as indeed in most other member countries. It is clear that decisive measures can only be taken at the national level, and that there are no universal remedies.

But I do believe that the European solutions cannot differ too much from each other. It is therefore important to discuss these problems in common, exchange information and experiences and test new ideas together. At the highest level this process goes on in the European Council. I personally have attended all ordinary European Councils since the Corfu Summit in June 1994 when Finland for the first time was invited to take part. Both the President and the Prime Minister of Finland take part in the European Councils in accordance with their respective constitutional responsibilities.

The European Monetary Union has surged to the forefront of daily discussion and has evoked much criticism and scepticism. There are undoubtedly difficulties and risks involved. However, the positive effects of the mere existence of the EMU project should not be underestimated. It is a project which has given the European economy a strong sense of direction and future.

We in Finland have analysed the situation, and concluded that meeting the convergence criteria is in any case an important target for us in order for our economy to heal. Only few question that.

The discussion has mostly concentrated on the development at the EU. Doubts have mainly been raised regarding the timetable as the economic slowdown has made it increasingly difficult for many member countries to meet the convergence criteria. But we should not let those doubts obscure the aim itself: meeting the EMU criteria according to the timetable is in the interest of Finland and the EU as a whole.

In the area of foreign and security policy, Finland has been able to participate fully in Union activities. We are also willing to develop the Union policies and capacities in this area in the future. We have for instance recently adjusted our national legislation to allow us to participate fully in EU/WEU peacekeeping activities.

The north-eastern corner of Europe has been put onto the EU map in a completely new way with the membership of Finland and Sweden. Now the Union also has a 1,300 km border with Russia, with which it is pursuing a productive relationship. The stability of this area is vital for the whole of Europe, and in a longer perspective it offers great economic potential.

The security and defence structures of Europe are being actively debated at the moment. From our point of view, the strongest contri-bution we can make to European security is to pursue a policy which keeps the Baltic Sea area stable. We are convinced that in the present circumstances Finnish military non-alignment and a strong independent defence are the most suitable means of promoting this endeavour.

We have entered a Union which is clearly approaching a major change, notably with the forthcoming enlargement. We think enlargement is important for continued stability in Europe. But it will undoubtedly mean that adjustments have to be made in the internal structures and decision-making proce-dures of the Union. In this respect we attach great importance to the work of the IGC and are for our part ready to make a constructive contribution to that end. However, in the final analysis the readiness of the applicant countries to meet the requirements of membership is a sine qua non of enlargement.

The debate about the future shape of the Union started at full swing almost immediately after our accession. It is particularly demanding for a new member country to participate in this discussion since we are talking about matters of which we have only brief experience.

Finland has tried to approach these issues pragmatically. We try to consider each of them without preconceived ideas or too much dogma-tism.

That is not always easy, since resisting reforms and new ideas seems to be a natural reaction, especially when we have already, within a very short period, undergone all the changes involved in accessi-on, not to speak of an economic crisis and enormous political changes in Europe.

There is easily a feeling of too much too soon. But we have to be realistic. Pressures for change will not go away, even if we do re-sent them. We cannot ignore the agenda for change, we have to have the courage to tackle it.

I have great faith in the Finnish people. The wise sentiment of one of my predecessors is deeply ingrained in the Finnish soul: Wisdom begins with recognition of facts.

It does not mean resignation, it means that decisions have to be based on a cool analysis of facts, not on unfounded fears or hopes.

This combined with sound visions of the future will take Finland safely through her first decade in the European Union.

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