Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, at the Finnish Ambassadors Conference
I’m honoured to be here today. Thank you for your kind invitation, Mr Soini.
This is the first time, as foreign minister, that I’ve seen so many ambassadors in the same room. I only took office in March, and our own ambassadors conference won’t be until January.
I’m delighted to be here in Finland, the land of Sisu, Sauna and Sibelius. Especially as I’ve heard this is the happiest country in the world, so I’m sure I’ll return to the Netherlands a happier person! We don’t have much to complain about in the Netherlands either, although we do like to moan about football and the weather.
It isn’t difficult to think of things our countries have in common. Everyone knows how highly we value freedom. Both individual freedom, in terms of human dignity and personal development. And collective freedom too, with our focus on free trade. And of course, both our countries are loyal and committed members of the EU.
We are connected not only by values, but by people as well. One Dutchman who made his mark early in Finland’s history was Willem van der Vlugt. A lawyer and a professor at Leiden University, he worked tirelessly for Finnish autonomy from the Russian Czar. And after the First World War, with the League of Nations, to support the young Republic in its claim on the Aland Islands. He wrote extensively, in Dutch and French, about the situation in Finland, including the Mémoire à consulter sur la question finlandaise. I understand he is the only foreigner to be honoured with a portrait in the Finnish Parliament.
Many decades later, and in an entirely different sphere, there was a Finn who greatly influenced the ties between our countries. Timo, I’m sure you are big fan of his: Jari Litmanen. He scored more than a hundred goals for Ajax Amsterdam, contributing to their great success in the 1990s. Under manager Louis van Gaal they won every possible title. Litmanen exemplified how the Dutch see the Finns: reliable, modest and effective.
Reliability, modesty and effectiveness: qualities that are useful – essential even – for diplomats too. They are qualities put into practice by former president Martti Ahtisaari, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve conflicts around the world.
A good diplomat has empathy and respect for others, and is a good listener. But at the same time they are able to stand their ground. To stay true to their values, while being open to other people’s perspectives. A good diplomat knows how to connect with people. And building bridges is exactly what your diplomatic service does so well. It is a testament to the quality of your diplomacy that world leaders like presidents Trump, Putin and Macron feel welcome here. And if world leaders feel at home, (humble) ministers certainly do too.
Good diplomats and patient diplomacy are what the world badly needs right now.
Ladies and gentlemen, you all follow the news and stay abreast of international developments. Developments that are often, on many different levels, disturbing. You read the newspapers. You follow the debate. The world appears to be in disarray. The transatlantic relationship can no longer be taken for granted. No sooner had Europe emerged from the financial-economic crisis (and even now it hasn’t been fully resolved), than the next issue presented itself: the migration crisis. And now, the prospect of a trade war looms on the horizon. As a liberal I believe that, if this happens, there will be no winners, only losers. Furthermore, our planet is facing an ecological crisis. We only have to look at this year’s blistering summer in Europe to see that climate change requires immediate and urgent action.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is clear that Europe needs to step up its efforts in many areas: more effective policy, stronger on human rights, and better cooperation on its common foreign and security policy. At the same time, some people are sceptical about the power Europe has, and the direction it’s heading in.
And yet, I don’t see all these crises as a reason to despair. Quite the opposite. I see it as a chance to show our sisu. To show what we can do.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
1) As early as the 1990s, a certain New York property tycoon complained that Europe was doing too little to take care of its own security, and not spending enough. A message he still repeats today. And on this point I agree with him. European cooperation on defence can and should be expanded and intensified. PESCO is a first step, and the Netherlands is very grateful to Finland for their support on our initiative for military mobility.
Another important step is the creation of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, here in Finland. I visited it this morning and was very impressed. Opened by Jens Stoltenberg and Federica Mogherini, the centre is a splendid initiative that will have an essential role in these times of diffuse and hybrid threats. The Netherlands joined the centre in February. The Netherlands and Finland don’t always have the same views on security issues. But we are both convinced that keeping Europe safe requires constant maintenance and investment.
2) But there’s much more to diplomacy than cooperating on security. Diplomacy is also about engaging in dialogue. Even if you disagree strongly, you have to keep talking. Here in Helsinki you have a long tradition of building bridges between East and West. Meetings between Brezhnev and Ford were followed by summits between Gorbachev and Bush, Yeltsin and Clinton, and, less than two months ago, Putin and Trump.
And back in the 1970s, the Helsinki Accords were the first step in reducing Cold War tensions and fostering cooperation and dialogue on human rights and minorities.
Finland’s president maintains an open and extensive dialogue with the Russian president – this is unique among EU member states. We greatly appreciate this line of communication between a loyal EU member state and Russia, and we acknowledge its significant value. To me it shows that you can achieve a lot through consistency, modesty and reliability.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m a relative newcomer to this fine profession. But in my short time in office so far, one thing has become very clear to me: a good network of missions is essential to good diplomacy. Several years ago, the Netherlands had to make cutbacks, and I was involved in that process, in a different role. It was painful, but necessary. But now that the situation has improved, we are opening missions again, and enhancing our presence around the world.
Because we realise that – especially in today’s world – we have to defend our interests and help solve problems. And to do that, we need to have a presence on the ground, gather and use information, and establish and strengthen ties.
3) Our bedrock relationships are those with the countries that surround us. The countries with which we share a continent. And that means the EU. I’m sure it’s the same for Finland. Clearly, the European project has hit stormy weather. In our country too, there are people who want out. They want us to leave the euro, to leave the European Union even. That would be quite unwise. To me it’s evident that as a small, outward-looking and prosperous trading nation, it is in the interests of the Netherlands – one of the founding members of the Union – to remain firmly within the EU.
What many thought to be unimaginable is now a reality: one of the member states is leaving the Union. And a large one too.
When the UK leaves, we will lose a major economic power, a considerable military force, and a respected diplomatic partner. But above all, the Netherlands and Finland will lose a likeminded ally that shares our views on major issues, like freedom and free trade.
This means we will have to champion these causes with even more energy and persistence. We must reaffirm existing agreements, and stick to them. That’s not Calvinistic stubbornness, or a cheap sales pitch. It is the only way to maintain the European project and justify it to the public. And the only way to gain and strengthen the support of the people who pay for the EU: its citizens.
We cannot take the EU for granted. It was made by people, and it will have to be defended by people. I’m part of the generation that heard stories of the war at the kitchen table, stories that were still fresh in our parents’ minds. European integration led to tangible changes. Suddenly we could buy French cheese, Italian wine and Belgian chocolate.
And yes, I know that the further the integration process goes, the harder it becomes to make meaningful improvements. ‘Abolishing roaming charges’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as ‘achieving peace through unity’.
We live in dynamic, disruptive and transformative times. But when you think about it: don’t we always? It is up to us, the politicians, the diplomats, and above all the citizens of Europe, to push the European project forward. In a critical, but constructive manner.
For a century now our countries have enjoyed firm bonds. We’ve learnt from each other and helped each other out. With our shared values and common outlook, I have every confidence we will remain close partners. When you take over the EU Presidency in the second half of next year, please be assured that you can count on our support. After the achievements of Van der Vlugt, Ahtisaari and Litmanen, we owe it to each other.