Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who was also that country’s Deputy Prime Minister, was in New Delhi to attend the Fifth Global Conference on Cyber Space. When The Sunday Guardian caught up with him on Thursday, he was yet to meet External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Once a Eurosceptic, Soini, in an interview with The Sunday Guardian, talked about India, UNSC reforms, NSG, European Union, the rising tide of nationalism in Europe against asylum seekers, and China. Excerpts:
Q: What brings you to India and what is India’s importance to Finland and vice-versa?
A: We are in a very good relationship with India and I’m going to meet my counterpart, the Foreign Minister. Also I met Mr Akbar (Minister of State for External Affairs) who visited Finland lately. And we were able to meet again. Then there is this big cyber conference as well. So, it’s two flies with one stone—to meet the Foreign Minister and also take part in the conference tomorrow.
Q: I heard you also met the Prime Minister. How was it? What was your impression of him?
A: Very shortly. It was just meet and greet. We did not have a bilateral, but we said hello to each other and he said that it’s nice to have you here in this conference. There were so many people. I did shake hands and we talked a bit. He is a man of strong will. I watched his speech and (he is) ambitious. He wants to restructure Indian politics. Ambitious, but also, I would imagine, very good with rank and file people, with one to one meetings. And if I have understood it right, there is some local election in a state and campaigning is ongoing. I know (what that means), because I was party leader for 20 years and I stepped down this summer… I think he has done very well if we look at the economical figures…statistics which are about how good a country India is for investments. I don’t know personally, but this is the impression I get.
Mr Akbar and I met two times…It was impressive how much he knew about the history of Finland and of course bilateral things…We don’t have bilateral problems. Investment, commerce, import, export—it (bilateral relationship) has got the direction, but there is still a lot of potential. Of course, one big thing is that the CEO of Nokia is now an Indian man (Rajeev Suri), so that is obviously one link between India and Finland. India is the biggest democracy in the world, so it’s important. And then there was also longstanding background with co-operation with so called independent countries—who were not part of the military alliances. That’s the historical background. Then of course, individual links are important and there have been quite a lot of ministerial visits and of course we hope to have your Prime Minister in Finland. Also, I will invite your Foreign Minister to Finland.
Q: In what other ways can India and Finland enhance their bilateral relations?
A: Of course, there are concrete projects. There can be sustainable energy, education, ICT—those three are the big ones. There can also be investments in sustainable energy, solar energy, renewables… And then of course, it’s important on Finland’s part—as part of the European Union—the Free Trade Agreement between India and the European Union, which is under negotiations (to get concluded)… And also, the international field is very unrestful and there are countries who are not members or parts of the conflicts. It’s important to discuss this big picture. So we need to discuss about Syria and Middle East and Myanmar and talk about a lot of international issues as well.
Q: Finland supports India’s inclusion in NSG and UNSC. Did you talk anything about that?
A: Yes, about this so-called P-5. It’s a little bit outdated in a way, but we must be also realistic, that they are not going to give up their permanent status and veto right. But what may be done in the future is that countries like India, Japan, Brazil, could be more or less permanently with the work of the Security Council (made part of the UNSC), but maybe without the veto right. So, some kind of this approach I see feasible and possible, because of course situation is different now…
Q: What do you think about the opposition to India entering NSG? It’s coming primarily from China. What is Finland’s stand on that?
A: We are open that you should be included, more or less. But it’s not in our power to decide, but we think it could benefit also the small countries that not only those three-five countries could dictate things. That is not feasible in the future…
Q: Since you talked about EU, and also Syria and the Middle East, what future does the EU have and also what about the problem of illegal migration that is taking place?
A: I have a Eurosceptic history, and I am not ashamed of it. But I am also a political realist, so Finland is not leaving the European Union. I don’t support the Finland’s exit from the European Union, but I understand the criticism towards the European system, whose biggest outcome is Brexit. And I think the warning signs were there for decades—(the problem of) relations between an unelected commission and elected national governments. But European Union has also so many stabilising and good sides that it should prevail, but it should develop itself… But for example, I was very heavily against the bailout policy and I still think that it was a bad mistake, a moral hazard. It caused the recession and the rise of Euro-scepticism, because those lessons were not learnt. And now we have more or less overcome that situation and if we don’t make (similar) mistakes again—make each individual country responsible for the errors of other countries, for errors of banks… Then the European Union has a lot to do with security, with trade, with digitalization, sensible economy and free trade and so forth. That is what I fully support. But I used to be a critical and angry young man, now I am only a critical middle aged man. So I see the good points. And in this international world, Europe is stronger together and Europe is needed. We are at the peaks of power in the world and I think the principles of human rights, rule of law, equality between men and women, they are very important. They are precious things. They should be advanced.
Q: So what is the solution to refugee problem, considering you are talking about human rights? A lot of resistance is also coming from inside Europe.
A: I think the Africa is a fatal (important) issue to the European Union. We also have a protective economy, especially when it comes to agriculture. And the fact is, if we don’t give a fair chance to African people to have their products sold in Europe or compete in Europe, then the other option is to take their people. It’s either the products or the people. And I think that the product is the better option. We should help those people whose lives are in danger, who are persecuted in their countries, but there is no way we can take everybody who wants to come to Europe.
Q: Are you talking about Syria as well? Or are you talking about migration from Africa specifically?
A: It depends. There are people, for example, from Syria, who are in life danger (face life threats) and should be granted asylum. But for instance, there are people from Iraq and from some other countries, where people are not in life danger, but are economic migrants. And of course, if you come as an economic migrant, then you don’t get the status of a refugee. That’s a different story then. We don’t say to people that you cannot come. You can come if you have a visa or a working permit. There are hundreds of thousands of people coming. But this asylum crisis was quite severe in many countries. And now, one of the political consequences we see in the German elections. The election results in many European countries have been such that they have not been able to form government anymore. In Holland, it took seven months to create the government. Now we do not know what the situation would be in Germany. But we must be human, we must also understand that there must be a civilised and rule based way to come to Europe. Then we also have the problem of relocation and resettlement of the people. Some of these eastern European countries they don’t take anybody. That of course raises eyebrows: if you are not taking anybody then why should somebody else? There is a growing divide in Europe, which can be troublesome in very near future.
Q: There has been some talk about a North Arctic corridor being formed and Finland becoming a part for China’s One Belt One Road plan. What is Finland’s role in this?
A: We think that connectivity and economy are very important. It was only last week that the first train left Kouvola (in Finland) to go to China. You can now send cargo from Finland to China, via Russia. We think this is important, but we also know that human rights cannot be overlooked. We have always said that human rights and the rule of law are essential. We usually don’t teach other nations. But we say that when the rule of law prevails, when equality between men and women is in good shape, and when there is a rule based system in society and freedom of speech, usually those countries prosper.
Q: But China is prospering without quite a few of these things.
A: Yes, but there are people in jail. We know that countries—I don’t want to point at any country by name—but usually those countries who feel that this (telling them) is some kind of a problem; (or that they) can be annoyed, but we don’t care about that.