Finnish Presidency of the Council of the European Union: Engagement with Ambassador of Finland

Apologies have been received from Deputy Cullinane and Senator Coghlan. I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off.

I am glad we are having an engagement on the priorities of the Finnish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. I am delighted that we have with us Her Excellency Ms Raili Lahnalampi, who is the new Ambassador of Finland to Ireland. We had the pleasure of meeting the other day and we had a good, lengthy engagement on different issues. I am glad that will be further expanded on today and that the members will be able to have a discussion with her. I welcome H.E. Ms Lahnalampi, who only arrived here a few weeks ago. I am glad to tell members she is very hard at work and settling in well to her role. Finland currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union and it is its third time to do so. We are very interested to hear from the ambassador today on the Finnish priorities for their six-month programme.

Before we begin, I would like to remind everyone of the rules relating to privilege. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are only entitled thereafter to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence concerned with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I ask Ms Lahnalampi to make her opening statement. I am sure the members of the committee will be glad to have questions and comments for her afterwards. I thank her and welcome her again.

H.E. Ms Raili Lahnalampi

It is a great honour and a personal pleasure to address the committee today and I thank members very much for inviting me. It is an important part of my representation of the Presidency in Ireland. The European Union's future success depends on the support of its people. The Members of the European Parliament are taking care of the oversight of the European Union in Brussels but the national parliaments and their members play a huge role in two respects, in my opinion: first, Deputies and Senators, in the case of Ireland, have an important role in scrutinising the Government's policies before and after the Council sessions; and, second, they are the people who are actually connecting to the people of Ireland in their constituencies to explain to them what is the role of the EU, what the EU is doing and what the EU stands for and does not stand for. They are also the ones who can listen to the people and hear their demands on what the EU should be doing. I understand that Ireland is doing a very avant-garde job with the alliance building work that this committee is doing, and I commend it for that.

A question frequently asked by taxpayers in Finland is, "How much does EU membership cost me?" In the case of Ireland, I understand that, according to the statistics, it is around €36 and, in the case of Finland, it is around €50, which, in my opinion, is not too big a sum of money for the benefits we get from the EU. However, this also has to be explained to the people, given the social media environment in this country and in mine. Support for the EU is very strong in Ireland and in Finland, where over 80% of the people identify themselves as EU citizens. This is a good position in which to be.

The human capital in Europe and the well-functioning Single Market are key to EU success. However, what really makes us the EU are our common values. Finland, as President, wants to strengthen these values and the rule of law during our Presidency.

We also want to make the EU more competitive and socially inclusive, as only in this way can we achieve our third goal, which is to strengthen the EU's position as a global leader in climate action.

Perhaps the most important thing that people demand of leaders here and in other countries is security. Finland, therefore, intends to promote the protection of our citizens comprehensively. Finland also aims to be an active and pragmatic broker. The keywords for our Presidency are: solution-driven, concrete results, sustainability and a rules-based system. Our Presidency slogan, as members may be aware, is "Sustainable Europe, Sustainable Future". However, unlike many other slogans, we intend to put this slogan into practice.

We will all have an exciting time with the new European Parliament, new European Commission, rule of law, human rights, the next multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and of course, there is Brexit, which Ireland knows the best and is perhaps expecting the hardest hits in economic terms. Yesterday we learned the new contingency plan from the Irish Government and how it is preparing for the now even likelier outcome of a no-deal Brexit.

I will say a few words now about the priorities of the Finnish EU Presidency. Finland believes that we need to strengthen our common values and the rule of law if we wish the EU to preserve its founding principles. We should not forget that the European success stories have always been anchored in democratic institutions, human rights and the rule of law. Our values have not been and should never be for sale. Europe is at a crossroads and things are getting tough. We know that our unity makes us stronger and is the key to success but we have difficulties in agreeing on this in practice and how to act together. We know that by acting together and defending our shared values, the EU can tackle the major challenges facing us.

Finland also wishes to make the EU more competitive and socially inclusive. The key elements to achieving this are: the Single Market, ambitious, open and rules-based free trade; well-being and skills as a foundation for inclusive and sustainable growth; and economic union. The special focus should be on youth employment and the inclusion of young people because we cannot afford to lose a generation.

On climate change, the EU has a unique opportunity but also a responsibility to show leadership. Finland therefore wants to strengthen the EU's position as a global leader in climate action. This means many commitments and committing to making the EU carbon-neutral by 2050. Finland in its Presidency will facilitate the process in order to define the key elements of the EU's long-term climate strategy in the European Council by the end of this year. Generating sustainable growth and boosting employment is possible with the help of bioeconomy and circular economy.

A further priority is to protect our citizens comprehensively. To deliver on this is of utmost importance if we wish to maintain the trust of our people in the European institutions. The EU needs to strengthen its security and defence co-operation to protect its citizens. We, as chair, will underline a comprehensive approach to security. We also will be working to countering hybrid and cyber threats, which we believe is also an important topic here in Ireland, given the numerous multinationals that have their headquarters here.

We Finns are known to be quite straightforward people. We mean what we say and sometimes we say what we mean and that is not always wise. Therefore, as we have signed up to climate action in our Presidency programme, we aim to follow this up also in the organising of EU meetings. We intend to organise and arrange these meetings with the smallest possible carbon footprint. In addition, we will offset some of the carbon emissions caused by the air travel to many meetings in Brussels and Helsinki, by not handing out gifts. We are sorry for the individuals who will receive no ties or scarves but it is for the benefit of the Earth.

We will be funding four projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America, that is, in Honduras, Laos, Uganda and Vietnam, to produce clean energy and reduce deforestation. We also will aim to reduce energy consumption by serving only tap water in meetings, serving more vegetarian dishes and cutting down on food waste. Since we here in Dublin are part of the Presidency team, we have made our own list in our residence for the Presidency as to how we can better serve the cause of sustainable development and we encourage other embassies to do the same, and why not the Dáil? Small steps lead to bigger steps but only if all join in. Gabhaim buíochas leis an gcoiste.

I thank the ambassador and call now on Senator Richmond.

I thank the ambassador for a detailed presentation. The work she has been doing in a short time in Dublin will stand as to what we can expect from her in the next three to four years of her time as an ambassador.

There is so much to cover and we have spoken at length in another forum on the challenges of climate change. One area I would like to pick up on with the ambassador is the scheduling for discussions and negotiations on the multiannual financial framework and how the ambassador or the Finnish Presidency feels that it can move this along? How will it deal with the ongoing parallel challenge of how Brexit will feed into EU decisions for the next seven years, which will be very impactful thereafter?

I welcome the ambassador and wish her well in her tenure here. I also welcome her opening statement and we all agree that we are in challenging times and they will remain so for some considerable time.

The challenges that the ambassador has mentioned that we have to face immediately adjacent to us is the Brexit issue, which will have quite an economic impact. Incidentally, this is not mentioned by many people, but there has already been quite a heavy economic impact in the run-up to Brexit by virtue of the doubt, indecision and the lack of confidence that has arisen. As a result, the UK economy, that of our own and the European economy have suffered to some considerable extent already. Like many people, I believe that the longer this indecision continues, the worse things get. One never knows if it is the best or worst scenario. One will always plan for the worst circumstances.

We also need to record our appreciation for the solidarity we have received in our situation from our colleagues throughout the length and breadth of the European Union. It is important for us to realise that it is a European Union-wide issue as well. In the final analysis, we and most people throughout European Union would far prefer if the UK did not leave the European Union but this is their decision. We cannot provide for everything.

The ambassador mentioned security and defence as an issue and we can understand that. We are, of course, a neutral country. We note Finland's geographic location and its neighbours and realise that in the time ahead, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit, security and defence will be a serious issue. While we are a neutral country, we have nonetheless participated in international peacekeeping in the past and are committed to doing what we can do within the confines of our neutrality which started, incidentally, in 1939. We were not a neutral country before that. I believe that the decision to be neutral in those circumstances was the correct one. We could have become a battleground in what we know subsequently happened.

The ambassador made a very interesting point on deforestation. This comes to mind for most of the farming community in Ireland in the context of Mercosur and the proposal to import beef from Latin American countries. While that is fine in principle, if it can only be achieved by way of deforestation thereby creating a larger carbon footprint, it is counter-productive. That is without even taking into account the carbon emissions arising from transportation. Many years ago, a well known Irish politician said that if we were to encourage the retention of the rainforests, the rest of the developed world would have to provide compensation. That is what is going to have to happen eventually. Otherwise, with a world population that is growing and expanding every year, alarmingly so some people would say, there will be a shortage of food. Obviously, people will plan for as much food as possible as quickly as possible and that is, sadly, to the detriment of the environment. In our own way, we have been embarking on a carbon reduction policy albeit we have been criticised for not having done enough before now. However, we are still in plenty of time to achieve the targets we have set. If we achieve those targets, we will be fine. We have to look at that.

I was listening to a programme on radio the other day on which a number of scientists had come together to explain in a way that has not been done before the whole effect of deforestation and carbon emission increases. They went into my favourite subject of the species of trees that are best or worst placed to provide carbon sequestration. It was a very interesting programme and it ran on RTÉ radio. There is a benefit there for us in the whole battle against climate change and it is something we need to take into account. I congratulate the ambassador on her position and I hope for her and for us that it will be of a satisfactory duration.

The Presidency is in good hands. The ambassador's presentation was clear and concise as is the Finnish Presidency agenda on the promotion of common values and the rule of law, making Europe more competitive and socially inclusive, security and the protection of citizens and also on climate change, the need for a sustainable future and a sustainable Europe. The Finnish agenda is a manageable one and I have no doubt Finland will achieve its targets.

I refer to the question of common values, the rule of law and the need to restate the founding principles of the European Union. I have just questioned the Taoiseach in the Dáil on the recent European Council and the filling of the five positions in the institutions. I questioned him on the candidacy of Frans Timmermans and the goings-on within the European People's Party group. It is clear that the candidacy of Mr. Timmermans was opposed by Hungary, Poland and other eastern European member states which raises concerns about the role the Commission and the Union will have generally in enforcing the rule of law. Does Finland envisage any new initiatives on Hungary, Poland and other member states to ensure the founding principles of the European Union remain in place or is it a matter of the ongoing implementation of Article 7 procedures? There is a serious threat to the future of the European Union and it is something of which we must all be conscious. Are there new initiatives to be brought forward by the Presidency or is it simply a question of restating our aims and objectives and proceeding with the mechanisms that have been outlined so far?

I welcome the ambassador and her deputy and other representatives of embassies in Dublin. I hope the six-month Presidency of Finland will be a success. Finland is very experienced in this regard. I look forward to representing the committee's Chairman and members at a COSAC meeting on 21 and 22 July in Helsinki. I hope it will be a happy event but it sounds very serious so far. Ordinary water is very good provided it is properly treated, but it sounds like a case of sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless, we will be prepared to look at the situation. I am sure there is a bit of joy in Helsinki and that it will be a happy occasion. I hope it will not all be doom and gloom albeit we have a great deal to worry about here. That is not my impression of Finland, by the way. I hope the Presidency will be successful as it is an opportunity to highlight the country of Finland among the other member states.

As Deputy Durkan said, we are concerned here about Brexit. I do not know if Finland can use its influence to bring about some change of heart in the United Kingdom and to improve the negotiations. I have not been impressed by the television presentation from behind the doors of the European negotiator from the European Parliament. In the fly-on-the-wall presentation, he was so impressed by the delegation from the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, BIPA, that he mixed it up with a delegation from the House of Commons. That was inaccurate as two or three members of the BIPA delegation in Brussels in December 2017 were from the Houses of the Oireachtas. During the documentary, he informed everyone that the leader of the group, Andrew Rosindell MP, was joint chairman of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and he was there to discuss a report we were preparing on the fall-out from a no-deal Brexit. I thought that was an awful invasion of privacy. Seemingly there were people recording these meetings. I was recorded myself and it was broadcast without permission. It was a unique situation and I have never come across anything like it. I was a Minister of State in the negotiation on the Single European Act but I have never seen such an invasion of privacy. There was also a condescending approach to the United Kingdom's application. I was not impressed by the carry-on of the negotiators or by their attitude as an indication of their treatment of the negotiation. Ireland is dealing with the fallout of this situation but we did not have a very great input into the negotiation from what I could see. It was a two-part series that was broadcast on RTÉ on Monday and Tuesday night. I watched it closely and I was not impressed. I hope the conduct of meetings in future will be more confidential and respectful of negotiations than I saw in that documentary. I say that publicly under parliamentary privilege because I resent what happened.

Does Finland have any particular vision as to how the enlargement process might develop? How does the ambassador see the establishment of the new European Commission progressing? Is she confident everything will run smoothly and on time? I spoke about the following to the ambassador personally but I repeat it for the members of the committee. It is a topic of great importance to us all, namely, trade and the Mercosur deal. It was a topical issue a while ago outside the gates of Leinster House where, the ambassador will be interested to hear, there was a protest by thousands of farmers who came from all over the country to voice their concerns at what is being proposed.

H.E. Ms Raili Lahnalampi

I thank the Chairman and members for their very important and interesting questions. I thank everyone for their kind words and well wishes for our Presidency. We take the Presidency seriously and we need friends like Ireland to support us. We are very happy to receive Ireland's support.

Senator Richmond asked about the timetable and our approach to the multi-annual financial framework, MFF.

My approach has always been one of following the money. When one does that, one knows where things are going. Finland will take this very seriously. We have very ambitious plans for the timetable. Our EU Commissioner, Jutta Urpilainen, has already approached all her colleagues from the member states to establish bilateral meetings. She will explain Finnish priorities at the July General Affairs Council. We hope to have an exchange of views at the October General Affairs Council in order to complete the process as planned. We are in the hands of member states. New demands arise from the new strategic goals and pressures such as those relating to climate change, but we also need to ensure that we continue support for sectors such as agriculture. Finland has said that although climate change and agriculture are related, we hope that every member state's agriculture can still be productive. We aim to have initiatives that would take better care of the climate in the context of agricultural production. We believe it is possible. There are already pilot projects on farms in Finland that are looking at carbon emissions.

Deputy Durkan referred to Brexit, security and climate change. We also regret that the UK is leaving, but it is a democracy. It has voted to leave and we must respect that. We think we are losing a very good partner. At the same time, we hope British minds will come to a resolution. The EU has made up its mind, the 27 members have been very united and that solidarity will continue. Finland understands the Irish problems and will stand with Ireland in the context of its concerns. We hope that once the campaign for the Tory leadership has concluded, the UK will be able to come back and state clearly what it wants to see. Like Ireland, Finland is worried that the possibility of no deal is growing. We are also preparing for that. We all need to prepare as the possibility grows larger.

On security, I do not see such a large difference between Ireland and Finland. As the Deputy noted, we have been in many UN peacekeeping operations together. For example, we have done a great job peacekeeping together in Lebanon. There are new threats, such as hybrid and cyber threats where countries such as Ireland and Finland are at the same level, regardless of whether they are NATO countries. These threats cross borders, and as I noted in my opening statement, hybrid threats, including cyber, are threats for which we need to prepare. That is why Finland is organising a table-top exercise during its Presidency to draw politicians' attention to the fact that foreign states are trying to influence our elections or, through cyberattacks, our tech companies. We need to be aware.

Deputy Durkan asked about climate change, deforestation, afforestation and the role of Mercosur. The Chairman also asked about Mercosur. Every country will have to look at the outcome of the Mercosur negotiations. The negotiations have been ongoing for the past 20 years. Finland is a free trader. We believe that if trade is free and regulated, Finnish companies have a niche and will survive. If trade is not regulated and we do not have a system, and if we have a trade war which is evident in US-China relations, then we will be in a much worse position. We very much support the Commission on the trade agreements. At the same time, we believe that the social aspects, including climate change, must be taken care of in all our trade agreements. The Commission will explain more clearly the climate implications of the Mercosur treaty and what climate protectors have been included in it. I understand that there are certain conditions for countries such as Brazil to take care of the Amazon region, but parliaments and governments must follow up on these.

In the context of deforestation, I attended a very interesting meeting organised by the Irish forestry industry and IBEC. Finland and Ireland have many common interests and much common knowledge which we can share. As ambassador, I will try to promote more co-operation between Finland and Ireland. Finland has been doing afforestation for many years and we have some things that we can share and we can learn from Ireland because we also have problems with turf and peat. We can work together on that.

Deputy Haughey spoke of common values. Finland is trying to do many things in its Presidency to strengthen the rules-based system and common values so that they stand up in practice. We are trying to see how we could strengthen the toolbox of the rule of law in the EU. Many things are in that toolbox which have not been used. We are also trying to strengthen the dialogue and have something more like the OECD peer review which we think is very effective. Peer reviews are not naming and shaming but rather lessons learned. When we know more about other countries' systems, we can learn. We are also looking at how to fight corruption more effectively. The rule of law and the values based system is not only a value, it also affects our economies if the rules based system and rule of law are not in place. A significant issue we are examining relates to whether, when they receive funds from the EU, member states should be more conditional in terms of their compliance with and obeying and following up on all of the agreements that we reached in common. We are also looking at equality. Gender equality, that between men and women, is a key cornerstone for the rule-based system.

Senator Leyden expressed his worry that there may be a not-so-fun meeting in Helsinki. I used to work as a staffer in the Finnish Parliament and I can assure him that even though we have tap water, we have other drinks to offer to every member who attends COSAC.

Perish the thought.

H.E. Ms Raili Lahnalampi

We hope that the sun will be shining. More seriously, I do not want to go into the details on Brexit has been dealt with or the case that the Senator raised. The Finnish Presidency has laid down some general principles of transparency and being open and working with all the members, not sitting in closed-door sessions with only some members present. Finland is known internationally as being a very transparent country. As I said, sometimes we are too straightforward and say what we mean.

On enlargement and its future, Finland's Minister has written an article which we will forward to committee members on this. Finland believes in a merit-based enlargement.

We believe that every candidate country should be looked at on its own merits. However, there are some political difficulties there because while every member state looks at the merits, we interpret them a bit differently. Finland has always been merit-based in its approach. We think enlargement is very important for the EU because it is part of our integration and peace process in eastern European countries as well. As such, we support enlargement, but we are looking at the merits of each and every candidate.

I have already discussed the trade issues, but if there are any other questions I encourage members to ask them.

I refer to the new European Commission. I learned yesterday that Ireland will be nominating its current Commissioner for a second term. I wish him all the best. For the first time, Finland will be putting forward a female Commissioner, Jutta Urpilainen, who is a former Finance Minister and a very capable MP. We hope she will also be awarded a strong and important position in the Commission. As a precedent, we do not want to comment on the timetable at this time, but it would be better to have a new Commission earlier rather than later.

On Her Excellency's last point, the incoming President of the European Commission tweeted today that she would like to have a 50-50 split between men and women in the new Commission. Does Her Excellency think that is a good idea? I do not mean to put her on the spot, but she presumably agrees that there should be more women in the Commission or that there should at least be a better balance.

H.E. Ms Raili Lahnalampi

Finland was one of the first countries in the world to stand for equality, and I see no reason why we would stop now. The Commission is an important player in the EU, and we believe no part of society should be excluded from giving its knowledge to the future of both the Commission and the EU. I do not want to comment directly on the 50-50 split, but Finland has put forward a female Commissioner where it had previously only nominated male Commissioners. It was time we did so. There are very capable women and men in every member state so I am sure we will end up with a balanced, merit-based outcome.

On behalf of myself and the committee, I thank Her Excellency for taking the time to be here today and for engaging with us in the past. We look forward to seeing here again in the future. We wish Finland luck with the Presidency, which will be a great success. We have much work to do together over the next number of months and years, and we look forward to Her Excellency's time in Ireland being very successful.

H.E. Ms Raili Lahnalampi

I thank the Chairman and members for their interesting questions.

Sitting suspended at 2.43 p.m. and resumed at 2.49 p.m.