Helsingfors: - Receiving the High North Hero award is one of the highlights of my life, says Finland’s former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen. "I have worked with Arctic questions for a long time. Both as a prime minister and in the later years. I much appreciate the fact that it is noticed".
In this interview, Paavo Lipponen, who was Finland’s Prime minister from 1995-2003, analyzes the political situation in the High North. In the political history of Finland, only Kalevi Sorsa has a longer track record as premier. And like Sorsa, Lipponen was also the leader of Finland’s Social Democratic Party for many years.
Here is the full length interview (the interviewer is High North News Editor in Chief Arne O. Holm):
Few, if any, current politicians have longer experience than Paavo Lipponen in the political balancing act that comes with ruling a country placed right between the East and the West.
This week, Paavo Lipponen was meant to attend the High North Dialogue conference in Bodø, Norway, following his being awarded the High North Hero prize at last year’s conference, as the first person ever to receive that award.
However, that will not happen.
Finland 100 years
Major heart surgery has made it temporarily difficult for the 75-year old political giant to move across longer distances.
Thus, High North News meets Lipponen in his hometown Helsinki, where Lipponen is more than happy to analyze the world from a northern point of view.
He wears a discreet pin on his lapel. Finland celebrates 100 years or independence this year, and Lipponen almost apologizes when explaining with careful words that the Finns are not as good as Norwegians are at celebrating their independence.
"I have worked with Finnish colleagues for the past year to create a strategy for connecting the Arctic states through broadband. Finland’s Minister of Communications, Anne Berner, has now taken on this initiative. From what I understand, the effort, which also includes Japan and China, is making significant progress. So far, there have not been much news released about the project, but all indicators point towards it becoming a success. If so, this will have significant importance for European trade with both the USA, Asia and Russia," Paavo Lipponen says.
"In addition, Finland has worked out a new and updated Arctic Strategy where there has been put a particular emphasis on economic development," he adds.
Broadband creates opportunities
"In one of your many inputs to a.o. the EU, I am thinking in particular of "A Strategic Vision for the North – Finland’s Prospects for Economic Growth in the Arctic Region", you map out a potential roadmap for Europe’s north. Since you wrote that memo, the EU has specified its Arctic strategy. Do you recognize any of your thoughts and suggestions in the way the EU approaches the Arctic?"
"The EU Commission has published its view on the Arctic and the EU Parliament has later given its comments. This is a significant step ahead. I had the pleasure of working with the Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker. I believe that the EU in the future will be more active. The environment is, of course, the main concern, though the Commission is also beginning to see the economic opportunities. For instance, a point is made of the need for building better infrastructure in the High North. Infrastructure is crucial for economic growth to continue."
Must involve Russia
"In the EU, there is also an ongoing debate about placing a ban on all oil and gas production in the Arctic. How do you look at that?"
"I believe it was wise of the EU Parliament to reject that proposal. Taking environmental concerns seriously is absolutely legitimate; however, this way of demonstrating is not the way to go. This is important, especially because we have to involve Russia, the biggest country in the Arctic, in the development of a High North policy. The same goes for the relationship with the USA. An example of how we can find solutions together is the agreement about phasing out heavy oil fuel on ships in the Baltic Sea. That is the kind of approach we need. We are able to handle the environmental challenges, but in order to do that, we need broad international cooperation."
Stronger indigenous population
"When I have met you, Paavo Lipponen, you have talked about the "true heroes" of the Arctic. You define them as the reindeer herders, fishermen, farmers and trappers. How do you think they are involved in the international game about the Arctic?"
"Since I am on sick leave for the time being, I have a lot of time to watch TV, especially Norwegian TV programs on Finnish TV. I also follow the Sami news. In Finland’s program for the next two years of the Arctic Council, the indigenous population is one of the areas of priority. There is a lot more we can do to secure indigenous people’s rights, especially in Finland. I think it is fantastic to see how young Sami, be they from Norway, Sweden or Finland, being involved in the decision-making process. I believe that we can expect a more active participation from the indigenous people."
"And you welcome that?"
"Absolutely. I also want the indigenous people of Finland to be better represented on a national level, not just through their own decision-making bodies. They should have a seat in Helsinki, too."
Does not know what Trump wants
"In just a short time, Finland takes over the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. What expectations do you have to the two years when your own country shall lead the Arctic Council?"
"That is a major challenge. The government has worked intensely on preparing this even while the USA was chairing the Arctic Council. We have ambitious goals, but the most important thing is to continue and secure the good cooperation that has existed in the Council and in the whole Arctic region. The same applies for the Arctic Economic Council, where Finland is also taking over the Chairmanship."
"We want to strengthen the Arctic Council as an institution, and hopefully we will have a more pragmatic approach to reaching agreement, such as in the example with heavy oil fuel and Search and Rescue, on which we have reached agreements. We are also working on organizing an Arctic summit during this period, a summit underlining the importance of keeping the Arctic a low-tension area. Nevertheless, there will of course be different priorities for the different countries. We still do not know what policy the Trump administration will have, and we also see Russia becoming increasingly active in the north. We also need the Nordic cooperation. In reality, it is all about continuing good cooperation in the North."
Finland is an honest broker
"Since the last time we met, it was during St. Petersburg’s international economic forum in June last year, the relationship between the East and the West appears to have grown even cooler. In addition there is, as you mention, Donald Trump as the new president of the USA. How do you view the relationship between the East and the West?"
"From a Finnish point of view, it is important to meet this with an open mind. We must wait and see what the Trump administration will do. It may seem as if there is least cause for worries attached to environmental questions. The challenges are more significant when it comes to economic cooperation and industrial opportunities. We hope we can continue securing cooperation about research, in particular about climate. We have to do something with black carbon emissions. Perhaps we shall simply make the question about these emissions a specific Arctic project? There are already economic means available for attacking this, so we do not necessarily need new funding."
"Finland tries to be an honest broker between East and West. It is important that the situation improves in the future, even though both Syria and the Ukraine are difficult issues," says Paavo Lipponen.
We see military posing
"Yes, it is obviously difficult, so difficult that many fear a new Cold War. Some would argue that we have already entered into a period of a new Cold War. What is your view on this?"
"Well, I believe that what we see is military posing. That is, nevertheless, a significant worry for Finland. Though I do not think that we have arrived at a new Cold War at present, but we must pay close attention to what happens next and in particular watch how Donald Trump’s policies evolve. It appears that all the other parties, including Russia, have a wait-and-see attitude. That is how they give Trump the benefit of the doubt."
"A final question for you, Paavo Lipponen. When participating at last year’s High North Dialogue, you met many young people who today consider you a true High North Hero. What message do you bring to today’s youth, youth that will shape the future of the Arctic?"
Impressed with the youth
"I was very impressed with what I saw during High North Dialogue in Bodø. It was a meeting with young students who demonstrated genuine competence. They came from different countries in the Arctic, including Russia. I actually had to ask myself whether it was really true that they were so clever. I think we can look at a new generation with a balanced view on the future. They are environmentally conscious, but also see the importance of the economic opportunities being used in a sustainable way in the Arctic. And there we are, in many ways, only at the beginning," Paavo Lipponen says in closing.