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No swag bags or bottled water: Finland to host nearly 100 EU meetings in ascetic, sustainable style

Finland plans to spend money on offsetting flight emissions rather than handing out goodies to attendees.

Tap water in carafes will be available at meetings instead of plastic bottles. Image: Thomas Hagström / Yle

On Monday Finland began a half-year term as president of the Council of the EU, for the third time since joining the Union in 1995. Its previous terms were in 1999 and 2006.

During the rest of the summer and autumn, Helsinki is to host half a dozen ministerial meetings and about 90 more for civil servants. The Prime Minister's Office is responsible for arranging them.

Several ministries are also organising their own seminars and conferences during the six-month term.

Between now and Christmas, Finland will also chair 37 ministerial meetings, 40 ambassadorial meetings and 1,500 meetings for other officials in Brussels and Luxembourg. The arrangements for these are up to the General Secretariat of the Council in Brussels. Nearly every one will be chaired by a Finn.

No 'civil servant tourism'

In its arrangements, Finland will emphasise an ecological meeting culture in line with the term's theme: 'Sustainable Europe - Sustainable Future'. Last week Prime Minister Antti Rinne said the main target of the EU presidency is for the Union to commit to sharp emissions cuts, aiming for climate neutrality by 2050.

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Most meetings will be at Finlandia Hall, site of the landmark 1975 CSCE conference. Image: Antti Lähteenmäki / Yle

The meetings held in Finland will be concentrated in Helsinki, mostly at Finlandia Hall. During Finland's previous presidency, under Centre Party PM Matti Vanhanen, meetings were farmed out to 21 towns around the country.

This time there will be none of the lavish 'civil servant tourism' of the past: no junkets to opera festivals, Lapland's autumn foliage or ski resorts.

No-nonsense approach

Anja Laisi, who heads the Secretariat for Finland’s presidency, says that Finland intends to make a virtue of asceticism.

"Most of the EU's work is very mundane. These are working meetings, and many of them last only a day or two," she says.

"EU professionals are even relieved by Finland's practical approach to keeping meetings concise and businesslike. Everyone can travel around at other times and on their own budget however they like."

EU presidency countries have traditionally handed out all kinds of souvenirs and presents to meeting attendees. This time no-one will get a tacky tie or scarf or even a Marimekko bag.

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Anja Laisi Image: Thomas Hagström

Instead of doling out gifts to participants, Finland will offset flight carbon emissions by financing emission-reduction projects.

"Host countries spend large sums on gifts during each EU presidency," Laisi says. "We're putting that money into emissions compensation. We'll spend half a million euros on offsetting the aviation emissions of those attending the meetings."

Tap water and organic meals

Tables will not be covered with stacks of paper at Finnish-chaired meetings.

"We'll try to handle things electronically whenever possible. Mountains of paper print-outs are passing into history," Laisi says.

Nor will plastic water bottles be available.

"The new sustainable meeting culture is born out of small things. Finland has excellent, pure water, so we'll no longer offer packaged water. We'll serve Finnish tap water in carafes."

Meals will focus on domestic, locally produced organic food.

"We'll serve meeting participants and media high-quality local food. Fortunately our presidency term is in the second half of the year, so we can serve fresh products from each harvest season," says Laisi.

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