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Finnish President: Europe endangered by “ring of violence”

Sauli Niinistö has called for “precise, honest and even self-critical thinking” as the EU faces challenges of "migration which has grown to extreme dimensions" and unrest around its perimeter. “Freedom of movement cannot mean uncontrollable movement,” he asserted.

Presidentti Sauli Niinistö. Image: Yle

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö warned on Tuesday that Europe is now living through its own "Years of Danger," using a Finnish term that refers to the country’s post-war era of political tension in the late 1940s.

Addressing an annual meeting of Finnish ambassadors in Helsinki, Niinistö described this as “a time for precise, honest and even self-critical thinking. Europe is living through its own Years of Danger. It is framed by a ring of violence from Ukraine to North Africa,” Niinistö said.

The president spoke of "migration which has grown to extreme dimensions" in Europe, adding that this is one of the phenomena leading to instability in the region.

“On this issue, we face a dilemma – the honour of the civilised world demands that these people be helped. On the other hand, we face limits in our abilities to take them in,” he said.

Can Schengen survive?

Niinistö also questioned the sustainability of Europe’s visa-free Schengen Area, arguing that the refugee crisis is testing the terms of the Schengen Agreement.

“Freedom of movement cannot mean uncontrollable movement,” he asserted.

The EU must have a more unified migration policy – otherwise national solutions will be formed, said Niinistö.

“We’ve already seen symptoms of this – fences are being put up and so on,” he noted.

In the immigration and refugee debate, Niinistö called for an open discussion that does not deny the facts. At the same time he warned of the direction in which nationalism is developing in Europe.

Sharp debate, strong differences of opinion

“Unfortunately, those who are coming to Europe also include some who have bad intentions. This cannot be denied, even if some may not want to hear it. We must also not only keep an eye on ourselves. What is happening to nationalism in Europe?"

In order to be able to discuss issues and find common solutions, everyone has to use the same language, he said.

“One must be able to distinguish between the various types of immigration – work-driven, illegal, legal, refugee-status, asylum seekers. When these pieces are clear, we can talk about the same issues,” Niinistö said.

“When it comes to immigration, there has been very sharp debate and strong differences of opinion," he noted. "We should at least be clear as far as the basic terms; it’s easier to have a dialogue if we’re talking about the same things.”

No responsibility for Baltic security

Regarding security policy, Niinistö declared that Finland does not have any responsibility to ensure the defence of the three small Baltic states.

“From time to time, we hear ideas about Finland’s shared responsibility for the defence of the Baltics. Finland is not in a position to provide security guarantees for anyone else that it does not itself have,” Niinistö said.

He noted that Finland’s eastern border with Russia is longer than that of all the NATO countries put together.

“If a nation of five million is single-handedly responsible for its own security, then that is already quite a responsibility,” observed the president.

Unlike Finland and Sweden, the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are NATO members – as are the other three Nordic states: Denmark, Iceland and Norway. 

The heads of Finland’s 88 embassies, consulates and other missions abroad meet annually in Helsinki. This year they were also addressed by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä and four of his cabinet ministers, among others.

President Niinistö is a former EU banker, finance minister, speaker of Parliament and chair of the conservative National Coalition Party. He is roughly halfway through his first six-year term as head of state.

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