President cites Brexit in New Year plea for civil discourse

The president's annual speech also touched on intolerance and hate speech, human rights and environmental concerns.

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President Niinistö gives his New Year 2020 official address / Credit: Riikka Hietajärvi, TPK

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has cited Britain’s departure from the European Union as an example of a fractured society, as he used his New Year address to call for more civil discourse.

“Late last year I was startled when I heard an interviewee on a street in London describing the opposing sides of the Brexit dispute: ‘we’ve learnt to hate each other'” recalled Niinistö on Wednesday.

“When an issue, no matter how important, breeds hate towards those who think differently, we are heading for trouble. A culture of hate will not carry us far. It will lead to a fall.”

The president says he is “increasingly concerned” about how people in Finland treat one another, and that security ultimately comes from respecting each other and maintaining social peace.

“When there is no longer willingness to engage in a genuine dialogue, deliberate misunderstanding increases. When knowledge is meaningful only when it serves one’s own agenda, half-truths and even lies gain ground” he said.

File picture of Finnish coalition government’s five party leaders, December 2019 / Credit: Laura Kotila, VNK

Political continuity, not instability

President Niinistö brought up a phenomenon in Finnish politics, where no government installed in office this millennium has completed their full term.

He said that this could look like instability, but in fact was a sign of continuity with no government falling due to a no-confidence motion in parliament. He also noted that when there’s been a change of administration during a term in office the succeeding government has been similar in composition and policies.

“I would once more like to draw attention to the fact that a Government works as a collegium. Decisions that are jointly made, are also jointly answered for. This indisputable joint responsibility has been overlooked to some extent, but bearing it in mind may both lighten the Prime Ministers’ burden and encourage them in their efforts” said Niinistö.

“Even politics requires peace and quiet to focus on getting the job done. Political drama can be created instantly, whereas political results take their time” he added.

Support for minority rights

The president also used his speech to underscore support for the rights of minorities in Finland.

“The inviolability of every individual, then again, enjoys equal legal protection, irrespective of their perceived affiliation. And we are all individuals” he said.

Niinistö said that online shaming and hate speech are new concepts in Finnish public debate, but that offenses like incitement to ethnic hatred, or offences against personal reputation, dignity or privacy of the individual are already criminalised by law.

“A person committing a crime against another person is liable to prosecution. This has no connection to freedom of speech, let alone its limitation” he added.

File picture of planet earth / Credit: iStock

Environmental concerns

The President has long championed environmental causes and raised concerns in his speeches.

This year he said Finland was “at the forefront” of setting objectives to combat the climate crisis.

“Change starts with the big players: states and business conglomerates. But we too – soon eight billion people, each with different consumption patterns – are another major player.”