The President of France, Emmanuel Macron is arriving in Helsinki today, for a two day visit aimed at cementing new security relationships, and reaffirming a Franco-German lead Europe ahead of Britain’s EU departure.
Macron’s arrival in the Finnish capital is the second leg of a northern tour which stopped first in Copenhagen, where he met Queen Margrethe and political leaders.
At a press conference with Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Macron said the Danes were too modest about their European commitments and that in his opinion, they could be doing even more. It’s a message he’s likely to repeat in Finland.
The Helsinki visit is technically hosted by 70-year-old President Sauli Niinistö, but since his remit doesn’t cover EU affairs, there will also be a strong emphasis on talks with Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (Centre).
The Presidential visit begins on Wednesday evening with a ceremonial welcome for Macron and his wife from Niinistö and his wife at the Presidential Palace. Later, Finland’s first couple will host their French counterparts to a gala dinner.
On Thursday, Macron and Niinistö hold talks in the morning – the agenda includes security and defence policy; relations with Russia and the USA; climate change and the Arctic, according to the President’s office.
Afterwards there will be a press conference, and then Prime Minister Sipilä takes over, accompanying Macron to Aalto University to learn more about Finnish innovation culture, then a working lunch where EU issues – including Brexit – migration and EU defence are up for discussion. The pair will later hold a press conference.
Going Beyond The Ceremony
It’s Macron’s first visit to Finland, and in the second year of his presidency he needs some friends in the north to shore up his grand plans to reform the EU in the aftermath of Brexit.
The French President is also playing his part to redefine a new European sense of self-reliance, as traditional alliances with the USA are thrown into question.
“I wouldn’t say this is a new northern initiative, but equally, both France and Germany are keenly aware that the Franco-Germany initiative is not enough to restart Europe by itself” explains Susi Dennison, Senior Fellow and Director for European Power at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris.
“They need to build a coalition of the willing within the EU, and the Nordic states are likely to be a core part of this. Traditionally free trading, committed trans-Atlantacists, the Nordic states are feeling unsettled by the way that Trump is changing the rules of the international system, but at the same time their geographical location means that they also feel frightened by an increasingly confident and aggressive Russia, trying to build a sphere of influence on the borders of Europe, by new means which include hybrid warfare and interference in domestic politics in Europe” she tells News Now Finland.
“The Nordic states see clearly the need for a Europe that pulls together and looks after its interests in this threatening environment”.
Finnish And French Relations
In a European context France and Finland enjoy warm, but not especially close, relations. Finland tends to sit naturally closer to German positions on EU matters.
President Niinistö last spoke with Macron by phone in 2017, and visited France in 2015 for a climate summit. He also paid an official visit to France back in 2013. Prime Minister Sipilä has more regular direct contacts with the French leadership at EU events.
“I guess for France, the north has not played such a big role. And that certainly goes the other way round as well. If we look at Finland in the last years, we haven’t really paid much attention to France or what was happening in France. Now, perhaps especially with regards to defence, we see a slight change there because there is a sense that the French are a central partner for European defence, and France and Finland also share some interests in this area” says Tuomas Iso-Markku, a Research Fellow studying the European Union at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA.
“Finland stands out from the other Nordic states already by the fact that it is a Eurozone member, whereas Sweden and Denmark are not. Germany has been aware of how closely Finland has followed its positions and how close their views have very often been. That already makes the situation quite a bit different. For Sweden and Denmark the obvious touchstone of EU policy has been the UK, and they have also perhaps not paid that much attention to either France or Germany in the last few years and that is only changing now of course due to Brexit” says Iso-Markku.
France’s Plans For EU Reform
Elected on a wave of popular anti-establishment, pro-EU sentiment in May 2017, Emmanuel Macron has ambitions plans to reform the way 27-nation Europe operates.
Macron has in mind a ‘two-speed Europe’ for countries that want to go full steam ahead with joining his reforms, while others that are more cautious – like Finland – could hang back. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not a big fan of the two-speed idea.
His main plans for reform are largely economic, including appointing a new ‘super’ Finance Minister for the EU; a joint budget for Eurozone countries like Finland and Estonia; and creating an organisation that would oversee all economic policy for the EU. He also has ideas to create another elected parliament just for Eurozone members, so they can decide on economic matters for countries using the euro as their currency.
Macron’s other goals are more cooperation and integration between the militaries of EU countries – where this two-speed idea doesn’t hold up so well.
“I would not necessarily talk about a two-speed Europe. I think if we look at European security arrangements overall, what we see is more like a very complicated tapestry of relationships” says FIIA’s Tuomas Iso-Markku.
“What Macron is expected to talk about in Finland on one hand is probably the projects that will take place within the framework of permanent structured cooperation, but on the other hand you also advance this French idea of European intervention forces and he will probably talk about bilateral military cooperation between Finland and France. I think that is quite telling of how the situation looks like in the defence sector. You have several levels and different kinds of arrangement and cooperation projects” he adds.
Looking At Future Elections
At home, Macron’s popularity has slumped. The wave of enthusiasm for a new centrist figure in French politics who could rise above the fray of traditional party lines has worn off. This week, Macron’s popular and influential environment minister Nicolas Hulot resigned his post, saying not enough work was being done to combat climate change.
Macron also has an eye on what’s been happening with the right wing populist movements in Italy, Austria and Hungary who gained power on anti-EU, anti-migrant rhetoric. The upcoming European Parliament elections in 2019 pose a real challenge for those EU leaders who want to strengthen the block, and Macron’s PR tour in the north helps remind their audiences of his strong commitment to a united Europe – a theme that has already been echoed by senior Finnish politicians this week, including previously Euro-skeptic foreign minister Timo Soini (Blue).
“The growing power of populist, nativist politics has affected all of Europe and changed the domestic politics of most countries, and the Nordic states are not exempt. For this reason, Macron is recognising that their commitment to the EU cannot be taken for granted. The upcoming EP elections in 2019 could result in a majority for anti-EU parties, which risks destroying Europe from the inside” says Susi Dennison from the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It is probably with both these things in mind, the need for Nordic support in building a flexible Europe, and also the risk that if pro-Europeans do not sell the EU in a way that speaks to voters, explaining its powers on issues that they care about , they will vote in anti-EU project MEPs next year, that Macron is heading to Helsinki” she adds.
Culture, Science And Education Links
Outside the deep policy discussions about European integration and defence policy, there is a vibrant flourishing relationship between Finland and France across areas like culture, science and education.
“There are a lot of documents in our archives about the historical links between France and Finland. Last year we were very proud of the one hundredth anniversary of Finland because we were the first country to recognise the independence of Finland” says Dr Jeannette Bougrab, Director of the French Institute in Helsinki.
“The first level I think is education. We have a French school in Finland where you can learn in Finnish and French […] and there are many French students studying at university in Oulu, in Turku and of course in Aalto University” she says, while conceding the traffic is mostly one way, as Finnish students prefer to take university-level classes in English rather than French.
French cinephiles have also embraced one of Finland’s finest directors for his sensitive film making, while acknowledging connections across the arts.
“Very famous Finnish artists are also well known in France, like Aki Kaurismäki, he won a prize in Cannes for his Le Havre movie, and he shot it in French, not in Finnish. This movie celebrates something beautiful in the city of Le Havre, which was destroyed during the Second World War, and it was Le Corbusier who rebuild the city of Le Havre, and he belongs to the same school as Alvar Aalto, the school of functional architecture” says Bougrab.
“For French people it is like a dream, an adventure to be in Finland” she says.