Every night before bed, Pekka Haavisto diligently opens up his phone and checks the location of the Stena Impero tanker. And in the weeks since he started doing it, the ship hasn’t moved from the same anchorage in a port in southern Iran.
Finland has consular responsibility for a Latvia crewman on board the vessel, which was seized by Iranian forces in the Gulf in July, and the man’s well-being preys on Haavisto’s mind in the quiet moments at the end of the day.
Not that there have been too many quiet moments since the former Green party leader became foreign minister earlier this summer. As an ex-UN envoy he’s used to globetrotting, but the frenetic pace of travels in the last three months have taken him to Peru, Saudi Arabia, New York and Sudan as well as countries around Europe.
“The reaction from many stakeholders has been that Finland is back, that we are more active” he tells News Now Finland.
“It is also because of our EU Presidency that we are more visible, we have also more visitors coming to Helsinki, but hopefully it means that our whole government period of foreign policy will be active, and we are seen as relevant and interesting partners by others” he says.
‘The world is more unstable’
Haavisto takes up the mantle of foreign minister at a time when governments and diplomats are playing whack-a-mole with crisis springing up seemingly on a daily basis.
Speaking to an annual gathering of Finnish ambassadors in Helsinki recently, he reeled off a list of trouble spots from wildfires in Brazil and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, to America unilaterally abandoning its nuclear treaty obligations and migrant deaths in the Mediterranean; from maritime safety in the Straits of Hormuz to mass shootings in the USA.
“This makes the world more unstable. Here in Europe, and also here in Finland”
“Rule of law is less respected in the world. Also we can see the phenomenon that the big powers are not playing according to international norms, and standards and agreements. There’s a lot of protectionist tendencies […] and there are issues that are still burning, like Ukraine” says Haavisto.
It’s clear the situation in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea has been standing still for some time. EU sanctions don’t seem to be having any particular effect on Russia, and the Minsk process has ground to a halt.
The Finns though, are playing the helpful middleman. President Sauli Niinistö hosted Vladimir Putin in August, and he’ll visit Kiev at the invitation of newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later this month.
Could Finland be trying to broker some new agreement or at least kick-start the moribund Minsk deal to permanently stop the war of attrition in the east?
“I think there is at least a role for somebody who listens to all parties and maybe can analyse if there is a path ahead. And I think this role President Niinistö has been playing a very skillful [role]” explains Haavisto.
“The movement at least is very slow there, apart from some minor steps in Eastern Ukraine. But we know that President Zelinsky has been taking direct contact with President Putin, and of course we hope that could create a new momentum and situation. These kind of issues, the security of European states, is an existential issue for Finland” he adds.
Brazil rainforest wildfires
While sanctions against Russia haven’t had a tangible effect, some Finnish politicians think they could have an impact on Brazil.
When the scale of wildfires in the Amazon became apparent, many sparked by illegal rainforest strip-mining operations, Finland’s Minister for Economic Affairs Mika Lintilä (Centre) called for a ban on imports of Brazilian beef.
Haavisto thinks direct sanctions, like a produce import ban, are “too slow” to be effective at this point. He sees that G7 leaders and the United Nations have offered practical help to reduce the amount of burning rainforest.
“It’s good to remember that it’s not only happening now in Brazil, neighbouring countries like Bolivia the fires are there. When we look at both the climate and biodiversity challenges, we have to tackle these fires not only for this year, but constantly.”
The foreign minister says burning the forest is not the way to create new agricultural areas. And he agrees with a fellow Green politician MEP Ville Niinistö that Finland and other EU countries should leverage the Mercosur free trade agreement as a way to exert pressure on Brazil’s right wing government to do more to stop habitat loss and wildfires in the Amazon.
“There is a mood that there is not enough action against the forest fires […] but in the current atmosphere I can see in many parliaments, including Finland, I can see it has been raised – can we accept this agreement if nothing is done to prevent the forest fires?.”
The agreement was concluded at the end of June but still has to be ratified by EU national parliaments. Haavisto reckons tough questions will rightly be asked about whether Brazil is living up to its own international obligations around the Paris Agreement which is explicitly embedded into the Mercosur free trade deal.
“Of course now we have news that Brazil has mobilized many soldiers to [fight] the fires, so whatever other ways and means should be done to do the job, should be done urgently.”