Europe Minister interview: Mixed report card as Finland hands over European Council Presidency

After six months as Finland's point-person in Brussels and Strasbourg, Tytti Tuppurainen tells us about the stresses and strains of the job.

File picture of Europe Minister Tytti Tuppurainen (SDP) giving a press conference in Brussels, 10th December 2019 / Credit: European Commission

There’s a few good images online from the 2012 presidential inauguration in Helsinki.

Outgoing President Tarja Halonen (SDP) was giving up the keys of Mäntyniemi after 12 years in office and she’s grinning from ear to ear. Her successor Sauli Niinistö (NCP) by contrast looks thoroughly miserable.

There was a similar scene at Oodi Central Library on Monday as Minister for European Affairs Tytti Tuppurainen (SDP) symbolically handed over the rotating Presidency of the European Council to Croatian ambassador Josip Buljević.

Tuppurainen beamed widely as a string trio from Sibelius Academy played Ode To Joy, and speeches were made. She looked like a politician more than happy to give her responsibilities to another country, after six months as Finland’s point-person in Europe.

“I’m tired but happy, honestly” says the Oulu MP.

“It was quite a tough job I must admit, especially the job requiring me to be in Strasbourg and Brussels almost every week representing the member states in the European Parliament. That I couldn’t predict before hand, it was so, so tough to be there” she tells News Now Finland.

“The days were very long. Sometimes they started at nine o’clock in the morning and continued until eleven o’clock in the evening and I have to initiate so many debates, seven or eight in day. So that required a lot of effort.”

Detail of blue balloons with EU logo / Credit: News Now Finland

Baptism of fire for Finnish government 

Taking on the EU Presidency was a baptism of fire for the new government, barely three weeks after they were sworn into office.

Ministers (and mostly civil servants) hit the ground running with European Council meetings and endless committees dealing with everything from Brexit to fishing policies; from cyber threats to migrants, trade issues and animal welfare; from forestry management to rule of law disagreements with wayward states like Poland and Hungary.

“The whole political spectrum. And it was quite demanding to put yourself into all of those debates” says Tuppurainen.

“One positive thing […] we had the presidency right at the beginning of our electoral term here in Finland, now all of our ministers they have remarkable networks in Europe. All of them have met their European counterparts at the very beginning of their minister careers, and that is an asset for the Finnish government” she notes.

Finnish diplomats like to say they were setting the agenda for Europe, but in reality there was a lot more tedious bureaucracy involved – a thankless taks for the most part.

A lame duck Commission and Parliament in Brussels largely treading water until Europe’s new political administration took the helm by the end of the year inevitably put a dampener on how much could realistically be achieved during the Finnish Presidency.

But Tuppurainen says amid the sea change in the EU, a stable Finnish hand on the tiller helped make the waters less choppy.

“Everything was on the move, and it certainly had its own impact on our presidency. But on the other hand, we were able to provide continuity, somewhat paradoxically” she explains.

“Of course at the end of our presidency our own government collapsed and we had a government crisis, but while we had a new parliament and we were all expecting a new Commission and the new President of the European Council, it was the rotating presidency who was always there to provide things going smoothly” the minister adds.

File picture showing exterior of European Commission building in Brussels / Credit: iStock

So what did Finland achieve, if anything? 

The Finns set four main priorities for their presidency: strengthening the rule of law and common EU values; taking the lead on tackling the climate crisis through policy initiatives; promoting an economy of wellbeing and sustainable competitiveness; and ensuring security for all EU citizens.

While there was some success in getting most EU countries to sign up to cut carbon emissions by 2050, it was tempered by the fact that one of the biggest carbon polluters, Poland, refused to get on board at this time. A partial victory in that sense.

And there was no agreement on what to do about migrants in the Mediterranean, or sharing responsibility for taking care of them when they make it to EU shores.

Efforts to stop tax evasion hit a wall, and EU expansion into the Western Balkans was left unresolved.

“It was a pretty challenging presidency, as key EU institutions were undergoing a transition” Tuppurainen concedes, in a video statement.

“But we succeeded well in the achievement of our goals. We drove things forward especially in regard to the rule of law” she says.

Croatia now take over the European Council Presidency for the first six months of 2020, with German succeeding them for the last six months of the year.

File picture of Europe Minister Tytti Tuppurainen (SDP) at Oodi Central Library, 30th December 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland