Plates are more important than presidents or high representatives

The Finnish pub­lic dis­cus­sion fol­low­ing the com­ing into force of the Lis­bon Treaty quick­ly became dom­i­nat­ed by a some­what overblown debate on the country’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the Euro­pean Coun­cil – whether it would be the Prime Min­is­ter or the Pres­i­dent. This heat­ed debate, dubbed the “plate deba­cle”,11The plate deba­cle was in the pub­lic dis­cus­sion con­nect­ed to the work of the Tax­ell com­mit­tee, the objec­tive of which was a revi­sion of the Finnish con­sti­tu­tion. The committee’s work was fac­tu­al­ly unre­lat­ed to EU mat­ters, but the fact that it aimed to define the President’s for­eign pol­i­cy pow­ers made the ques­tion of EU rep­re­sen­ta­tion sym­bol­ic. con­tin­ued for months, until it became appar­ent that the Prime Min­is­ter would in the future, by default, act as the country’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Also, the weight of the Finnish Commissioner’s port­fo­lio was seen as an impor­tant ques­tion. Seri­ous media dis­cus­sion on the Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Coun­cil and High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Union for For­eign Affairs and Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy was con­spic­u­ous in its absence after it became appar­ent that the incum­bents were nei­ther Finns nor oth­er­wise well-known. There were a num­ber of dis­sent­ing voic­es call­ing for the media to move their atten­tion from domes­tic mat­ters to the EU, “the most impor­tant polit­i­cal are­na for Fin­land”, but they were lim­it­ed to expert com­men­tary.22E.g. Kale­va: Suomen tärkein poli­it­ti­nen areena on EU, 3 Decem­ber 2009.

The Finnish expert dis­cus­sion on the top posts was typ­i­cal­ly con­duct­ed from the point of view of observers rather than active par­tic­i­pants, with the notable excep­tion of For­eign Min­is­ter Stubb. He posi­tioned him­self as a staunch defend­er of Cather­ine Ash­ton. He self-dep­re­cat­ing­ly used the mem­o­rable com­par­i­son “Snow White and the twen­ty-sev­en Dwarfs” to describe the rela­tion­ship of Ash­ton and the 27 for­eign min­is­ters.33Helsin­gin Sanomat: Arvosteli­jat kyt­täävät EU:n uut­ta ulko­min­is­ter­iä, 26 Jan­u­ary 2010. Also, Stubb organ­ised an unof­fi­cial meet­ing of a lim­it­ed num­ber of EU for­eign min­is­ters, the Turk­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Davu­toğlu and Cather­ine Ash­ton at Saariselkä in Finnish Lap­land. This was seen as an attempt to smooth the road for the High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive in her inter­per­son­al deal­ings with the for­eign min­is­ters, as well as to facil­i­tate Stubb’s own future col­lab­o­ra­tion with his peers.

The “Spir­it of Saariselkä”, as the pre­vail­ing mood of the con­fer­ence became known, was described as one of ease, per­son­al con­tacts and infor­mal­i­ty, which are, accord­ing to the press, the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of Finland’s present atti­tude towards han­dling EU for­eign affairs.44Lapin kansa: Spir­it of Saariselkä koos­t­uu hangista, huumorista ja hyvistä keskusteluista, 14 March 2010. The fact that Stubb did not suc­ceed in get­ting rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all the EU mem­ber states led to some crit­i­cism. Also, the Euroscep­tic par­ty, the True Finns, crit­i­cised the event for not pro­mot­ing Finland’s Arc­tic exper­tise.55Lapin kansa: Saariselkä sai satiku­tia, 15 March 2010.

Oth­er com­men­ta­tors on Ashton’s role and per­for­mance, includ­ing Finnish Mem­bers of Euro­pean Par­lia­ment (MEP), tend­ed to be under­stand­ing of the chal­lenges faced by her and more inclined to post­pone an opin­ion on her per­for­mance until a rea­son­able amount of time had passed.66Anneli Jäät­teen­mä­ki: Euroopan mah­dot­tomin tehtävä, Suomen­maa, 19 March 2010. Green MEP Satu Has­si com­pared the crit­i­cism direct­ed at Ash­ton to work­place bul­ly­ing.77Turun Sanomat: Europar­la­mentin ulkopoli­it­tis­es­ta täy­sis­tun­nos­ta Ash­tonin piinapenk­ki, 11 March 2010.

The High Representative’s posi­tion has been described as being nigh on impos­si­ble: “the most dif­fi­cult job in the world” accord­ing to Stubb.88Helsin­gin Sanomat: Ash­ton lupaa Suomelle tuke­van edus­tuk­sen EU:n ulko­min­is­ter­iöön, 13 March 2010. The ques­tion of who rep­re­sents the EU in for­eign pol­i­cy was, fur­ther­more, seen as prob­lem­at­ic due to both the Euro­pean Council’s and Euro­pean Commission’s pres­i­dents, as well as, to some extent, the rotat­ing pres­i­den­cy, main­tain­ing a role in for­eign pol­i­cy. The anec­dote about Kissinger’s phone num­ber has been repeat­ed to no end in Fin­land, but the metaphor of the EU’s part­ners now not need­ing one phone num­ber, but the num­ber to the switch­board, in order to direct them to the rel­e­vant actor, has also been put for­ward and is emblem­at­ic of the expert dis­cus­sion on the, as of yet, embry­on­ic divi­sion of roles between the main actors.99Tuo­mas Fors­berg: Saiko EU nyt puhe­lin­nu­meron?, Aamule­hti, 11 Feb­ru­ary 2010.

At the same time, com­ment­ing on the new lead­er­ship of the EU, then Prime Min­is­ter Van­hanen point­ed out that the EU has now become more “polit­i­cal”, with the role of the Euro­pean Coun­cil strength­ened at the detri­ment of the rotat­ing pres­i­den­cy in par­tic­u­lar. This view was shared by oth­er major com­men­ta­tors. As to the rotat­ing presidency’s future, it was jux­ta­posed with the Euro­pean Council’s height­ened influ­ence. If the Coun­cil suc­ceeds in offer­ing mean­ing­ful lead­er­ship, the rotat­ing pres­i­den­cy will become insignif­i­cant, and the ques­tion of the mem­ber states’ sub­se­quent role in lead­ing the Union becomes rel­e­vant.1010Tei­ja Tiilikainen: Euroop­pa-neu­vos­to nousee val­lan huip­ulle, Helsin­gin Sanomat, 2 Feb­ru­ary 2010. In rela­tion to this, the Span­ish Pres­i­den­cy has been described as a thank­less assign­ment.1111Turun Sanomat: Espan­ja EU-puheen­jo­hta­jana uuden tilanteen edessä, 3 Feb­ru­ary 2010. The increased role of the Euro­pean Coun­cil was also seen as dimin­ish­ing the role of the com­mu­ni­ty method, or, alter­na­tive­ly, as con­sti­tut­ing a bal­anc­ing act, with the Com­mis­sion pulled in two direc­tions, by the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment on the one hand and the Coun­cil on the oth­er. Yet this thought has not quite caught on with the main­stream press, which still tends to focus on what they are already famil­iar with – Bar­roso and his Commission.

Ques­tions arose as to whether Van Rompuy’s image of being a “grey mouse” was mere­ly a clever facade. There was a sense of care­ful respect towards Van Rompuy’s han­dling of his duties, espe­cial­ly vis-a-vis Bar­roso.1212Helsin­gin Sanomat: EU:n har­maa hiiri kas­vat­taa lihak­sia, 2 April 2010. The same ini­tial­ly applied to eco­nom­ic gov­er­nance, where the ques­tion of Euro­pean Com­mis­sion­er for Eco­nom­ic and Mon­e­tary Affairs Olli Rehn hav­ing had his ini­tia­tive usurped by Van Rompuy was raised with the metaphor: “Did the mouse steal Rehn’s piece of cheese?” This changed con­sid­er­ably with the advent of the Greek cri­sis, how­ev­er, with Rehn steal­ing the Finnish lime­light. In the less seri­ous press, Van Rompuy was dis­missed as a “daffy duck pres­i­dent”, with men­tions of his Haiku col­lec­tions, but lit­tle else.1313Iltale­hti: Hul­lu maail­ma, 30 April 2010.

Very lit­tle was writ­ten on the Euro­pean Cit­i­zens’ Ini­tia­tive. Report­ing was descrip­tive in nature and the few com­ments mere­ly prac­ti­cal (e.g., a time lim­it of six months for the Com­mis­sion to react to an ini­tia­tive sug­gest­ed by the Euro­pean Move­ment in Fin­land).1414Aamule­hti: Euroopan union­in kansalaiset saa­vat vih­doin aloiteoikeu­den, 19 March 2010. Some crit­i­cism was lev­elled at the dif­fi­cul­ty of the pro­ce­dure, with the Com­mis­sion encour­aged to facil­i­tate the prac­ti­cal imple­men­ta­tion of it.1515Helsin­gin Sanomat: EU:n uusi kansalaisa­loite vaatii taitoa ja rahaa, 1 April 2010. As an inter­est­ing detail, a Finnish equiv­a­lent was sug­gest­ed dur­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al reform process, with Jus­tice Min­is­ter Brax point­ing out that an EU lev­el prece­dent already exist­ed.1616Suomen­maa: Kansalaisa­loit­teen mah­dol­lisu­us perus­tus­laki­in, 11 Feb­ru­ary 2010.

Report­ing and dis­cus­sion of the Euro­pean Exter­nal Action Ser­vice (EEAS) was char­ac­terised by a sense of wait­ing, with an empha­sis on the pow­er strug­gle with­in Brus­sels, as well as between the mem­ber states, and impa­tience towards the EU’s inward-look­ing pro­cras­ti­na­tion, when it should be tak­ing a more active role in the world.1717Aamule­hti: EU puhe­lin­vas­taa­jan varas­sa?, 13 March 2010.

The ser­vice was described as being about twice the size of Finland’s own For­eign Min­istry, and For­eign Min­is­ter Stubb expressed the wish for one or two heads of del­e­ga­tion to be Finns. Fur­ther­more, it is hoped that between 15 and 30 Finns will be placed in oth­er duties with­in the ser­vice.1818Alexan­der Stubb/Pertti Torsti­la: Vah­va ulko­maan­verkko on Suomen etu, Aamule­hti, 25 Feb­ru­ary 2010. After the com­ing into force of the Lis­bon Treaty, he sup­port­ed the idea of using nation­al for­eign min­is­ters as the High Representative’s deputies, an idea fur­ther espoused at the Saariselkä gath­er­ing. More­over, Stubb crit­i­cised the way that João Vale de Almei­da was appoint­ed to rep­re­sent the EU in Wash­ing­ton.1919Helsin­gin sanomat: EU:n lähet­tiläs­nim­i­tys suu­tut­taa jäsen­mai­ta, 23 Feb­ru­ary 2010.

The received wis­dom dur­ing the report­ing peri­od was that the EEAS, if strong, effec­tive and with glob­al reach, would be a boon for a small coun­try like Fin­land. Offer­ing syn­er­gy ben­e­fits, it was, nev­er­the­less, not seen as replac­ing but rather com­ple­ment­ing Finland’s own net­work of embassies.2020Aamule­hti: Mustal­la päin punaista, 8 Feb­ru­ary 2010.

The True Finns were the most vocal crit­ics of the ser­vice, dis­miss­ing it out of hand as an unnec­es­sary insti­tu­tion which would fur­ther enhance the EU’s fed­er­al­ist trap­pings.2121Lapin kansa: Saariselkä sai satiku­tia, 15 March 2010. Doubts were also raised as to the rena­tion­al­i­sa­tion of EU for­eign poli­cies with the cre­ation of the ser­vice. The most con­tentious issue in this regard was the service’s effects on devel­op­ment aid.2222Aamule­hti: Ash­ton halu­aa kehi­tysavun ohjat käsi­in­sä, 26 March 2010. More wide­ly, the ques­tion of how the set-up of the ser­vice would affect the so-far nor­ma­tive, rules-based and pre­dictable nature of the EU’s for­eign pol­i­cy was raised.2323Finnish Insti­tute of Inter­na­tion­al Affairs: Rewrit­ing the ground rules of Euro­pean diplo­ma­cy, Brief­ing Paper 57, 31 March 2010.

    Footnotes

  • 1The plate deba­cle was in the pub­lic dis­cus­sion con­nect­ed to the work of the Tax­ell com­mit­tee, the objec­tive of which was a revi­sion of the Finnish con­sti­tu­tion. The committee’s work was fac­tu­al­ly unre­lat­ed to EU mat­ters, but the fact that it aimed to define the President’s for­eign pol­i­cy pow­ers made the ques­tion of EU rep­re­sen­ta­tion symbolic.
  • 2E.g. Kale­va: Suomen tärkein poli­it­ti­nen areena on EU, 3 Decem­ber 2009.
  • 3Helsin­gin Sanomat: Arvosteli­jat kyt­täävät EU:n uut­ta ulko­min­is­ter­iä, 26 Jan­u­ary 2010.
  • 4Lapin kansa: Spir­it of Saariselkä koos­t­uu hangista, huumorista ja hyvistä keskusteluista, 14 March 2010.
  • 5Lapin kansa: Saariselkä sai satiku­tia, 15 March 2010.
  • 6Anneli Jäät­teen­mä­ki: Euroopan mah­dot­tomin tehtävä, Suomen­maa, 19 March 2010.
  • 7Turun Sanomat: Europar­la­mentin ulkopoli­it­tis­es­ta täy­sis­tun­nos­ta Ash­tonin piinapenk­ki, 11 March 2010.
  • 8Helsin­gin Sanomat: Ash­ton lupaa Suomelle tuke­van edus­tuk­sen EU:n ulko­min­is­ter­iöön, 13 March 2010.
  • 9Tuo­mas Fors­berg: Saiko EU nyt puhe­lin­nu­meron?, Aamule­hti, 11 Feb­ru­ary 2010.
  • 10Tei­ja Tiilikainen: Euroop­pa-neu­vos­to nousee val­lan huip­ulle, Helsin­gin Sanomat, 2 Feb­ru­ary 2010.
  • 11Turun Sanomat: Espan­ja EU-puheen­jo­hta­jana uuden tilanteen edessä, 3 Feb­ru­ary 2010.
  • 12Helsin­gin Sanomat: EU:n har­maa hiiri kas­vat­taa lihak­sia, 2 April 2010.
  • 13Iltale­hti: Hul­lu maail­ma, 30 April 2010.
  • 14Aamule­hti: Euroopan union­in kansalaiset saa­vat vih­doin aloiteoikeu­den, 19 March 2010.
  • 15Helsin­gin Sanomat: EU:n uusi kansalaisa­loite vaatii taitoa ja rahaa, 1 April 2010.
  • 16Suomen­maa: Kansalaisa­loit­teen mah­dol­lisu­us perus­tus­laki­in, 11 Feb­ru­ary 2010.
  • 17Aamule­hti: EU puhe­lin­vas­taa­jan varas­sa?, 13 March 2010.
  • 18Alexan­der Stubb/Pertti Torsti­la: Vah­va ulko­maan­verkko on Suomen etu, Aamule­hti, 25 Feb­ru­ary 2010.
  • 19Helsin­gin sanomat: EU:n lähet­tiläs­nim­i­tys suu­tut­taa jäsen­mai­ta, 23 Feb­ru­ary 2010.
  • 20Aamule­hti: Mustal­la päin punaista, 8 Feb­ru­ary 2010.
  • 21Lapin kansa: Saariselkä sai satiku­tia, 15 March 2010.
  • 22Aamule­hti: Ash­ton halu­aa kehi­tysavun ohjat käsi­in­sä, 26 March 2010.
  • 23Finnish Insti­tute of Inter­na­tion­al Affairs: Rewrit­ing the ground rules of Euro­pean diplo­ma­cy, Brief­ing Paper 57, 31 March 2010.

The reports focus on a report­ing peri­od from Decem­ber 2009 until May 2010. This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March and April 2010. Most of the 31 reports were deliv­ered in May 2010.

The EU-27 Watch No. 9 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained therein.