Finland assumed the rotating six-month presidency of the European Council on 1 July 2019, soon after April’s general election resulted in the formation of a five-party coalition government. The priorities of the presidency (to strengthen common values, defend the rule of law, work for a more competitive and socially inclusive Europe and enhance climate action worldwide) matched perfectly with the agendas of the coalition parties that focus on the rule of law, social disparity and poverty and the fight against climate change. However, two key issues – the EU budget of 2021-2027 and the association of EU funding with respect of the rule of law – were met with opposition from several countries. The proposal for the next EU budget was considered less ambitious than expected. The proposal to restrict funding to countries that breach the rule of law provoked fury among EU members that habitually despise fundamental EU rules.

European Interest raised the issue with Finland’s Minister for European Affairs and Ownership Steering Tytti Tuppurainen. We asked the minister to clarify the controversy surrounding these two key points. She also outlined the achievements of the Finnish Presidency concerning the next steps of the EU towards the Green Deal project and the future of the EU’s enlargement.

Tuppurainen, who was appointed Minister for European Affairs in the cabinet of Prime Minister Antti Rinne in 2019, was a figure during the talks between the EU Presidency and member states over EU budget.

European Interest: The Finnish budget proposal sought to bridge the gap between net contributors and other member states that sought to renegotiate the first post-Brexit budget of 2021-2027. The criticism by the European Commission and member states was inevitable. How ambitious can we be, trying to achieve more with less?

Tytti Tuppurainen: The Presidency’s December Negotiating Box was a balanced basis for further work, reflecting Member States’ views. It is positive that Mr. Michel used Presidency proposal as basis for his work, with some modifications.

We can and we must be ambitious. Overall climate target of at least 25 % and Just Transition Fund were introduced in our proposal. The Commission has already modernized Cohesion policy and CAP. There is a new allocation criteria in Cohesion regarding migration and climate. Also 40 % of CAP funding should be targeted to climate action.

Other programmes, including new challenges (e.g. climate, migration, defense) and strengthened research and innovation programme Horizon Europe and Erasmus formed the biggest share of the Multiannual Financial Framework in Finnish Presidency proposal. There is a big funding increase compared to the current MFF.

Ensuring respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights has a high symbolic value, but is also of great practical importance in our everyday lives

The Finnish Presidency set an agenda of a more stringent conditionality, going beyond economic sanctions to propose the link of the rule of law with EU funding. With the benefit of some hindsight, do you believe this approach is effective or we risk deepening the cleavage between old and new Europe? 

The EU is first and foremost a community of values. Ensuring respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights has a high symbolic value, but is also of great practical importance in our everyday lives. For Finland, protecting and promoting the rule of law in a constructive way is a key priority. Throughout our Presidency, we emphasized the need to adopt a comprehensive approach to the rule of law. Creating true conditionality between respect for the rule of law and the receipt of EU funds is crucial. By protecting EU’s budget, that is, our taxpayer’s money, we contribute to EU’s proper functioning, acceptability and credibility.

The work of the Finnish Presidency was based on the Commission’s original proposal for a regulation, in which the link between the rule of law and EU funding was proposed to be established.

Finland is one of the champions of bolder program in the fight against climate change. Are you satisfied by the contribution of the Finnish Presidency to the EU policy framework? Are we meeting the challenge as we should?

Finland is very content that the European Council was able to decide on the 2050 climate neutrality objective for the EU in its December summit. It is crucial that this year the EU is ready to decide on the increase of its 2030 climate target, as this is the natural next step in the process for the EU to be able to stay in line with the Paris Agreement’s goals. More ambitious EU objective for 2030 is important also for Finland to be able to meet its own 2035 climate neutrality target.

Strengthening the social dimension is a key area for the EU. Reducing inequalities is essential in all EU cooperation

One of Finland’s ambitions is a socially inclusive Europe, while homelessness and the income gap are surging. Can we achieve this given a real estate bubble, considerable cuts through the EU budget, an ageing Europe, tax competition, and little appetite for social transfers? Can the EU achieve more cohesion without any of the traditional policy tools of the state?

Indeed, we see that strengthening the social dimension is a key area for the EU. Reducing inequalities is essential in all EU cooperation.

The European Social Fund is our main tool. Besides funding, the European Pillar of Social Rights is the main framework for EU cooperation regarding the social dimension. We support a strong Social Pillar with clear and concrete action plan to implement its goals. It is very good that the Commission is drafting such an action plan.

The European Semester is also an important tool of promoting the objectives of the Pillar. The Commission is now integrating the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in the European Semester, which is an integral part of the new Commission’s strategy to build an economy that works for the people and the planet.

Under the current circumstances, have we come towards the end of enlargement? And, if that is the case, can Europe be truly safe and prosperous with a politically unstable and environmentally volatile periphery?

During the Finnish Presidency we made great efforts to move forward with the enlargement process. I regret that we were not able to agree on opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

However, one thing was clear in our discussions: all EU member states are unequivocally committed to the European perspective of the Western Balkans countries. I expect that this commitment from the EU side will be reinforced this spring, ahead of the EU Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May.

It is equally clear that we should continue to improve the effectiveness and credibility of the enlargement process. Commission’s recent proposals provide a good basis for building consensus which will hopefully allow us to move forward. We especially welcome the additional focus on rule of law issues, proposed by the Commission.

Credibility has two sides: the EU needs to set rigorous and fair conditions and commit to moving forward when conditions are met. On the other hand, candidate countries need to do their part and advance their reforms, which after all benefit their societies.

One thing was clear in our discussions: all EU member states are unequivocally committed to the European perspective of the Western Balkans countries

In principle, do you believe there are serious ethical considerations when it comes to the corporate sponsorship of European Council Presidencies?

I take the concerns related to the corporate sponsorships of Council presidencies seriously. In the process, transparency, openness and good governance should be fully respected. I find it important that the public discussion on the matter has started. It is a good way to raise awareness in the Member States and among future presidencies.

The discussion has also started on possible non-binding guidance for Presidencies and I have noted with pleasure the positive feedback from Member States. Non-binding guidance and exchange of best practices between Member States can complement the national rules, standards and recommendations on the matter.

The Finnish far-right enjoys consistently high-level of support, a phenomenon that can be seen across Scandinavia. Given that such movements seem to have embraced climate change denial, are you concerned we could soon see a backlash in Europe’s ambition to reign over global warning? Are you concerned about the future of the Green Deal project?

One of the cornerstones of EU’s climate policy is the notion of a just transition. This means that we have to ensure social sustainability in all climate action. This is a core requirement if we want to build a sustainable future and avoid any serious backlashes.

I am also convinced that we should carefully avoid the most alarmistic visions of future. My conviction is not based on desire to stay in political comfort zone. Apart from the fact that they are not based on best scientific knowledge we have, they are more likely to promote defeatism instead of action. A deer in headlights is likely to freeze, a human facing an overwhelming catastrophe is likely to avoid thinking about it.

The message we need to send to European citizens is simple: We can solve the climate crisis and safeguard our welfare while doing so. The technology and economics for solving the problem already exist.