The Washington Diplomat / October 2006
By Larry Luxner
In the world of trivia, Finland stands out for three things: 96 of every 100 Finns have mobile phones, the highest cellular penetration rate in the world.
They're also the world's most voracious coffee-drinkers. Per-capita consumption stands at an astonishing 36 pounds of roasted and green coffee beans per year. And finally, the sauna — itself a Finnish word — is such an integral part of life in this sparsely inhabited Nordic country that there's one sauna for every 4.5 people.
There's nothing trivial, however, about Finland occupying the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union.
On July 1, for only the second time since joining the EU in 1995, Finland took over the helm of the world's largest and most important trading bloc at a time of rising global economic and political tensions.
That's a lot of responsibility for a nation of only five million people.
Pekka Lintu, Finland's ambassador to the United States, said much has changed since 1999, the last time his country had the rotating EU presidency.
"At that time, at the end of the 1990s, there was economic optimism. Now there are uncertainties in the air, and we can see that in our presidency," said Lintu, who assumed his current job in mid-January. "Yet some things still remain the same for us. For Finland, the EU is very important, and we believe in a strong and well-functioning union."
On May 1, 2004, the EU saw its membership jump from 15 to 25 with the addition of 10 new countries. These included eight Central and Eastern European countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia) and two Mediterranean island states (Cyprus and Malta).
The 2004 expansion boosted the EU's population by more than 80 million, from 370 million to over 450 million, doubled its territory to 2.5 million square miles and nearly doubled the number of its official languages from 11 to 20.
And the EU is still expanding.
"The enlargement of the EU will be at an important stage during our presidency," said Lintu. "Decisions will be taken concerning the entry of Bulgaria and Romania, and accession talks will be continued with Croatia and Turkey. There are some major challenges in those talks."
That's putting it rather lightly, especially when it comes to Turkey.
For starters, 95% of the country's land mass is in Asia, not Europe. Secondly, its Muslim orientation makes some Europeans uneasy. Thirdly, its human-rights record leaves much to be desired. And finally, its per-capita income of only $3,500 is way below that of any EU member country, which causes many Europeans to worry about an influx of Turkish immigrants once borders are erased and visa requirements abolished.
Yet Lintu prefers to stay out of that fray.
"We cannot say that they are not Europeans. I don't think we should have that debate," said the diplomat. "During our presidency in 1999, Turkey became a candidate country. Negotiations have been going on since October of last year. The Turks will have to take some hard decisions on the accession protocol which concerns the relationship between Turkey and the entire EU."
As if that's not enough, virtually all former Yugoslav republics and many former Soviet republics — ranging from Albania to Ukraine — will eventually seek EU membership, raising the question of how large the club can grow before its effectiveness is diluted.
"There is no magic number; I don't think you can put a number on it," he said. "Geographical borderlines are also a bit difficult. In December, the European Council will hold a debate on what we call a new consensus of enlargement."
In the meantime, Lentu — Finald's former undersecretary of state for external economic relations — says the rest of Europe ought to take a close look at how Finland streamlined its economy and turned a failing system into a success.
"One of the issues close to our heart is competitiveness. That, in our opinion, is a major challenge," he said. "In Finland we have a competitive economy. We would like that to be the case on a European scale. We must enhance our competitiveness in order to be an even bigger global player."
Lintu is the latest in a long line of ambassadors dating from Armas Herman Saastamoinen, who served from 1919 to 1922 when Finland established its first embassy at an office building at 14th and E streets.
Eleven years ago, Finland inaugurated its ultramodern mission at 3301 Massachusetts Ave. to rave reviews. "If anyone were to draw up an 'A' list of Washington's embassies, Finland's would rank at the top," gushed local architect Jane Loeffler.
Lintu couldn't agree more.
"This is the kind of embassy I always wanted to have," he told the Diplomat. "This building comes with a message. It is high-tech, transparent and very close to nature. This is the kind of message we want to transmit to people visiting us. It's a kind of business card, and the best part is that is true. These are the kind of values my country holds dear. Today we are a very modern, high-tech, transparent society in the sense that our political system is uncorrupted and we are very close to nature. We really practice what we preach."
He added: "We have been members of the EU for 11 years. We joined just as we were recovering from our worst economic crisis since World War II. We took some very difficult decisions. Maybe one could say that most of the things we had to do to get out of our economic difficulties in the early 90s we would have done anyway, but the fact of being a member of the EU helped considerably."
"We became part of a bigger common market with the knowledge that there would be monetary union. Our use of the euro has been a stabilizing factor for a country like ours with a rather small economy."
Lintu said Finland has been "quite fortunate" in escaping the kind of terrorism and anti-Semitic violence that has mushroomed in other European countries like Spain, Great Britain and even Norway — where a synagogue in Oslo was riddled by gunshots and a Jewish cemetery vandalized in mid-September.
"People in Finland don't feel that threatened by terrorism," he said. "Traditionally, we have been far from where the terrorists have struck so far. But we also know that in today's society, everybody's vulnerable, either directly or indirectly. We have seen terrorist activity in countries where there was none in the past."
Many in Europe blame such increasing violence on the war in Iraq, which Lintu labeled "a difficult issue in transatlantic relations, especially the way the war was started."
But things have improved since last year, he insisted.
"There were disagreements before, but I think those have been overcome, and now everybody is working towards the same target, which is to stabilize the situation in Iraq," he said. "Now, there's more unity on the objectives of bringing peace and stability to Iraq. We understand quite well that it's in everybody's interests to somehow cure the open wound in Iraq."
Regarding an even more potentially explosive situation — Iran — Lintu said "the United States and the Europeans have been working quite well together. The negotiatinga pproach of the Eu has been supported by the United States. Now we must determine what to do if we can't get Iran to [stop] with its uranium enrichment program. We understand that this enrichment is continuing, but we must really try all the avenues of negotiation first."
In yet another Middle East hotspot, the EU has pledged 330 million euros for the reconstruction of Lebanon, following this summer's brutal war between Israel and Hezbollah terrorists.
Meanwhile, France and Italy have taken the lead in contributing the bulk of troops to a UN peacekeeping force; Finland is sending between 200 and 250 troops to Lebanon as well.
"People realize that Europe has to play a strong role in this situation," said Lintu. "We have done it already by pushing Resolution 1701 and seeing to it that a big part of the peacekeeping force is coming from the EU."