Jari Vilen Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Finland and the Global 
    Economy: Conversation with Jari Vilen, Minister for Foreign Trade, Finland, 
    January 23, 2003 by Harry Kreisler

Page 5 of 6

The European Union

In your career -- and you talked about this at the very beginning -- your education was a journey of involvement with the European Union. First as an intern, then as a member of the European Parliament, and then as somebody who came back to the Finnish Parliament and actually negotiated the terms and the changes within Finnish society that had to be made as Finland became a member of the European Union. Why was it important for Finland to take that leap, and what was the most interesting aspect of that for you as a political leader?

I think there are two basic reasons for Finland to join in the European Union, and to take a very strong role -- we try to have a very strong role in the European Union. [One] is economic, which is always the prime force in a developing society. Another one, of course, is just basic security, to be joined in the same family of nations, the European Union. The European Union is becoming more and more important for the future and development of Europe.

I had a very good discussion with Ambassador Zelnik in Washington, that the European Union is not an organization for free trade. It's not an organization for security purposes. It's an absolutely unique union of nations which share the same values like freedom, like democratic principles, justice principles, the values which are so important to Europe as such. Together with those values, it also is a growing, powerful economic union in the world.

For us what was important as a small nation [was] to be part of the growing and the more and more important market of Europe, and, also, through the European Union, to be able to influence development in the world. For example, currently we've got ongoing the negotiation for liberalization of trade through the WTO (World Trade Organization) processes -- the Doha processes ongoing at the moment. Finland is a country which is very much dependent on foreign trade. Today, about 42 percent of the GDP comes from foreign trade. One of my goals is to raise this number to 50 percent in the coming years. It's in our interest to have free trade, and we decided that the European Union is the best way to do that.

Today, we have a common currency in the twelve nations of the European Union, and in 2004, on the first of May -- Labor Day -- the European Union will be a nation of twenty-five. It's becoming more and more powerful, and stronger. I think it's a good balance for the USA economy, and compared, also, to the current economies in Asia, like China.

Let's talk about the other side of my question, which is, what were the greatest challenges, as a political leader in your own country, to go back to your home district? What was that experience like?

I think it's just the same everywhere, in every country when there's a change coming, a change which means also change in the traditional way of living. For example, agriculture has been very heavily subsidized, like most of the industrialized nations. The European Union meant that our agriculture policy was no longer our own. It became a part of the European Union agricultural policy. So [the challenge was to] describe the change in principles, what it means to be a member of the Union. What are the advantages, what are the disadvantages being a member? I think, basically, people were concerned or even scared about the change; and to predict the [outcome of] change for the people was the biggest challenge.

Also, to accept the political change. The European Union, which was formed, basically, as an economic union to prevent war between France and Germany has today developed into something else, which, as I said, is a union of values, but a union which supports the economic growth of its members' states, and brings more power for these nations to influence the world economy and [other] issues in the world.

So to explain to people the issues which are not really concrete, but which are something that you can predict about the future to happen; this was challenging, especially for the older generations who had especially felt the war. These people have defended the independence of Finland in two wars against the Soviet Union, and they've felt that nobody else has done that, and they have done it themselves. "Why should we join something else, and be part of the something else? It should be better to just be alone." This change has been taking some time.

But the younger generations are very keen on it, because the European Union means, like in the USA, free travel without any passport. You have fifteen nations where you can travel freely; the possibilities to train and educate in fifteen countries and universities; possibilities to working life; even possibilities to find a marriage in a different culture in some different nations. So, especially, for the young people, Europe is open and full of opportunities for them.

If the greatest challenge for Europe, and for Nokia, is Microsoft, how do you think Europe will respond to that challenge?

Well, this is the big question, which I think the whole Europe has to respond to. What Europe is trying to do now is to be the most competitive nation or region of the world by 2010. This is the commitment by all the head of the states of the fifteen nations of Europe. We're trying to open up our markets. We have decided to increase the number of research and development funding of every single nation. We have decided to change the legislation so that the economy will be eased and there will be more possibilities for growth in the various areas of the European Union. But this is a challenge that we have to update and see at all time. As I said, one of my missions here is to learn more about what's going on in the U.S. economy and how you see the future of Microsoft, and what are the challenges that Microsoft is posing to the whole world?

Next page: Lessons Learned

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