Interview: Finnish Foreign Minister urges Britain not to give in to pressure to reverse Brexit

Interview: Finnish Foreign Minister urges Britain not to give in to pressure to reverse Brexit

The Finnish Foreign Minister has encouraged Britain not to bow to pressure to reverse Brexit and talks up the chances of both sides reaching a good deal. Speaking to BrexitCentral at the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month, Timo Soini gives his views on Brexit and the future of the EU.

“We want a good deal for everyone,” he says. “There is no revenge mentality, no desire for humiliation. There are tough issues to discuss, but a good negotiation process is possible. Both sides need each other.” Finland is taking a “very practical” attitude towards the Brexit negotiations, he tells me.

Soini is at the Conservative Party Conference as a guest of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament, founded by the UK Conservative Party in 2009 as a mainstream Eurosceptic antidote to the resolutely pro-integration European People’s Party and Socialists & Democrats groupings which have dominated the European Parliament for decades in various incarnations. Unlike many of his EU counterparts, he sees opportunities as well as challenges with Brexit, although he is resolutely opposed to the renewed pushes for closer EU integration on the back of Britain’s impending departure.

Publicly, the EU27 is united on Brexit, as EU leaders never tire of repeating. But that does not mean that member states do not have their own priorities. Extensive horse-trading between member states behind the scenes is a ubiquitous feature of Brussels diplomacy, and Brexit is certainly no exception to this.

“There are different interests and approaches – on both sides,” he tells me. In Finland’s case, its top priorities for Brexit are ongoing security and intelligence co-operation with the UK. But Soini is keen to stress that it is the Commission that is negotiating for the 27. “There is no separate track for the Finnish Government,” he insists.

He thinks the talks are now “going in the right direction” after Theresa May’s Florence Speech, describing it as both “necessary” and “promising”. “We need concrete proposals from the UK side,” he says, which he feels May’s speech provided. He wants the talks to go further, but acknowledges that it will not be an easy task.

“Trade, aviation, these are difficult issues,” he says. “But I will be very disappointed if intelligent people on both sides don’t manage to get it done. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

He is also full of praise for his British counterpart, telling me he has an “excellent working relationship” with Boris Johnson. They speak lots at Council of the EU meetings and have achieved much in the way of “concrete cooperation”, although he apologises with a wry grin that he isn’t able to divulge any further diplomatic details.

However, it is not only his diplomatic dealings with Boris which have left him enthused – Soini is also effusive with praise for Boris’s recent Telegraph article where he set out his big vision for Brexit. “Boris is a different breed, a different type,” he says. “He understands that people need encouragement and a message of hope – someone to tell them ‘don’t worry, we are going to deliver’.”

He talks about the huge pressure the UK is being subjected to over Brexit – people are constantly being told the City will lose jobs and that firms won’t be coming to the UK any more. In the face of this, he says people need someone like Boris to say “we are fighting for you”.

But he strongly rejects any suggestion that Boris’s pre-conference Telegraph article somehow undermines Theresa May. “Only if you have ill will could you interpret it as opposed to the Florence Speech”, he says. In his view, they complement each other – May’s speech provides the “concrete suggestions” necessary for the negotiations, while Boris offers the vision to keep the UK’s spirits up. On the other hand, he admits he is perplexed by Labour’s approach to Brexit, saying he has “no clue what on earth Labour would do” if they were in charge of the negotiations.

Soini may be the Foreign Minister, but economics is clearly at the heart of much of his political thinking. Free trade is a concern for him, not simply in the context of a good Brexit deal, but more generally around the world. While he is worried about the rise of protectionism in the USA, he sees potential for the UK to take a lead on global free trade after Brexit.

He is a supporter of free markets and enterprise, and sees a natural affinity between Finland and the UK in this regard. “The UK has a similar economic approach to Finland,” he says. “You understand that the state doesn’t create jobs, it can only set the conditions to make it possible.”

This economic thinking also underpins his attitude towards the future direction of the EU, something which has been hotly debated in the weeks since Jean-Claude Juncker and Emmanuel Macron set out grand visions respectively for the future of the EU. While Juncker’s and Macron’s visions differed in many places, there was one overriding common theme – closer integration.

“The answer to our problems is not only ‘more Europe’,” insists Soini. “We need sensible economic policies. That means no bailouts and no EU-wide taxes. The EU should be focusing on free trade, not economic integration.” He also wants to see the EU budget cut once the UK leaves, not maintained at the same level which would result in the richer member states like Finland continuously paying more.

“From a Finnish point of view, it is a pity the UK is leaving because we have lost our most reliable partner in pushing for pro-market and anti-integrationist policies,” he says, echoing sentiments which have been expressed by a number of politicians from other EU countries wary of the EU’s integrationist tendencies. A former European Commission spokesman recently revealed how other countries have become used to relying on Britain to block unpopular measures – they will now have to do so themselves with Britain leaving.

Similarly, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, the first mainstream European Parliament grouping to make a concerted stand against ever closer European integration, which Soini hails as a “voice of sense” and “rising power”, also stands to lose influence in 2019 with the permanent departure of 20 Conservative MEPs out of a total of 74, much to the dismay of moderate Eurosceptics elsewhere in the EU.

With the ability of Eurosceptic states to resist the tide of integrationism set to greatly diminish after the UK’s departure, I ask Soini the question – could Finland follow the UK out of the EU’s exit door?

Eurocrats will be pleased to hear that he thinks it is highly unlikely. “Look how big the pressure is against a large country like the UK,” he says. “Imagine what it would be like with a smaller state like Finland.” Nonetheless, he says that other European countries will be watching what happens the UK.

“You shouldn’t say never.” He mentions the Kalmar Union, which once joined Norway, Sweden and parts of Finland in a union with Denmark, but eventually fell apart in 1523 after over 100 years of existence, and the Soviet Union, which lasted under 70. It’s now 60 years since the Treaty of Rome. “Is the EU forever?” he wonders.

Conversely, does he think there is any chance of the UK changing its mind and staying in the EU after all? He doesn’t see that happening. “There are aspirations around the EU for Brexit to be cancelled, and plenty with that mentality in the UK as well. But it would be such a big humiliation for the UK to vote again, and it would create enormous problems inside British society.”

He compares it to Ireland’s treatment when it first voted to reject the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, only to be subjected to severe pressure from the EU before it was made to vote again in 2009 and duly changed its mind. “It was a rough thing to do that to Ireland over the Lisbon Treaty,” he says.

But in the UK’s case, “leave is leave”, he says. “We respect the will of the UK and what the UK voted for. We may be losing a friend inside the EU but we are not losing a friend overall.”

Does he have any final words of advice for the UK?

“Keep calm and carry on. You will manage.”