The Finnish president addressed many contemporary topics in his speech at the plenary hall of the Parliament Building, which was empty of attendants because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

President Sauli Niinistö opened the 2021 parliamentary session at the Parliament Building on Wednesday, February 3, 2021. Photograph: Kuva: Hanne Salonen/The Finnish Parliament

In his speech at the opening of Parliament on Wednesday, President Sauli Niinistö shared thoughts on the ongoing pandemic, Russia, the U.S. presidential election, the Arctic, and more.

Here are the Finnish president’s remarks in full:

When a year ago on the same occasion I referred to the coronavirus, I was only cautiously able to mention that the risk of a pandemic cannot be ruled out. Little did we know at that point. Unfortunately, soon after that the pandemic turned into reality.

We no longer lack knowledge concerning the disease and the virus. On the contrary, we are constantly getting more information about them, and vast amounts of data are readily available to anyone. Information has brought positive energy. Sharing it has enabled unforeseen international collaboration within the fields of science and health care. At the political level, co-operation has not gone as far.

But the diverse, partly even contradictory nature of information has also left us confused. Hardly anyone knows the absolute truth about what the best course of action would be.

It is difficult to live in the middle of uncertainty. It is tempting to hold fast to the idea that the information available to you is the best there is. Therefore, it is no wonder that some demand stricter restrictions while others require that even the existing restrictions be lifted, with equal amounts of conviction. And, indeed, we should discuss our options, but, while doing so, we should not lose sight of what is our common goal.

In Finland, for the time being, we have succeeded quite well in our battle against the coronavirus. Much better than in many other countries, even though our restrictions have been mild compared to them. In fact, it would seem that, in the last resort, we will find the most essential solutions between our ears. In the way we act in our everyday lives. When prolonged, the restrictions on our normal lives become hard and taxing. But getting ill or losing someone you love is even harder and even more taxing. Each and every one of us must still hold on and continue to bear our own share of the joint responsibility.

Honorable Members of Parliament, the power of the example you give is strong. Therefore, even in the midst of the differences between us, let us hold on to this message of joint responsibility. We will make it through only by sticking together. The message also gives us hope. Together, we are sure to make it through.

* * *

President Niinistö and Speaker of Parliament Anu Vehviläinen (the Centre) were the only attendants of the opening session. Photograph: Hanne Salonen/The Finnish Parliament

Over the past year, a small virus has also dominated the big picture of international politics. Societies have been locked down, but it has by no means stopped the world from turning. We must not let the other developments escape our attention.

As I said in my new year’s address, we find ourselves at a new turning point in world politics as well. The great power relations and the multilateral system are seeking a new balance. As yet, we do not know how the pieces will settle next. But it is certain that we must stay alert in how we practice our foreign policy. In the midst of change, we must safeguard Finland’s position. And in this respect too, we must bear the responsibility jointly, as institutions and as a nation.

We have been carefully and with concern following the recent events in Russia. They have been condemned repeatedly, both in Finland and in Europe. There has been reason to do so, and most recently more reasons appeared yesterday. But one-way declarations alone are not enough. We must also seek means that will affect the desired change.

In international politics as well, we need to have lines of communication especially with those with whom we disagree the most. When our own views rest on a solid basis, engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing them. By engaging in dialogue, we show strength. It is not always possible to influence the other party, but it is even harder without dialogue. It is in our best interest that the European Union also engages in such direct and frank dialogue with Russia. Particularly now, when the Navalnyi case will draw a deep rift in the relations between Europe and Russia, which were not intact to begin with.

* * *

There are also positive tones in international politics. We recently received the confirmation that the New START treaty between the United States and Russia, set to expire the day after tomorrow, will be extended by five years. This does not even begin to solve all the problems related to nuclear arms control. Still, the fact that at least one of the treaties between the two largest nuclear powers remains in force gives hope that new negotiations can ensue. Finland continues to be prepared to offer its good services to support negotiations on strategic stability.

The signals we are hearing from Washington are promising. It seems that the idea of emphasizing the power of example rather than the example of power, put forward by President Biden in his inaugural address, is beginning to gain momentum. The quick return to the climate agreement is a good start. Many others have also expressed their support for the multilateral system, most recently in the virtual Davos meeting.

The weight of their words is eventually measured with their deeds. Necessity demands cooperation also in the Arctic region, which is particularly important for Finland. The Arctic countries now need to nourish the seeds of co-operation. The reduction of black carbon and methane emissions would bring immediate results in our fight against climate change. Recovery of the radioactive waste from the bottom of the Arctic Sea would improve nuclear safety.

On their own, none of these joint efforts would change the world, but they would steer it in the right direction. If successful, they could broaden the horizons for other kind of co-operation as well, which is necessary even outside the Arctic region.

We can ourselves influence what actions Europe is to take, what is the power of Europe’s example, what is Europe’s weight in the changing world. On their own or dispersed, the European countries are weaker than they are when they stand together and united. That is another reason why I am concerned about what the coronavirus crisis with its disruptive disputes over vaccines is doing to Europe. As, at the same time, Great Britain has finally detached itself from the European Union, and the leadership of Germany will change, we are now seeking new balance in the power structures within Europe as well. Let us hope that we can close ranks. The example shown by the weak does not attract many followers.

* * *

Many people surely remember a picture from less than a month back: A man, carrying the House of Representatives Speaker’s podium under his arm, with a bewildered smile on his face. The man, a father of five, had come from afar to express his opinion. When he shut his front door, he could hardly imagine that his absence from home would become much longer than expected. When posing for the photo, he did not seem to understand that he was participating in a revolt, thus disrupting his own and his family’s life.

This is a tough story. A moment’s ecstasy or the feeling of having just followed the crowd and doing what they did, as part of them or along with it, is not an acceptable explanation. Nor is the excuse that others urged me to do so.

This is also a very educational story. One must personally know when to stop and think – even for a brief moment. Maybe simply to ask oneself, what exactly am I involved in?

This is a very universally applicable lesson for everyone. It applies not only to political activity but also to forming gangs and social media groupings, even your actions when you are with your friends. When people agitate each other, mean words and contempt lead to hate and, at worst, to violence.

Finland is not immune to this danger either. We have recently learned about criminal actions that have ended in cruel killings, with the situation having gotten out of hand when a group of young people have attacked a single victim. At worst, the rise of political fanaticism has led to a murder attempt, and the assaults on people and obstruction of events we have been witnessing can already be considered serious symptoms.

We must nip the cycle of provocation and fanaticism in the bud. We must think for ourselves. Then there is no room for others to lead us to hate and violence. Then the power of example takes us towards something better.

* * *

Madame Speaker, Honored representatives of the Finnish nation,

I congratulate the presidency for the support you have received. I wish you all success and wisdom in your demanding work for Finland. I declare the 2021 Parliament open.