Finnish Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo (the Green League) discussing with his Swedish counterpart, Mikael Damberg, in Hanasaari Cultural Center, Espoo, on February 10, 2020. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

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On a gray and windy Monday, Finland’s Minister of the Interior Maria Ohisalo hosted her Swedish colleague Mikael Damberg in Hanasaari Cultural Center, in a room with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the turmoiled sea.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how to enhance Finland’s and Sweden’s bilateral cooperation in the area of security.

At the outset, Minister Ohisalo emphasized the need to study security from a wide range of perspectives. As opposed to the traditional approach, where security is considered a matter of foreign affairs or defense ministries, she proposed a multidisciplinary approach, which would involve input from social science, the education sector and so on.

She also spoke about the need to enhance police cooperation with Sweden, particularly in the area of border security, and stressed the importance of preparing for cyber threats, as well as so-called hybrid threats.

Nowadays, we need to be prepared for everything.

Maria Ohisalo, Minister of the Interior

Minister Damberg added that Sweden is building its national cybersecurity center and that he hopes to learn from Finland’s strides in the field. He welcomed Finland’s initiative to prioritize hybrid-security concerns while presiding over the Council of the EU and particularly the establishment of Hybrid CoE, The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which is based in Helsinki.

Damberg also joined Ohisalo in saying the two neighboring countries should “take [their] collaboration to the next level,” namely by signing a new bilateral agreement that would address topics like cross-border surveillance, cross-border interventions and crisis preparedness.

I sat down with the two ministers after their introductory remarks.

Minister Damberg and Ohisalo. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Can you tell me a bit more about hybrid threats? What exactly are they and why should countries be paying attention to them?

Ohisalo: Hybrid threats are actually not a new phenomenon; they have been here for a long time. During Finland’s presidency [of the Council of the EU] we wanted to lift it up and show that it’s not only a question of foreign policy or defense, but also something that we, interior ministers, should be interested in. We launched a discussion on hybrid threats during our presidency, in which we had a kind of role play, a scenario-based discussion: we had news going on telling people that in a specific city things started to happen, then in another place we could see, for instance, chemical attacks happening, then suddenly some new discussions come up on social media that are aimed at influencing something. We see these are not new phenomena, but all these are or can be part of foreign countries’ attempts to influence or destabilize our societies. It’s a matter of someone using multiple tools to influence our societies.

Damberg: We see that the international trend is that some very important players in the world use different kinds of influence on countries, not only war, as the ultimate goal of their foreign policy agenda. They influence countries by disinformation, destabilization, cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. This is the new world. That is why Europe—as well as Sweden and Finland—need to take these threats seriously.

Minister Damberg mentioned earlier that Finland and Sweden will be working on increasing cooperation in crisis preparedness. What kinds of crisis scenarios do you think it is most important to be prepared for?

Ohisalo: Nowadays, we need to be prepared for everything. When it comes to EU level discussions, Finland has been ready to take on a bigger role in being prepared for CBRN threats (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear). Finland is already well-prepared for these kinds of scenarios, and we could be able to share our expertise, our best practices, at the EU level. And this is also something that Sweden was interested in, so maybe we could also improve these areas together.

Damberg: A hard question. But look at a couple of years ago, when Sweden got support from Finland when it came to the wildfires. And now we have a European rescEU, which actually helps countries that are in need of resources that one country cannot have on their own. Wildfires is one example that has proven to be very successful when it comes to European collaboration. We’re also looking into nuclear and radioactive accidents. This is a very specialized area in which one country could not afford to have the resources or the personnel themselves, so that’s one area where Nordic countries could collaborate even closer, but also within the European framework. When it comes to cybersecurity, we collaborate a lot; not only with Europe, but with America, Australia, because we see that these cyberattacks are often global, and one country cannot cope with them alone.

As both Finland and Sweden seek to step up their cybersecurity, does this perhaps signal a closer cooperation with NATO, since NATO has also been prioritizing cybersecurity in recent years?

Ohisalo: I wouldn’t say so, necessarily. I would say each and every country in the world should be more prepared for cyber and hybrid threats. But what we discussed was that we would continually have to educate our administrative people more, whether it’s the police force or border guards, in order for them to have a better understanding of these different ways of influencing our society. So I wouldn’t say that it’s related to NATO, it’s just general preparedness.

Damberg: Look at the European Centre of Excellence in Countering Hybrid Threats. It’s a European platform, but it’s also collaborating with NATO. That’s not a problem for Sweden or Finland, being non-aligned, because we see that this is a common concern and we have to work together.

The bilateral agreement would address the concept of cross-border interventions. What kinds of implications does this notion have for territorial sovereignty of both countries?

Ohisalo: We have many agreements and different ways of cooperating already. Obviously, Finland looks forward to having EU cooperation in many things, but we also need to have good cooperation and good information exchange with our neighbors, so these bilateral agreements are also needed. And this idea is not something that came from us politicians, but it came from the police in the field, who felt that they needed more tools to cooperate across the border; if you have a situation where you’re spotting a criminal on the Finnish side of the border and suddenly you’re going on the Swedish side, how do we enable these authorities to work better together, while also obeying the laws of both countries.

Damberg: Countries can have bilateral agreements; we can agree to help each other. Already today we can collaborate when it comes to information-sharing between Swedish and Finnish police. We have a regulation in Europe saying the police can help each other when it comes to terrorist attacks, for instance. Now we’re looking at border areas. Sometimes the alarm call comes and you have to be able to help each other, but also perhaps pursue across the border, if something has happened in Sweden and they [the perpetrators] enter Finland. You might also need surveillance on the other side of the border. So you have to regulate it. And that’s what we’re trying to do, because the police in the northern part of both Finland and Sweden says that this would make their work easier. That is why this is something we should pursue, together.