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“Are you expecting someone?” A familiar voice was heard across the small room squished in with media like olives in a jar. One look in the direction of the voice revealed a smiling face of the Finnish premier, Alexander Stubb. “Get these guys some coffee,” he said and disappeared around the corner.
At the same time, Angela Merkel, 60, the federal chancellor of Germany, – the most powerful woman in the world – had landed at the Helsinki airport. The tires of the government car blasted through the slush in a police escort, through the Monday afternoon traffic of the city of Helsinki, while heading to the Government Banquet Hall next to the Market square, where Stubb was now waiting in a dark suit and an electric blue tie.
Merkel arrived inside the building around a quarter past one. She talked German with Stubb and she looked happy and elegant, dressed in her trademark nature green jacket and black pants, and after they shook hands they entered a private room for discussions and lunch.
After the talks, which lasted for about an hour and a half, Merkel and Stubb plunged through the door to brief the media.
It had been nine years since Merkel’s last visit in Finland. In 2006, Finland held the presidency of the European Union. Merkel had been elected as the chancellor just year before and she arrived in Finland a few days prior Christmas and met with the then serving prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, who gave practical tips of chairing the EU Council because Germany was the next in turn. The inner politics of Russia were on the agenda, too.
While I observed Merkel at the podium, she reminded me of a typical Finn: one that doesn’t talk too much but when there is something to be said, it will be said.
Merkel has been described as a master of connecting with people, including those with different outward demeanour.
In addition that she connects easily with the way more talkative Stubb, it doesn’t surprise me that her relations with President Sauli Niinistö (whom Merkel was also going to meet) are considered warm, as Niinistö himself likes to stick to the point with a calm and calculative and, if necessary, an authoritative attitude.
“Germany and Finland are very close partners indeed, our relations are very friendly on country to country level.”
“For a country like Finland which is a small country, it’s very important to have big partners.”
Merkel’s and the Finnish leaderships thought-process share many similarities.
“Germany and Finland are very close partners indeed, our relations are very friendly on country to country level. We have close economic ties,” Merkel said in German, which was simultaneously translated into English (she always speaks German in public). “For a country like Finland which is a small country, it’s very important to have big partners,” said Stubb.
Big country indeed, in many ways imaginable: Germany, a country of about 81 million people, has a growing GDP thanks to its robust industry and the lowest employment rate in the EU. An encouraging role model for Finland, where economy is sinking and the debt growing.
What however connects the two is the belief in a unified Europe. If there are cracks, they need to be fixed. One of the biggest problems has been the conflict in Ukraine and the debt of Greece. The key word here is solidarity – a word both Merkel and Stubb agree upon.
“It’s been a great privilege to be able to work with Angela and with Germany throughout this dual crisis (Ukraine and Greece). We do not see a deviation in our position,” Stubb said. “It’s very important that we continue to stick to the same line. At the end of the day, it’s about both economic solidarity towards Greece and also security solidarity inside the European Union.”
“I expect no more no less than what I expect from ourselves,” Merkel said.
Cynics could argue that Merkel, a member of CDU (Christian Democrats Union), arrived in Finland only to show support for her sister party NCP (National Coalition Party), which Stubb chairs, and that her visit was a carefully crafted election advertisement to prolong Stubb’s post as the prime minister for the next parliamentary term (elections are held April 19).
It’s true that Merkel likes to support fellow politicians where she can but it might as well be that Stubb saw the moment as an opportunity to invite Merkel, who is his long-time discussion partner at the EU Commission where they are seated next to each other. This might very well be the last opportunity for Stubb to invite Merkel for an official state visit because the recent polls indicate sour chances for Stubb to be elected as the next prime minister.
The German media wanted to know Merkel’s stand on Finland’s responsibility in the crisis of Ukraine: Are we responsible for the tough line or about taking a political approach? “I expect no more no less than what I expect from ourselves,” Merkel said. “We are partners, we are responsible for all the different aspects for the decision on sanctions. Finland took a decision, Germany took that decision or the other 26 member states of the European Union took that decision together, while at the same time trying to keep open or trying to identify channels for communication.”
[alert type=white ]What these women shared in public was a certain kind of calmness. They thought before acting, eating machos for breakfast and not itching for the trigger to end conflicts by threats or force.[/alert]
I have to admit, Merkel fascinates me. In general, female leaders do. From the former British premier ‘The Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher to the former Finnish president, Tarja Halonen.
What these women shared in public was a certain kind of calmness. They thought before acting, eating machos for breakfast and not itching for the trigger to end conflicts by threats or force.
One can see similar harmony in Merkel; it doesn’t come to me as a surprise that her colleagues have described her as calculative and thoughtful. Merkel, who has a mind of a scientist (PhD in quantum chemistry) is able to show compassion and make political U-turns, if found necessary. For example, Merkel, a long-time supporter of nuclear power, changed her view of getting rid of nuclear power from Germany as soon as possible after she spent the summer studying the negative effects of nuclear energy, horrified by the disaster in Fukushima, Japan in 2011.
“If we continue to speak with one voice it’s going to have an effect on Russia.”
In Finland, the talks between Stubb and Merkel observed Russia’s action as a total package. Russia is involved in the “six frozen conflicts that we see in Moldova, around Ukraine and Georgia (Russia maintains military bases in all three territories),” Stubb said. “In that sense we just have to be patient and continue with Russia: not against Russia but with Russia, and at the end of the day we shall find a solution.”
Merkel said that Finland is very much affected by the decision of laying sanctions against its neighbour but “if we are to keep our values maintained that is an action to pursue.” “If we continue to speak with one voice it’s going to have an effect on Russia.”
After all the seriousness, Merkel relaxed into a happy grin and lured Stubb to smile some, too. They shook hands and exchanged cheek-to-cheek kisses. Then they walked out of the conference, and Merkel went to visit President Niinistö in Mäntyniemi.
After the discussions with Niinistö about similar subjects, Merkel joined Stubb in a seminar on ‘European Security and the Conflict in Ukraine’ at the University of Helsinki. Stubb spoke about Finland’s 20 years of EU membership, Russia’s changed foreign and security policy and Finland’s current security environment.
“My visit to your country meant to be understood by all as an expression of my gratitude for the fact that Finland and Germany are linked by very close and a broad variety of ties,” Merkel addressed the room full of university students. “Be that in the areas of science and the academic world toward the area of industry business or culture and last but not least in politics. We are partners committed to the same fundamental values. We are standing up together for stability, security and peace in Europe and other parts of the world.”