Presidential candidate Olli Rehn. LEHTIKUVA


Dr. Olli Rehn, the incumbent governor of the Bank of Finland and a prominent member of the Centre Party, shared his nuanced view on shaping the nation's foreign policy, economic strategies, and responses to global challenges, in an interview with Helsinki Times. He addressed economic concerns such as the imbalance in spending and the diminishing tax base, projecting a notable increase in debt during the current government period.

The conversation delved into various geopolitical issues, including Finland's NATO membership stance and diplomatic relations with Russia and the Middle East. Rehn has been an advocate for Finland aligning with Western security communities.

As Finland’s central bank chief and previous minster of Economic Affairs, Olli Rehn acknowledged the economic challenges of Finland, and urged for cross-party collaboration to address Finland's increasing debt. “Finland's indebtedness continues when spending has been adjusted to a growth path higher than the economy's carrying capacity. At the same time, the tax base erodes. The imbalance of this government period will be €46 billion more debt. We are separating ourselves from the other Nordic countries, whose welfare model we want to share,” Olli Rehn told Helsinki Times
“No party is sinless as to the increasing indebtedness. I appeal to the parties in order to cooperate across government-opposition borders and over the election periods to fix the Finnish economy,” Rehn said.

The additional debt of 46 billion euros is based on the Ministry of Finance estimate of on-budget balance in 2023–2027, released last October.

According to the ministry's report, by the close of 2024, the central government debt is estimated to be around 163 billion euros, making up approximately 56% of the country's GDP. Suggesting a gradual growth in government debt over the coming years, the projection places the debt at just below 198 billion, which is 60% of the GDP, towards the end of 2027.

He endorsed a program to halt indebtedness, urging a reassessment of promised tax reductions and additional spending. This approach allows parties flexibility in determining spending and income priorities within the context of fiscal balance. Rehn urged the Orpo government to consider this proposal for parliamentary cooperation, suggesting a re-evaluation of promised tax reductions and additional spending.

Dr. Jukka Pekkarinen and Dr. Vesa Vihriälä have presented a program that crosses government-opposition boundaries and government terms, in which the political parties would commit to stopping indebtedness. The model would be Sweden's surplus/deficit target, which all parties commit to and which has produced results: Sweden is a country with low debt. Within the framework of that balance goal, the parties have a lot of leeway to decide on the priorities of spending and income based on their values,” Rehn said.

“I encourage Prime Minister Petteri Orpo's government to take up the proposal for parliamentary cooperation to fix the economy. In addition to new difficult decisions, we must dare to humbly reevaluate the already promised tax reductions and additional spending,” Rehn added.

Finland’s global competitiveness

To boost global competitiveness of Finland, Rehn outlined strategies to support entrepreneurship and employment, bolstering Finnish companies' export initiatives, particularly in key sectors like bioeconomy, clean-tech, digitalization, and health technology.

“New stabilization measures of the economy should not put a brake on entrepreneurship and work, because without growth and employment, no expenditure savings or tax increases will be enough. The recipe for work, entrepreneurship, know-how and innovations will also work in the future,” Rehn noted.

Applauding the successful collaboration between wage earners and employers in the labor market, Rehn said, “In the labour market, cooperation between wage earners and employers has yielded results, as evidenced by pension reforms and moderate wage solutions. Cooperation is still the strength of a small nation. My message to employers, employees and the government is: Let's try together again.”

Expressing his presidential aspirations, Rehn said, “I would gladly invest time and effort in the export initiatives of Finnish companies, because exports bring prosperity, work and well-being to Finland. Export promotion trips, in which small and medium-sized enterprises with great export potential are taken into account, are an excellent way to promote Finland's interests in many ways. As Minister of Economic Affairs, I got to work to promote exports, and that was one of the best aspects of the job. I emphasized bioeconomy, clean-tech and digitalization and health technology.”

Rise of right-wing in EU and its impact on Finland

Olli Rehn boasts a distinguished EU career, having held pivotal roles, including Deputy Chair of the European Commission, Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, and Commissioner for Enlargement. On the topic of the rise of right-wing governments in the EU and its potential impact on Finland's global reputation, Rehn acknowledged the early stage of the government's term, emphasizing the individual responsibility of each minister in shaping Finland's historical legacy.

“The prime minister has great responsibility for how the government works and what government ministers say. My advice is that everyone's equality and human rights must be respected in words and actions. The term of office is just beginning. Now each minister decides for himself how he represents Finland, and how the current government will go down in history.”

Olli Rehn also suggested that government should be more cautious on the proposal to decrease the number of Finnish embassies abroad. “Finland needs a comprehensive representation network to promote Finland's foreign relations, trade relations and the affairs of Finns. The government should make an overall assessment taking into account all these perspectives.”

Sauli Niinisto’s tenure

On rating President Sauli Niinistö's tenure, Rehn refrained from reducing it to a numerical rating, opting instead to commend his exemplary contributions to Finnish policy and politics. “As we have a saying in Finland which is “don’t teach your mother to cook” I refrain from grading. Anyway, President Niinistö has done an excellent job both policy-wise and politics-wise, and been a thoughtful leader in Finnish foreign and security policy over his two terms in office.”

Finland’s NATO membership & Russia-Ukraine conflict

Olli Rehn believed that the recent NATO membership of Finland will not change the country’s foreign policy and in fact increase global cooperation with the western countries. “Finland´s NATO membership has not changed and shall not change Finland foreign policy which emphasizes the importance of peace and security in Europe, as well as multilateral rules-based order, international law and human rights.”

Addressing Finland's ties with Russia, Olli Rehn emphasized collaboration with EU and NATO partners, noting that the restoration of high-level political relations hinges on Russia's withdrawal from Ukraine. However, he highlighted the necessity for pragmatic cooperation at the level of civil servants. He specifically cited customs as an example of an area where practical collaboration becomes essential “Concerning relations with Russia, Finland works in close co-operation with other EU and NATO countries. High-level political relations between Finland and Russia cannot be restored until Russia withdraws from Ukraine. Finland and Russia have more than 1,300 kilometres of common border. That means that there is a need for practical co-operation at the level of civil servants concerning, for example, customs.”

Elaborating on his firm stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, he said, “Finland´s position in Russia-Ukraine conflict is very clear. Finland has strongly condemned Russia´s illegal, brutal war in Ukraine and unequivocally supports Ukraine´s independence, sovereignty, self-determination and territorial integrity.”

Closure of eastern border with Russia

Rehn supported the Finnish government’s stance of closing the eastern border amid the growing concerns of mushrooming immigrants, and called the scenario a strategic pressure tactic by Russia.

“The Finnish government has acted decisively and up-to-date in the acute border situation. Finland must prepare for the fact that the difficult situation on the eastern border will continue for a long time. If the Russian authorities and organized crime continue to divert people from Russia to the Finnish border on a large scale, the numbers may rise to thousands and the pressure on the border will continue. It's about ruthlessly using people as instruments to put pressure on another state.”

He called for the government to introduce a border procedure law to the parliament, which enables the quick processing of apparently unfounded asylum applications at the border, while ensuring the adequacy of the resources of the Border Guard and other authorities in a long-term situation.

“The government should also immediately make a legal assessment of whether Russia can be interpreted as a safe country to which asylum seekers from third countries can be returned.”
Additionally, Rehn calls for diplomatic discussions with EU states along the eastern external border. “Finland must open discussions with the states of the EU's eastern external border and Norway on common practices to ensure the integrity of the border, and to ensure the basis of international and EU law. Finland must also prepare to use the official assistance of Frontex, the EU's border guard agency, if necessary.”

Emphasizing the importance of balancing various rights in challenging situations, Rehn noted, “When it comes to a tight spot, the Finnish political leadership and authorities have to weigh various rights in the balance. I personally represent the position that defending Finland's borders and securing social peace are the most important. It is the basis that we can continue to remain a stable and safe state governed by the rule of law.”

Israel-Palestine conflict and relations with China

However, he shared a more balanced perspective on Israel's actions in Gaza, advocating for a two-state solution. “Finland´s response to Israel´s actions in Gaza has been balanced. Finland has voted in favour of the UN resolution, demanding a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. It is important to state clearly that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Israel has the right to defend itself within the framework of international law. The two-state model is a long-term solution to Middle East conflict.”

Olli Rehn underscored the significant role of BRICS nations, particularly China, in global trade, urging Finland to factor this into its export and trade policies. “BRICS nations, especially China, have an important role in world trade which needs to be taken into account in Finland´s export and trade policies. As BRICS nations deepen their co-operation, there is a growing need for Western democracies to defend rules-based multilateral world order and international law.”

Defence cooperation with U.S.

Regarding the Defence Cooperation Agreement with the U.S., Rehn positioned it as a historical continuation, reinforcing Finland's security in conjunction with NATO. Notably, he clarified the absence of legal provisions in Finland for transporting NATO nuclear weapons through Finland. “In view of history, the Defence Cooperation Agreement between Finland and USA is a continuation to our long-term co-operation. It complements NATO membership and strengthens Finland´s security and defence.”

“According to the current Finnish law, there is no possibility to transport NATO nuclear weapons through Finland. On the other hand, NATO does not move or transport nuclear weapons in its exercises. We can assess any need to amend our legislation calmly, and with careful consideration.”

Mitigating Climate Change

Olli Rehn pledged to champion international climate diplomacy, aiming to mobilize global efforts against climate change. Reflecting on his tenure as the Minister of Energy, Rehn noted the successful increase in renewable energy sources played a crucial role in reducing Finland's reliance on energy imports from Russia.

“When I was minister of energy, I had two priorities in energy and climate policy: More emission-free nuclear power and domestic renewable energy. These forms of energy were also successfully increased, which helped Finland survive when we broke our energy dependence on Russia. It is good to continue along this line in the future as well.”

Campaign cost and funding sources

Elaborating on his campaign cost for the presidential elections, Olli Rehn said, “Fundraising has progressed well. We don't have any big donors who can put in big sums. Funding is collected through small donations and by selling, for example, liquorice, socks and books. The campaign will receive €300,000 from the Centre Party.”

Sonali Telang - HT