As he reflects on the new age of strongman politics that has left little space for nations like his own on the world stage, Finland’s president momentarily abandons the understatement for which his country is renowned.
Sauli Niinistö says the EU is coming off second best in an era of “personalised global policy” under the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump in the US and China’s Xi Jinping.
In this age of “peak persons,” Mr Niinistö tells the Financial Times in an hour-long interview in his official residence overlooking the Helsinki waterfront, “it’s difficult to get a seat at the table because it’s a table for the strong and powerful”.
For Mr Niinistö, a staunch pro-European, today’s rising geo-political risk should be “a wake-up call” for the EU. “Even the words, war, missiles, nuclear weapons, they are in everyday use at the moment,” he adds.
The 69-year-old makes little effort to disguise the fact that Russia, Finland’s giant neighbour to the east, is at the forefront of his concerns.
He was finance minister when Finland joined the EU in 1995 — which gave the country a once-in-a-generation chance to break out of the orbit of its former imperial overlord, with which it shares a well-policed 1,271km border.
On the topic of Mr Putin, he cites an old Finnish proverb: “A Cossack takes everything which is loose, so you have to have a very straight opinion and say it clearly.” The message is that, in dealing with Moscow, Finland’s EU partners have to combine respect with resolve.
His present worry is the breakdown in transatlantic relations following America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal which, according to Mr Niinistö, offers an “open window” for the Kremlin to get closer to Europe.
“It is a clear setback [for the west],” he says, noting the apparent thawing of relations at the recent meeting in Sochi between Mr Putin and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. “Friendly is too much to say, but they at least had constructive discussions.”
His opinions are born of long experience. He recalls the early 1990s when Mr Putin served in the government of St Petersburg which is still twinned with Finland’s second city, Turku. Almost three decades later, the same Turku councillors Mr Putin dealt with then, now retired, are still invited to Moscow at the Russian president’s behest. “He doesn’t forget his friends, if he has been dealt with respectfully.”
Finland still treasures its nonaligned status, despite being a member of the EU with its common foreign and security policy.
Yet Mr Niinistö vigorously contends that his country is far from a soft touch. It was the first country to condemn the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and has complied with all sanctions since, even though Russia is Finland’s fifth-largest trading partner, with exports amounting to more than $3bn per year.
Asked whether Finland would ever consider joining Nato to bolster its security — a move advocated by some groups in both Finland and, to a greater extent, neighbouring Sweden — Mr Niinistö suggests Nato membership is a card to be held rather than played: “It’s a security weapon in itself. Finns do not support it and I am a Finn.”
In his view, the EU needs a stronger common security agreement, greater solidarity with Nato, and a common refugee policy with tighter border controls and clearer procedures for asylum applications in the wake of the tidal wave of migrants from the Middle East and north Africa since 2015. Finland alone has taken over 30,000 refugees.
Unlike some other European leaders, worried about the consequences of Brexit, Mr Niinistö has a good word for the British. Not only did British sailors give the Finns football when they landed at Turku in the 1890s, the UK is also sound on defence. “Many Europeans started to live in the fairy tale that peace is forever. The Brits have not done that.”
Mr Niinistö is proud to point out that Finland still has conscription and in a Europe-wide poll asking if people were ready to defend their country, nearly 75 per cent of Finns said yes compared to 18 per cent in Germany. “That’s clearly the highest in Europe.”
With sanctions still applying on Russia, Finland is exploring other diplomatic options to ease tensions. Helsinki is in the middle of its two-year term chairing the eight members of the Arctic Council (Norway, Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, the US and Canada) and the president says that discussions for a summit are under way, with all members — including Mr Putin and Mr Trump — expressing support.
“The Arctic environment is cool enough in this very hot political climate. It would be a good combination to cool down feelings.”
After the mild humour, Mr Niinistö returns with a serious note on the environmental threat posed by black carbon emissions. “If we lose the Arctic, we lose the globe. This is so simple.”