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The Finnish Parliament has started its 2021 session.
The opening of the parliamentary session was officially announced by the President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö on Wednesday 3 February. The opening speech was given by the Speaker Anu Vehviläinen.
Due to the pandemic, the opening took place without an audience.
Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the opening of Parliament
President of the Republic,
I warmly thank you for your address at the opening of the 2021 parliamentary session.
Over the past few weeks, many of us will have found our discussions turning towards fundamentally important topics such as democracy, respect for election outcomes and the right to participate in politics and public life. And for good reason, too.
At this moment, it falls upon us as parliamentarians to reflect on the mandate the Finnish people have given us.
Under the Finnish Constitution, power is vested in the people, who are represented by the Parliament.
Our constitution sets out the fundamental principles that underpin our nation, based on the rule of law and in line with the separation of powers that divides government into three distinct branches. Legislative power is exercised by Parliament. Executive power is vested in the President of the Republic and the government. Judicial powers are exercised by our independent courts of law.
This separation of powers was first set out by the French philosopher Montesquieu in his 1784 treatise The Spirit of the Laws. Power and authority should not be concentrated in one set of hands, he said, and proposed the system of checks and balances we have today as a safeguard against it. Ultimately, this led to the creation of our present day western democracies.
Our constitution provides a strong mandate for our Members of Parliament along with their special task as part of that system of checks and balances. It is important that we pause and reflect on the significance of that division of powers given that we have recently witnessed attempts to undermine it and the rule of law around the world.
Indeed, the division of powers is the light that guides all of us as Members of Parliament, in domestic and international matters alike. Our job here is to legislate. Let us ensure we do not politicise the judiciary or judicialise the legislature. To ensure that our country thrives and we maintain our credibility, it is vital that we all follow both the letter and spirit of our constitution.
Our parliament is more than the sum of its 200 individual members. We do not attend this parliamentary session merely as individuals or as representatives of our political parties or constituents but as representatives of Finland as a whole. We also represent those who did not give us their vote.
We are a community of decision makers, and we are jointly responsible for steering Finland towards our shared future. We all follow in the footsteps of those parliamentarians who came before us: Ståhlberg, Alkio, Svinhufvud and Tanner. We must claim our place in this line of our nation’s representatives by passing on our democracy to the generations that come after us.
Decision making is the most fundamental function of this parliament. We are here to make laws. It is easy for all of us to lose sight of this in the rough and tumble of everyday politics.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted our role as decision makers. We have been called upon to respond quickly and act with great flexibility. We may well be called upon to do that again.
Collectively, we play an important role as guardians. As legislators, we must be committed, responsible and wise. The world is a complex place, and our work is challenging. We are expected to keep our eyes on the big picture and to seek compromise.
In the words of Professor Niilo Kauppi, “wisdom can’t be bought, it is amassed through experience and the desire to learn”. Our diverse backgrounds and our access to expert evidence and date underpin our decision-making process.
Why have I chosen to refer to the parliament as a community, you might ask? It is because I know that the more open we are and the more we value one another, the better the laws we make, during this session and all the others. In other words, the better we will be at our jobs.
This week, our work begins again. I hope that, alongside day-to-day matters, we will be able to focus on the wider situation facing us. The foreign and security policy report, European Union finance and social and healthcare reform are some of the long-term issues on our agenda. We must not lose sight of the fact that our national debt is increasing. And we must recognise the importance of economic and jobs growth.
Internationally, we have witnessed serious attempts to undermine democracy. The events on Capitol Hill are indelibly etched in our memory. The results of the presidential election in Belarus have not been respected. In Russia, the opposition is subject to oppressive measures.
But what about Finland – how are we doing?
Our multi-party system, first-rate civil service, well-educated people and independent media form the foundation on which Finnish democracy will continue to rest. Ensuring this foundation remains robust is a key part of our democratic duty.
The multi-party system plays an important role in preventing political polarisation in our country. All our political parties must be able to work together. All parties will variously find themselves in government and in opposition. This is a good thing for our parliamentary democracy and for us as politicians.
As democratically elected representatives, we must experience first hand what it is to be excluded from power. We must work especially hard to listen to those who cannot make themselves heard. We tend to hear the loud voices to the exclusion of the quiet ones.
As MPs, it is our responsibility to communicate clearly what we are working on in Parliament. It is completely natural that the opposition wants to focus on the negatives, while the parties in government prefer to highlight the positives. However, things are rarely just good or bad.
Finnish people have expressed their concern about the hardening of our political rhetoric. At this very moment, many potential municipal election candidates will be considering whether they want to expose themselves to our often ad hominem political discourse. Harsh political language can also undermine our democracy.
When the rhetoric becomes black and white, and the torrent of abuse never ends, we run the risk of polarising the issues themselves. Threatening language can quickly lead to threatening situations.
Language is our most important tool. That is why we as MPs play such an important role in shaping Finnish political debate. Everyone, from children to pensioners, will be listening to what we say and how we say it. We set the standard and shape the norms that govern our speech.
According to the constitution, as representatives we must conduct ourselves with dignity and decorum and not behave offensively towards other people. This should guide our actions here and beyond this chamber: at public events, in our publications and on social media.
Our actions contribute to the public’s understanding of what this parliament is. We are the calling cards for democracy, wherever we go and wherever we express ourselves. Parliamentary respect and authority rest in our hands.
Many people have expressed concerns about the role of social media in our society. We have gained new digital platforms that facilitate communication, and yet we find ourselves further apart, confined to our own bubbles. Algorithms are making choices for us, even when we are under the impression that we are in control, free from external control.
Comprehensive new EU legislation is being prepared that will curtail the power of social media giants and pave the way for greater accountability for harmful and sometimes even criminal content.
As parliamentarians, we must look beyond trolls and memes. It is our duty to make sure that we are capable of critical reflection and equipped to distinguish between truth and provocation, or even outright lies.
As parliamentarians, we must seek the truth and help create a wiser and better informed country. Our shared European values are what unite us and help us to broaden our minds and expand our thinking. At the same time, we must value our rich Finnish heritage and our homegrown talent, from architects to rap artists.
It is our language and culture that make us who we are. Let us reflect on the titles of works by such literary giants as Eeva Joenpelto and Veijo Meri: A salty rain is falling (Sataa suolaista vettä), A draft from every door (Vetää kaikista ovista), Hard-won liberty (Ei tule vaivatta vapaus) and A great small nation (On suurta olla pieni kansa). So much Finnishness expressed in just a few book titles!
We should all work together to ensure that all of us in Finland understand how important art, culture and our values are to our wellbeing and success as a nation. Our own native culture is the beating heart of our civilised nation.
President of the Republic,
The Parliament and the President of the Republic have worked well together, and our relationship is characterised by great mutual respect. On behalf of the Parliament, I would like to offer you our sincere thanks. We are confident that our excellent working relationship will continue.
I believe that the people of Finland also value our open lines of communication and our commitment to working together.
I would once again like to thank you for the thoughts and insights expressed in your address and to convey to you the respectful greetings of the Parliament.