Reviving the Helsinki spirit amid challenges

Helsinki- In contrast to a decade ago, when Turkey was officially given the green light in Helsinki as a candidate country to the European Union, a somber mood seems to have descended over the prospect of new enlargement in this most northerly capital of the 27-nation bloc, mostly because of the euro crisis that has erupted in Greece.

While officials here in Helsinki are still keen on emphasizing strong support for the Turkish candidacy, they admit, nevertheless, that the crisis in countries like Greece, Bulgaria and Romania has made the argument more difficult for new members coming into the union. It wasn’t too long ago when I was here with Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bağış; in a cold October last year we heard all the positive talk regarding Ankara’s bid to become a full member. Now the situation seems to have changed as more and more Finns started to question why their taxes are going abroad to save what they call “reckless Greeks.”

Marja Aspelund, the head of the unit for Europe and Civic Information at the Foreign Ministry who oversees the EU regional information offices across the country, told me over lunch that most questions at town hall meetings have increasingly focused on the euro crisis and what it means for the average Finn. “We bring our best economists to explain to them what would happen if we do not help out the member in crisis,” she said.

The government is using a number of centers to explain the crisis. It set up EU information centers during the EU negotiation process in the ’90s and kept the network intact after becoming a full member to communicate major EU and international issues to residents. “It has paid off immensely,” Ms. Aspelund said, adding that the channel is a good way to make a sales pitch to citizens while also feeding information back to the government.

Mr. Veli-Matti Hurtig, information officer in the Helsinki office located next to parliament, confirms that most questions he gets these days are related to the euro crisis. “I also get asked about what funds are available from the EU and how to get them,” he said. Turkey has no similar network at the moment, but it is certainly something worth replicating, especially in rural areas, to boost stalling approval ratings for EU membership.

I steeled myself last week to implore Johannes Koskinen, a member of the Constitutional Law Committee in the Finnish parliament and a former justice minister, to do more, as Finns were key to opening the door to membership for Turkey on Dec. 12, 1999 at the Helsinki summit of the European Council. The summit marked a clear vision for both the EU and Turkey and sparked sweeping reforms in Turkey between 2000 and 2004.

Koskinen suggested that a step-by-step approach should work to gradually align Turkey with EU norms and standards. He cited major hindrances like the military coup constitution of 1982 and the long-standing Kurdish problem, both issues the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Turkey has been trying to tackle, no thanks to the opposition parties, who have been dragging their feet. He also asked for more cooperation between institutions, universities and nongovernmental organizations to further the EU goal.

On a bilateral level, Turks and Finns have no problems at all. The small Turkish immigrant community here is well integrated into Finnish society. According to the latest statistics, there are 3,820 Turkish citizens permanently residing in Finland out of 155,000 foreign citizens. More Finns are coming to Turkey to spend their vacations every year. However, there is much room for improvement on both sides, especially in business relations. The experience of Finns in forestry industry technology is definitely something for Turkey to look at. We have been unable to fully utilize our rich national resource in forests because of archaic laws and cumbersome regulations. Politicians simply chose to cave to the pressure exerted by interest groups representing forestry villagers at the expense of sound economic policies.

I also made a point to Marjo Mäki-Leppilampi, the desk officer for Turkey at the Finnish Foreign Ministry, about the expansion of exchange programs between students to create a base for sustainable human resources that will further advance relations. She agrees that that is something both governments should focus on more. There are no exact figures on how many Turkish or Finnish students are studying in the respective countries. Turkey has been participating in the Bologna process since 2004, which opened up the Erasmus program (European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) to Turkish students. Mäki-Leppilampi said according to government estimations there are about 150 students coming from Turkey to Finland. “Unfortunately, we do not have exact figures because the exchange programs are run directly between universities,” she said. She continued: “There are far fewer students going from Finland to Turkey — it might be only 20 or so. Our embassy knows that some students have been studying in Ankara and İstanbul.” I guess it is up to me to make a sales pitch to Turkish officials as well upon returning to Ankara to lobby hard to increase this number.

I should also mention that especially on third-party issues, Finland and Turkey are closely coordinating their foreign policy initiatives thanks to a close personal relationship between energetic Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb and his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu. I witnessed this working relationship personally; Davutoğlu was cutting the birthday cake at our Today’s Zaman anniversary ceremony in the Ankara office when Mr. Stubb interrupted with a phone call. On an official level, I guess the Helsinki spirit is alive and kicking, but we need to be able to relate to people on both sides with the same enthusiasm and passion.

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