Helsinki, Asharq Al-Awsat- Alexander Stubb has been in charge of the foreign portfolio in the Finnish Coalition Government since April 2008.
In the European Parliament (2004-2008) the main concern of the young minister, age 42, was the internal institutions and markets in the European Union. Also he is a staunch supporter of European integration, strongly supports the consolidation and expansion of the European Union, and believes in a more active EU role in solving the thorny international issues, especially the peace process in the Middle East.
The minister also is well-known for his extensive travels within the framework of his work (120 days every year). Today Minister Stubb arrives in Saudi Arabia, the first stop in his first tour of the region, which also will include Oman and Qatar.
Asharq Al-Awsat met Minister Stubb in his office at the Finnish Foreign Ministry in Helsinki, and conducted with him an interview; the following is its text:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the main aims of your tour of the region?
[Stubb] My tour has two aims. One of them is to improve the bilateral relations between Finland and Saudi Arabia, Finland and the Sultanate of Oman, and Finland and Qatar. The second aim is to get a clearer picture of the situation in the region. Here, I also mean the peace process in the Middle East, the situation in Yemen, and also Iran. We in the European Union need to understand better what is taking place in the region, and we believe that the only way to do so is to visit the region, especially Riyadh.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] No doubt you are aware of the Saudi stances toward the Middle East issues. What is your assessment of these stances? Do you think that these stances will help in achieving stability in the region?
[Stubb] The answer in a nutshell is yes. The Arab initiative is written by Saudi Arabia, and we strongly support this initiative. We also believe that Saudi Arabia has a very important role as a mediator in the region because of its good relations with the United States, and with the European Union, and also because of its good relations with many of the countries of the region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your assessment of the Saudi-Finnish relations?
[Stubb] They are good, and have not witnessed any problems. Our president visited Saudi Arabia in 2007, and so did the former development minister. Our relations are very strong. Naturally they can be improved at the economic level. Everybody knows the Saudi economic strength, and also everybody knows our economic strength, which is based on information technology, Nokia, and so on. The stronger the relations are, the better it is for both countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then, the relations are good, but you would like to strengthen them economically?
[Stubb] We hope to consolidate the economic side of the relations. Naturally, this side is the responsibility of other colleagues in the government; as for me, I will focus to a great extent on the regional issues. As far as I am concerned, the visit is a fact-finding one; at the same time, I will try to give a clear picture of the EU vision of the regional issues, because I consider myself to be one of 27 foreign ministers in the European Union.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I understand that a draft agreement on double taxation and protection of investment between the two countries has been prepared. Will you sign this agreement during your visit?
[Stubb] I think that the draft agreement is still being prepared, and it will not be signed during this visit. It will be signed at a later date, but I do not know it exactly. Naturally it is an important agreement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then, you rely to a great extent on this agreement to consolidate the economic relations?
[Stubb] This is correct.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has Finland been affected greatly by the current world financial and economic crisis?
[Stubb] Yes, we have been affected the same as all the other countries. Finland has been harmed as a country, and as a part of the largest world economy, i.e. the European Union. Our economy will shrink, and indeed it shrunk by 5 to 6 percent last year. We hope to come closer to the positive figures this year. We are an economy that is based on exports as more than 50 percent of our domestic product is for export; therefore, it is clear that if there is a world economic recession, Finland will be affected greatly. In a nutshell, Finland is affected by everything that takes place in the world market. Our answer is simple; it is: No protectionism, and more free trade.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In reply to a previous question, you said that the regional issues would be at the forefront of your talks. Could you specify to us these issues?
[Stubb] With regard to Yemen, my mission is a fact-finding one. With regard to the Middle East peace process, I will present some opinions, by also I will listen. These are the three main issues I will discuss during my tour.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, what is the way out of the current crisis with Iran, and how grave is the Iranian nuclear dossier?
[Stubb] It is very grave. In the European Union, we are very frustrated. We are happy that the framework of the negotiations is the European Union 3+3. But the results so far have been feeble. Iran does not adhere to the UN Security Council resolutions, or to the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. We hope for more commitment from Iran. Our stance is clear, we are following a two-track approach; if there is no progress in the nuclear talks, there will be sanctions. The first batch of sanctions will be from the United Nations, and the second batch from the European Union. I believe that the time is short, and we hope to reach a diplomatic settlement. I believe that ultimately we will reach this solution, but Iran has to respond, and so far it has not.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Under what circumstances will it be possible for Finland to support resorting to the military option with Iran?
[Stubb] We do not support the military option under any circumstances.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that there is the possibility of a military action?
[Stubb] I am always optimistic; otherwise I will not be in this profession. Therefore, I do not think that we will find ourselves on that track.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Finland has always been active in the field of peace initiatives. What qualifies Finland, the small country in its population in that part of the world, to play such a vital role?
[Stubb] I believe that the basic philosophy is that when you are geographically on the margin, you ought to try to be in the heart institutionally. The only way to be in the heart institutionally is to make yourself known in the world circles. Therefore, we attach great importance to the international and multi-national institutions, such as the United Nations, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization. Our weak voice will be better heard if we are a party to a bigger game. Naturally we have excellent negotiators, including some who have been awarded Nobel Prize for Peace, such as Martti Ahtisaari.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us go back to the Middle East peace process. You have referred to the initiative of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, which has become the Arab initiative. Do you think that if Israel accepts it, it will lead to a permanent peace in the Middle East?
[Stubb] Certainly. I believe that the initiative is the best thing on offer. Many of its elements call for a comprehensive peace. My stance is that we cannot achieve peace in one place without achieving it in another; we have to pursue a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, between Israel and Lebanon, and between Israel and Syria. It is also imperative to establish better coordination among the Palestinians themselves, between Fatah and Hamas. Also we have to take into consideration members of Hezbollah. Therefore, we ought to look for a comprehensive peace.
The peace process in the Middle East sometimes seems very frustrating, like someone hitting his head against a wall, and hence he does not achieve anything. However, sometimes there is a ray of hope. The United States has taken a leading role in the process, and I welcome this; the European Union also ought to be more active.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that under the presidency of Barack Obama there will be more activity, and perhaps more pressure on Israel?
[Stubb] I hope, if I may quote Obama, that there will be more activity. I believe that this is happening already. We have to remember that the first think that Obama did was to appoint George Mitchell as envoy to the Middle East. Also the Obama Administration deals with the Binyamin Netanyahu Government in this field. We all know that the peace process in the Middle East is a long and slow process, but I am still optimistic as there is no other option.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us go back to Iran. You said that you will not support a military action under any circumstances?
[Stubb] The only case is when the military action is according to a resolution by the UN Security Council.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then, if there is international authorization, you will support the military action?
[Stubb] Yes, but how can such authorization be obtained? I rule out this possibility.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the danger is that Israel might attack. What do you think of such a scenario?
[Stubb] Naturally, this is an assumption; therefore, it is not appropriate for a foreign minister to express a stance toward an assumption. We hope that this will not happen. We always believe in diplomatic means and discussions. Therefore, we hope to find a peaceful solution for the crisis with Iran. Also I believe that Iran’s reputation has been harmed greatly in the world, despite the fact that the Iranians are peace-loving people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With regard to the European Union, there is a great deal of controversy about its direction. Do you support a United States of Europe?
[Stubb] The United States of Europe is an exaggerated expression. This is because the European Union will always be more than and international league, but less than a state. However, we, and I especially, support a very strong European Union, and support more political and economic integration. I believe that we ought to establish a strong institutional structure in order to achieve a stronger Europe. I believe that the recent Lisbon Treaty is a good step in this direction, because now we have a tool that enables us to undertake an international role, not only in the field of foreign trade and aid, but also in the field of foreign relations and security. I believe that we have to grab the opportunity to undertake such a role.