UPDATED 27.12. Matti Vanhanen: the most relieved man in Europe
Text messages and computer diary help Finnish Prime Minister cope with EU Presidency
By Unto Hämäläinen
A pair of woolen mittens lie on the Prime Minister's desk. Matti Vanhanen glances at the table at the small gift bags that are gathered on the table, but he does not have enough time to open them.
As Members of Parliament are debating the budget, Vanhanen has time to withdraw to his office in Parliament.
"Everyone is relieved", he explains. The Finnish EU Presidency concludes at the end of the month, and until then, the Prime Minister will remain on duty. If something terrible happens in the world, the European Union must react, even if it is Christmas Day.
So what is it like to be the leader of a great power for half a year?
"It means that my mobile phone has to be on all the time. There are few things that happen in the world that do not affect the Union", Vanhanen says.
Were you enthralled in your role?
"I don't think I was enthralled. All the time I was weighed down by the responsibility of whether or not I was doing the right thing. If a mistake is made, half a year is too short a time to fix it. It is left to history."
Vanhanen knew that the avalanche of events would be so vast that a way had to be thought up to keep his thoughts in order. On June 26th, he started a personal diary on his computer terminal. At the beginning he wrote: "I decided to write a diary out of a sense of duty toward historical research."
Nearly every evening Vanhanen sat at the terminal for ten minutes. Now he has taken the first printout of the diary - 100 pages. Apparently Vanhanen's mind-reading skills have also developed, because he says: "Don't imagine that I will give this to you."
It does not matter that I promise to return it the following morning. By handing over the diary, the Prime Minister would be breaking the law: if the text contains references to surveillance information of the Security Police, the law states that it cannot be made public for 25 years.
On July 12th Vanhanen pondered the crisis in Lebanon for the first time. After hearing the observations of his aide Johan Schalin, he drew the conclusion: "This will be a difficult and a long conflict."
The text is unfinished, and therefore, has a genuine feel to it. He pondered already then what his role in the crisis would be. "The dispute must be studied at the foreign minister level. I will give background support with my own contacts."
By contacts he was referring to foreign colleagues. The Prime Minister usually is in contact with prime ministers or presidents of other countries.
And then: "If the crisis stretches to a month or two, the prime-ministerial level will have to be left in reserve, and the focus placed on background contacts with colleagues, but public actions must be saved until later."
One such public action could have been, for instance, a visit by the holder of the EU Presidency to meet the parties to the conflict.
The division of labour indicated in the diary is interesting in light of the criticism that Vanhanen got in the media for being passive.
"Those who voiced the criticism did not know how the machinery operated. I did not have a need to defend myself then. Naturally the criticism angered me, because I had so many background contacts to heads of state and to Secretary-General Kofi Annan. This is a considered tactic. If the crisis is stretched out, a reserve was needed. We did not need to use it."
Vanhanen began his preparations already in the summer of 2003. In the government, large questions of domestic politics were dealt with in good time.
Before the Presidency, he found the time to meet the leaders of all EU countries, and the Asian leaders who came to the ASEM meeting. It was hard work - 100 trips abroad in three years. And he also had to do some studying.
Vanhanen got an idea from one of his predecessors to set up an unofficial ministerial group. This group of five included Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, European Affairs minister Paula Lehtomäki, as well as Finance Minister Eero Heinäluoma and Environment Minister Jan-Erik Enestam. They would meet on Tuesday mornings. On Fridays EU affairs would be dealt with bilaterally with President Tarja Halonen.
"The President meets many national leaders. It is necessary for her to have the most up-to-date information", Vanhanen says. In case of a major crisis, it is the telephone of Secretary of State Risto Volanen that gets the call from the EU's Joint Situation Centre (SitCen). Other civil servants close to Vanhanen were Jukka Salovaara, Johan Schalin, Helena Tuuri, and Jari Luoto. "They are the fist through which issues move to me and from me."
This is how it went: If Tony Blair, for instance, wanted to be in touch with Vanhanen, Blair's aide would contact Salovaara, who would send a message to Vanhanen, and soon Salovaara would get instructions on what to do next.
"A text message is the fastest way to pass on a message", Vanhanen explains.
The Prime Minister leafs through his diary, and looks like he is deep in thought. Apparently there is something in the text that expresses frustration, or relates a private matter, because he mumbles to himself: "That is one part that I cannot read out loud."
In January Vanhanen will be replaced by Chancellor Angela Merkel. During the Germany Presidency, the EU will mark its 50th anniversary, making it almost as old as Vanhanen, who is 51.
What are you grateful to the Union for?
Vanhanen answers with an eruption that the EU's propaganda experts should hear. Half a century of peace, and the return of the former socialist countries to Europe: "I am thankful that so many nations suddenly were given the opportunity to shore up the gap with the Western countries. The cultural and political unification of Europe this quickly will go down in history."
And as a blessed conclusion: "The Balkans will be sucked into this system in such a way that there will never be any explosion there again."
The Prime Minister needs to be brought back to the planet Earth. Are you afraid of depression that can reportedly emerge when a grip on power is let go?
"I have heard warnings from my predecessors. Fortunately I have an efficient medicine for that: election stress, which begins right away in January."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 24.12.2006
UNTO HÄMÄLÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat