UPDATED 31.12. Enlargement Commissioner Rehn was key player during Finnish EU Presidency
By Heikki Aittokoski and Petteri Tuohinen in Brussels
The grass-roofed sauna at Königstedt was ready to be heated.
Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja and European Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn were hoping to use it to help persuade the Turks and Cypriots warm up to a settlement, but ultimately, nobody showed up at the government's manor house in Vantaa.
"Königstedt was reserved for a meeting on the fifth and sixth of November", Rehn recalls. "I proposed to Tuomioja that he could lead political negotiations and that I could preside over the sauna."
Rehn never got a chance to try his sauna diplomacy, because Turkey's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül cancelled his participation, and the whole meeting was cancelled.
Turkey was known in advance to be a tough bite to chew. Membership negotiations with Turkey had begun in the previous year, but by the summer, they had been frozen for all practical purposes.
Finland tried to resolve the dispute throughout the autumn. Turkey did not agree to take part in the last-ditch talks in Königstedt, apparently because Greece, one of the parties to the dispute, was not invited.
The refusal was too much for the EU. It no longer would agree to "bazaar trading and political auctioneering" in the membership talks. The EU gave Turkey a slap and decided in December that membership talks would continue only partially.
Rehn, and the European Union, ended up putting Turkey in the hot seat - even though there was no sauna meeting in Königstedt.
Olli Rehn was one of the key figures of the Finnish EU Presidency. The period happened to revolve around EU enlargement.
The old boy/old girl networks were in intense use between Brussels and Helsinki. "It certainly lubricates decision-making when you can call the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister directly."
As Rehn sees it, this is a good characteristic while holding the EU Presidency.
Looking at the Commissioner's travel calendar of the past few months, one point on the compass is more prominent than most: the southeast. The Balkans and Turkey kept Rehn the busiest.
During the Finnish EU Presidency, enlargement moved ahead. For instance, Bulgaria and Romania were approved as members.
Rehn will greet the New Year in Romania and Bulgaria, together with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Foreign Minister of Germany, the next holder of the EU Presidency.
The rest of Europe is not in a celebratory mood. The conventional wisdom is that Romania and Bulgaria were unripe for membership when they were accepted into the EU. For instance, both countries are plagued by deeply-rooted corruption.
The two countries were taken, because a few years ago the EU countries went and promised them an entry ticket prematurely.
"One lesson in the enlargements of 2004 and 2007 is that target schedules for the realisation of membership should not be given too early", Rehn observes.
The Commissioner is annoyed that Finnish politicians have also criticised accepting Bulgaria and Romania as members, even though Finland was among those agreeing on the schedule.
"Finland took part in making this decision, and we have lived and acted accordingly."
The next challenge is the West Balkans. Rehn predicts that Croatia will meet EU membership requirements "at about the end of the decade". There will be many countries in the Balkans who should be absorbed into the Union.
To get a feel for it, Rehn travelled to Novi Sad in Serbia in July, and attended the Exit rock festival. Rehn spoke to the young people gathered there about easing visa requirements. He stayed for the performance of the Scottish indie rock band Franz Ferdinand, as well as Suzanne Vega, who is noted for her unique musical style.
The evening in the restaurant district turned into pure politics. Making sure of this were Serb President Boris Tadic, Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic, as well as Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic.
But what kind of a rock fan is Olli Rehn? He has said that rock'n'roll is one of his favourite hobbies, and he likes to quote one of his favourites - Neil Young:
"Have you seen the flags of freedom? What color are they now?" According to this EU man, they are blue and yellow.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 30.12.2006
More on this subject:
UPDATED 1.1.2007 1999 EU Presidency bustle turns to caution in 2006 (COMMENTARY)
Previously in HS International Edition:
EU punishes Turkey with partial freeze of membership talks (12.12.2006)
European Union not satisfied with Turkish offer on Cyprus (8.12.2006)
Commissioner Rehn: Cyprus failure to slow Turkey´s EU membership bid (28.11.2006)
Talks between European Union and Turkey over Cyprus fail (27.11.2006)
Commissioner Rehn: Turkey must open its harbours to Cypriot ships (8.11.2006)
Helsinki Cyprus meeting cancelled due to Turkish reluctance (3.11.2006)
HEIKKI AITTOKOSKI AND PETTERI TUOHINEN / Helsingin Sanomat