Ambassador Pertti Salolainen: “Brexit is a gigantic, historical mistake”


Pertti Salolainen
has long-standing relations with the UK and the EU. He has worked as Finland’s ambassador in London for eight years from 1996–2004 and was in charge of the negotiations when Finland joined the EU in the beginning of the 1990s. On our blog he answers questions about the EU and Brexit. The interview was done on 16th July.

You were in charge of the Finnish EU negotiations. Why was it important for Finland to join the EU?

“The collapse of the Soviet Union gave Finland a chance to re-organise its relationships with the Western Europe and the entire Western community. Our starting point was that the European Union is a strong anchor that gives Finland a new kind of position in foreign and trade policy and therefore a chance to have a bigger impact. “

What is the EU like at the moment? How has it developed?

“The EU has on principle developed very well but last years have brought some unfortunate traits. There are two main concerns. The first is that the extreme-right groups have gained power in different countries. The second is that the value base of the EU has suffered while the freedom of the press and judicial system have been repressed in many countries, like Hungary and Poland. The rise of the extreme right is very concerning. It has to do with the fragmenting of the EU and its deconstruction efforts aiming at EU becoming just a free trade area. This idea is born dead because cooperation is needed in many areas, for example in environment policy, climate policy and education policy. Trade policy can’t be the only area of cooperation in Europe.” 

How do you find the UK’s need to leave the EU?

“It’s a gigantic, historical mistake for Britain to separate itself from the EU. I don’t understand it at all. What I understand even less is the way how the issue is taken further into a completely uncertain future. I have been a friend of Britain for many years, and I am extremely sad and worried about what is happening to my beloved country.

One very sore open wound in this whole picture is the Northern Ireland. I practiced politics for my entire life and I have to wonder what could be done to avoid the obstacles in Northern Ireland. I don’t see any solution to this question if Brexit will happen in the way that one of the prime minister nominees, Boris Johnson, wants to carry it out. If there is no solution to the situation in Northern Ireland, I’m afraid it will mean that blood will be spilled and unrest will emerge again. The other question is Scotland, which probably won’t settle without conditions with the uncertain future Johnson and his associates are planning.”

How does Brexit affect on Finland and the EU?

“It’s sad for all the EU members that Britain is leaving. We must remember that Britain has been the strongest military force in the entire Western Europe. Brexit is also a question of foreign, safety and defense politics. Britain assures though that it will hold on to the defence cooperation policy with Finland and other Nordic countries among others.

For Finland it’s unfortunate if there will be any problems with trade and the trade policy becomes disrupted. Britain is one of Finland’s biggest export countries and trade partners. We must also remember that there are thousands of Finnish interns and students at British universities, as well as lots of cooperation between citizens.

At the moment I don’t see any reasonable plan on how the British Parliament could approve any arrangements towards the requirements of the EU. No sensible plan has been published or is in sight. All main parties are internally divided. The country will have a new prime minister who is strongly against the EU and who believes that he can negotiate a deal that has not so far been possible to accomplish.”

Text: Kaisa Paavola Illustration: Camilla Schleutker