In his opening speech delivered at the 2012 Annual Meeting of Finnish Heads of Mission on 20 August, Secretary of State Pertti Torstila focused on operation of Finnish diplomatic missions, cooperation related to the concepts of Team Finland/House of Finland, the External Action Service of the European Union and the Foreign Ministry's resources and pressure for budget cuts.
Over the past year, Finnish diplomatic missions have been a central topic of public discussion and have been receiving plenty of positive attention for their actions in crises situations and in countries suffering from conflicts. Diplomatic missions and their staff have been under a great pressure in many locations such as Cairo, Tunis, Damascus, Kabul, Islamabad, Abuja and Tokyo. The Embassy of Finland, Tokyo was awarded with a highly esteemed government recognition, Timanttiteko award for its action during the crisis following the earthquake in Japan. The Timanttiteko award is granted annually for exemplary action with significance for the safety of population, society or state.
Due to budget cuts, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs will be forced to downsize Finland's network of diplomatic missions. The Ministry's operating expenditure cuts of approximately EUR 13 million will translate into closing of several diplomatic missions and offices abroad. The average net saving of closing down a single diplomatic mission is EUR 300,000 and, added up with other expenditure cuts, the number of discontinued diplomatic missions may be as high as 15. This means that new closures can be expected in addition to those that have already been decided; Manila, Caracas, Islamabad, Gothenburg, Canton, Las Palmas, Cape Town, Hamburg and Sydney.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the Finnish Parliament commented the diplomatic mission network cuts in its statement on the central government spending limits for 2012-2015. The Committee regards extensive cuts to the diplomatic mission network as serious decimation of managing the core tasks of the Finnish foreign policy. The cuts will have far-reaching political and economical repercussions, and the savings gained will lessen Finland's influence abroad. According to the Committee, a reduced network will complicate securing of the citizens' interests. The committee therefore proposed an extra EUR 6 million to the Foreign Ministry's annual budgetary appropriation to avoid closing of the diplomatic missions. However, the decision on the budget did not include any additional operating appropriations to the Ministry.
Given the tight economic situation, Foreign Ministries of the Nordic countries are considering closer cooperation between their diplomatic missions to gain cost savings. However, a report on cost savings in shared premises showed that concentration of diplomatic missions will not bring considerable cost savings in short term. Nevertheless, Torstila stressed that the Nordic brand still has influence overseas. Finland has benefited greatly from Nordic cooperation and is therefore willing to develop it further. At the moment, Finland seeks for solutions that can bring immediate cost savings.
Secretary of State Torstila introduced the recent concept of House of Finland/Team Finland that will be used for concerted coordination of publically financed agents that are involved in economic external relations – trade policy, exports, investment promotion and promotion of Finland. The action plan on economic external relations adopted by the Government in May stresses the role of the Foreign Ministry in managing this important field of action, which calls for reorganisation and improved efficiency. A steering group for economic external relations, led by the Prime Minister, is now in place. The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Employment and Economy are jointly implementing the action plan.
Torstila also spoke about the early steps of the European Union External Action Service. There are good developments in crisis and conflict cooperation, which is not the case in consular cooperation, even though it is important for Finland among other countries. In context with the Arab Spring, Iran, the Western Balkans and the Horn of Africa, the External Action Service operations have been effective, and therefore, the EEAS should be presented with political support, new models of cooperation and initiatives. The EU member states are at liberty to expect the EEAS to add value to their diplomatic actions.
Torstila continued his speech by discussing the Foreign Ministry's resources and pressure for budget cuts. In addition to reducing the diplomatic mission network and cutting the Ministry's staff, the belt-tightening also applies to travelling, premises and information management. Apparently, the staff reductions are realised through significant number of people retiring and, therefore, do not call for lay-offs or redundancies. Reducing of resources will increase the significance of good leadership and well-being at work. The Foreign Ministry houses exemplary leadership in the central government, as it received, as the only Ministry, an honourable mention in the State Treasury's competition for well-being at work.
Torstila stressed the importance of bearing in mind a central duty of the profession in spite of the tough economic situation. In diplomacy and foreign policy management, it is essential to see and understand the ways of the world, to see things, events and developments in their correct framework, always bearing in mind the "interest of Finland". One must produce ideas and have courage to present them to the political leaders, one must have the ability to see and understand things, to be creative and able to speak clearly, both to the interest groups and to the general public. We are surrounded by a world of great changes, whose opportunities and risks can best be seen in the very field of view of the Foreign Ministry staff, Torstila said.