International crises from the pandemic to the recent desperate withdrawal from Afghanistan are forcing a debate on whether Europe has the means to take care of its own security and defence in an unpredictable world. While some argue for Europe to be shut off and others for a defence focused entirely on the armed forces, international cooperation remains crucial for a safer, more peaceful world, and security today means far more than the military. We spoke to Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto about some of the big questions Europe faces today.

Green European Journal: What are the greatest geopolitical challenges facing Europe?

Pekka Haavisto: In Finland, and also within the Finnish Greens, we take a wider perspective on security challenges. Security is not only about military tensions, competition between the great powers, and hybrid threats, but also environmental disruption, human rights violations, and migration. The greatest geopolitical challenge is clearly the climate. And it should also be underlined how mitigating climate change is a source of security more generally.

In Finland, the word “geopolitics” traditionally implies Russia and relations between Russia and the West. But looking at global actors today, the geopolitics of the US-China relationship is now having a greater influence on Europe. China is no longer just a third player; it has become the main player alongside the United States. For Europe, tensions between the US, China, or Russia for that matter, are not only about competition between the great powers but are also about values, because Europe’s strength lies in the values that it represents. If you take a narrow geopolitical view, you start to look at the map to see who neighbours whom and so forth. But when you look at values, there are many kinds of combinations.

How do you see the geopolitical role of the European Union?

I personally favour – and this is also the position of the Finnish government – the European Union developing its own security capacity. Of course, discussions on a European strategic compass are still in the early stages. We are also fully aware in Finland that many EU countries base their security on military cooperation through NATO membership. However, the new security threats of the 21st century do not replace the old ones but add new layers: a hybrid layer, a cyber layer, and so forth.

The European Union as an institution is more suited to effectively responding to these new layers of security than a traditional military alliance such as NATO. All European countries have faced cyber-attacks in recent years. For real cybersecurity, you need more than just military capabilities. It requires civilian capabilities and the deeper involvement of civilian authorities. Whatever the EU can do to work on these wider security challenges is welcome. The basis of the EU’s security policy should be a real response to health, hybrid, and climate risks.

The European Union also needs to develop stronger rapid response capabilities. After what happened at Kabul airport, many in the Finnish parliament asked, “Where was the EU? Which EU institutions were involved in the evacuation?” It was a clear example of where the EU should have cooperated more, and where it would have played to its strengths by doing so. A rapid reaction response is not only necessary for situations like Kabul; the ability to respond to environmental catastrophes and challenges is also critical. When I worked at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), we used to discuss the “green berets”. Flooding and forest fires are the new security threats, and the EU should be able to react together as one when they hit, in Europe as around the world.

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The evacuation from Kabul airport was a tragic and chaotic end to Western involvement in Afghanistan. What lessons should Europe draw from the withdrawal?

There will be different analyses made in the aftermath of Afghanistan and different European states will take different views. Currently, there are at least three competing narratives. The American narrative is quite narrow – their line is that they were in Afghanistan for their national security. Once their security was guaranteed, it was time to leave. The European narrative is wider, saying that, yes, we were there for our own security and the security of other democratic countries, but our presence in the country was also about Afghanistan’s development, democracy, and the rights of women and girls. The third narrative is the Taliban narrative that says that Afghanistan is now free: the occupation is over, foreign troops are out, and peace is restored. History will be composed of these three competing narratives.

Looking at the situation in Afghanistan, the next catastrophe is already around the corner. The loss of democracy, the rights of women and girls, and education was already a catastrophe. But now Afghanistan faces famine. International development programmes in the country are faced with a very difficult situation. And Europe is faced with a daunting question: should we, without recognising the Taliban, support the country so that people can live day to day? So that nurses and schoolteachers receive their salaries? That is why, under these circumstances, the EU wants to discuss a “humanitarian plus” initiative. Europe also recognises that the stability of Afghanistan is important for the region and the world.

Europe is suddenly facing a very different reality, and these are the elements that are left in its hands. It is a major disappointment that the peace talks in Doha did not bring about a government of national unity in Afghanistan so more of the values that Europe represents would be respected. Europe put down conditions for future cooperation: free movement of people, respect for human rights, respect for the rights of women and girls. For the moment, the Taliban has met none of these preconditions.

Will the experience of Afghanistan change how Finland and the EU approach the promotion of human rights around the world?

The question about massive peacekeeping and crisis management operations is always whether they are actually effective. Of course, there are frustrations, and we have to analyse what went wrong. The lessons from Afghanistan need to be taken into account when planning any future action in the Sahel region, in Niger or Mali, for example. However, I do not think that the experience in Afghanistan has changed the concept of intervening to prevent fundamental human rights violations. The responsibility to protect, and to uphold United Nations decisions, is still in our playbook. Afghanistan will not be the last conflict in which help will be needed.

However, there are lessons to be learned. From 2002, I worked in Afghanistan for the UNEP. We used to visit Taliban villages, where we would meet Taliban supporters. They would ask: “What good can the international community do for us? Can you build wells? Can you establish schools?” When we went back to Kabul, we would explain to the Afghan government that we had met with opposition supporters and that they would like to see some development in their region. It was always disturbing to be met with the accusation that we had been talking to the wrong people, that we should only talk to people who support the government. Only the “right” people deserved our help. A black-and-white reading of a post-conflict situation is a recipe for disaster. After a conflict, you need inclusiveness from the very beginning to start to rebuild.

The responsibility to protect, and to uphold United Nations decisions, is still in our playbook.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan followed another major geopolitical shock, the experience of the pandemic. Richer countries have hoarded vaccines and many poorer countries have been left without. Vaccines and medical supplies have become tools for geopolitical leverage. How should Europe respond?

Going back to the first days of the Covid-19 episode, the lack of solidarity shown between European countries as they first handled the crisis was terrible. Countries put themselves first and closed borders to stop medical supplies and protective equipment from reaching their neighbours. Again everybody asked, “Where is Europe?” The vaccination rollout eventually helped European countries get back on the same page. However, overall the experience of the pandemic has been quite painful. In northern Europe, Finland and Sweden have deployed quite different approaches to the pandemic and this has created tensions at times. It is still under construction, but greater European coordination on aspects of health policy is needed.

The fight against the pandemic will only be over when it is won everywhere, so vaccination solidarity is crucial. We’re running against time to prevent the emergence of new variants. Europe needs to support those countries that are still at the beginning or in the middle of their vaccine programmes. That can happen initially through COVAX, but the long-term solution has to be supporting vaccine production around the world. For example, I have spoken to the foreign ministers of India, Rwanda, and Senegal and they all have plans to produce vaccines. Europe needs to do what it can to allow for the establishment of national and regional vaccine producers.

Let’s move on to the place of climate and ecological issues in foreign policy. Avoiding the worst impacts of the ecological crisis depends on the decarbonisation of the entire world, not just Europe. What levers does Europe have to accelerate climate action globally?

Europe has a particular responsibility here. Finland is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2035 and at the current speed we could potentially reach that goal a couple of years earlier. At the European level, the goal of a climate-neutral Europe is also a very positive step. In terms of levers, there are the discussions with big players such as Russia and China to convince them to bring their goals forwards. With developing countries, the most important lever is providing support for climate adaptation and access to new technologies. One new approach that Finland has taken is building a coalition of finance ministers for climate change. Sixty- five countries are now taking part in the coalition, currently co-chaired by Finland and Indonesia. It is a reminder that climate change is not just a matter for environment ministers. It is the finance ministers who are the essential decision-makers who can plan economic and social development in such a way that climate goals can be met.

Communication does not mean selling out on our values and principles; it means understanding the world we live in and what the real risks are.

It is perhaps in its own neighbourhood that Europe has the most influence. Energy geopolitics is particularly tense in eastern Europe. The construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a major fossil fuel project that risks isolating Poland and Ukraine. How do you read the situation, and what role can the European Green Deal play?

The rising price of natural gas will make for a difficult situation, especially in the winter months. There is a risk that people will associate the cost of energy with green policies and the energy transition. However, it is clear that the Russian government is influencing supplies for political leverage. Moldova’s contract with Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom, the largest supplier of natural gas to Europe, expired this autumn. Gazprom has extended the contract but is raising the price dramatically.

My diplomatic answer to questions about Nord Stream 2 is that the pipeline runs through the Gulf of Finland, but that Finland is not part of it. It is up to the recipients of this energy to see how it fits into their plans, and to calculate how it will affect their environmental objectives. On the European Green Deal, one complex question is whether it will fund nuclear energy. There are several dividing lines. However, the very nature of nuclear power creates a dependency on providers and the safe treatment of nuclear waste remains a challenge. My choice, out of all these options, would be to invest in renewables.

How does green politics inform your approach to foreign policy?

The Finnish Greens have always taken a wider approach to green politics. In our very early years, there was a fight between the ecologists, who supported a narrower, more environmental politics, and the broader green agenda covering themes such as human rights, feminism, and the rights of people with disabilities. The wider agenda won and turned out to be key to our political success. The Finnish Greens have been in government five times because of this agenda, even if environmental and ecological issues are at the forefront of our policies.

Currently, the Greens hold the ministry for foreign affairs, the ministry of the interior, and the environment ministry, which also coordinates climate issues. Green ministers, therefore, have many opportunities to influence national politics, as well as politics at the European level. When there are discussions about the overall situation and crises around the world, we always raise environmental security, the link between conflict and climate and environmental issues, and bridges between peace and environmental issues. This perspective is something that green politics can take the lead on.

The Nordic countries have a reputation for an active foreign policy based on values such as peace. Could the European Union learn from the Nordic approach?

Three elements of the Nordic model are interesting for the European Union. First, the Nordic countries manage to cooperate closely amongst themselves despite quite fundamental foreign policy differences. While Denmark, Iceland, and Norway are NATO members, Finland and Sweden are not, and Iceland and Norway are not part of the European Union. Through the Nordic Five, we nevertheless come together like a family because we share values that cut across these different alliances.

Second, an active approach to development policy is a clear source of strength. Here Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are often even better than Finland; they consistently increase their overseas aid and development spending. Every country has populists who argue against solidarity with the rest of the world. They do not want migrants to enter Europe, or European countries to spend money on overseas development. We need to make our own proposals against this lack of solidarity. In the world we currently live in, you never know when you might need it yourself.

Finally, the Nordic countries are willing to speak to almost everyone. While condemning the illegal occupation of Crimea and human rights violations such as the case of Alexei Navalny, Nordic countries maintained a dialogue with Russia. We are all extremely concerned about what is happening in Belarus. Nevertheless, I am trying to maintain contact with my counterpart in Belarus, because we need to find a way out of this crisis. Likewise, dialogue between the opposition and the government is needed. You have to speak to the people that you disagree with. Communication does not mean selling out on our values and principles; it means understanding the world we live in and what the real risks are. We cannot build peace without communication.

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