A woman leading Parliament into a new era
Helsinki, not Brussels, decides for Finland
More and more women speakers
The engaging charmer
I can also be strict and severe
Speaker of Parliament Riitta Uosukainen, 58, is one of Finland's highest-profile politicians. She seems to be everywhere and doing everything. She has a lot to say and the kinds of things she says keep her in the headlines week after week. If a election were held now, Riitta Uosukainen would probably be the next president, because she is even more popular than the former Martti Ahtisaari.
Her overwhelming popularity and a colourful style that disregards hackneyed patterns have raised the hackles of many of Uosukainen's rivals. The social democratic Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen has accused her - albeit without directly naming her - of making a populist pitch devoid of political substance. Now that Finland has changed over to a system in which the president is elected by direct popular vote, the campaign drags on for years, just like in the USA. The media battle is merciless, but Uosukainen is well in control of the situation.
She has represented the National Coalition (Conservative) Party in Parliament since 1983. Minister of Education in 1991-94, she became the first woman Speaker of Parliament in 1994. She holds a licentiate in philosophy and is a Finnish teacher by occupation. Her husband is a retired lieutenant-colonel and now has a prominent role in local politics. They have one son.
A woman leading Parliament into a new era
Dark wooden panels add to the air of dignity in the Speaker's spacious office. Former Speakers, all gentlemen with a strong sense of their own worth, stare from the frames of their portraits, probably somewhat taken aback by the room's new sovereign occupant, whose melodious laugh and sparkling, handsome presence could easily fill a much bigger space. Riitta Uosukainen has charisma for which many a less colourful politician might well consider swapping his birthright.
We begin our discussion on the subject of Finland's and her Parliament's new role since we joined the European Union in 1995. Long regarded as being within the Soviet Union's sphere of influence - albeit with the status of a neutral country - Finland is now firmly integrated into the West. Our image in the eyes of the world has changed. Has a political status with which the Finns were earlier unfamiliar and which is constantly assuming new shapes, i.e. membership of the European Union, required their national legislature to face new challenges?
Riitta Uosukainen believes it has: "The situation has changed quite radically. New methods, new forms of work are being created all the time. But we have learned quickly and have the situation well in hand. In fact, we take care of EU business better than the parliament of any other member state. Credit for that is due to a single paragraph in our constitution. It requires all ministers who have matters coming up for deliberation in Union bodies to go before our Grand Committee, which meets every Friday, and explain what course of action they intend to take. If things have worked out differently, the ministers come to explain why that has happened. Affairs remain in our Parliament's hands. That is why I do not want the European Parliament to be given more power. Business can continue to be taken care of on an intergovernmental basis. After all, governments are responsible to their own parliaments, whose confidence they must enjoy. Otherwise there is a change of government. That way, responsibility and power remain with the national legislature."
Helsinki, not Brussels, decides for Finland
"Of course there are problems within the community. For example, the French are quite aloof from EU affairs. Information does not get properly across to them. By contrast, we in the Finnish Parliament keep ourselves well informed at all times. Thus deputies - and through them citizens - have the opportunity to find out where we are headed and what commitments we have made. We must, however, continually improve the mechanism. Far from all in Finland know that this is a system. There are public lamentations that all the power has gone to Brussels. But that is not so. It is still in Helsinki, with our Parliament."
Finland has been an EU member for less than three years, yet has developed a model which works so well that bigger member states of much longer standing could adopt it. How does the Speaker explain that?
"Our model is an improved version of the Danish one," she begins. "Now the Danes are improving their model, using ours as an example. It is one of genuine interaction and cooperation at its finest. I have not gained the impression in other respects, either, that Finland is any kind of 'third shepherd boy in the village' when it comes to looking after these matters. Naturally there are certain things in which the load has to be shared. There are plenty in the agricultural sector, where we did not take independent action to rationalise production early enough. Nothing can depend on subsidies alone; you're sure to run up against a wall that way - whether in or out of the EU. Fortunately, membership has forced us to devise sensible policies, and people adapt to them. Contrary to the scare stories that were told, the Finns favour domestic produce, because they appreciate purity. Food prices in general have fallen and everything has gone as promised to the people. Those who keep their word are respected in this country. That is why we have not seen a collapse in support for the EU as has happened in Sweden. Nor does anyone here expect 'pennies from heaven', because they know none will fall.
"It must never be forgotten that the EU is a process. It is changing in character all the time and there are plans to enlarge it. But it could also come to an end sometime. After all, the Kalmar Union (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) lasted from 1389 to 1521, but then came to an end. Nothing in this world is eternal. What matters is that now, for the first time, peaceful work for a shared Europe is being done. That is a valuable thing in itself, and it has gotten off to a handsome start."
The Finns are a law-abiding people. In fact, we joke that Finland is the only country that complies with every Brussels directive down to the last comma. Riitta Uosukainen does not quite agree.
"Well, not that scrupulously. But we still have a lot to learn from countries further south, which have mastered the skills of flexibility and adaptation. The application of sense is permitted also here. I don't want to incite anyone to civil disobedience, but it must be remembered that a directive is only a guideline, not a command. It merely outlines how we should enact our own legislation in harmony with it. But it is in this house - the Parliament of Finland - that laws are made," she says with a strong note of emphasis in her voice.
Nonetheless, I muster the courage to ask whether or not an EU directive overrides national legislation.
"If an important question of principle enshrined in the treaties is involved, a directive can override our Parliament, but our laws are drafted in a way that precludes conflicts. We have been harmonising laws for decades; it didn't just begin when we joined the EU. Before that we were in the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area. They had to do with trade, but the EU is likewise very much about trade and customs. Besides that, free movement opens the door to a lot of new opportunities. We should be emphasising them rather than focusing on obstacles."
More and more women speakers
More women than ever before seem to be in leading roles in Europe. Do you expect this development to continue?
"Hopefully!" replies the Speaker. "At least things aren't getting worse. After all, there are plenty of us women. Rita Süssmuth in Germany and then the Nordic speakers, at one time only one of us was a man. Irrespective of whether speakers are men or women, what matters most is that there are good, direct contacts. Meetings and other contacts assume a completely different character. When the speakers of the parliaments of the EU member states met in Finland this year, the atmosphere was good and matters were exhaustively discussed. When I'm looking for my next job, I'll show them the letters of thanks that I received. Seriously though, what makes me especially happy is that the meeting was said to have had a whole new mood of wanting to get things done. In addition to getting on well together, we got a lot of work out of the way. Now cooperation is continuing in that the Italian speakers have convened a group of people, including myself, from other countries. The first step will be a preparatory meeting in Rome. The central theme is how cooperation between speakers and parliaments can be developed even further. This is very concrete work."
The high office of Speaker of Parliament was once regarded as largely ceremonial, but has it now become one in which greater practical power is wielded?
"Also in this sense, the tasks of the Speaker have become different. Another new aspect of the work is responsibility for ensuring that practical matters are efficiently taken care of and contacts function. Delegations come and go and everything has to proceed smoothly. Now the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers have to have completely new properties, and indeed the same applies to all Members of Parliament. We in Finland are putting more resources into training than ever before. For example, languages are being taught to a growing degree. One sees that in our work. We certainly have no reason to be ashamed of ourselves."
The engaging charmer
The interviewer easily forgets his job once Riitta Uosukainen gets going. She answers without questions being put and asks only that the listener confirms that he accepts her view. "Isn't it so? You must have noticed it yourself." She pulls her listener along with her. Someone who talks so convincingly and with such enthusiasm cannot be wrong. Even her political opponents acknowledge her ability to charm, captivate. Her party chairman, Finance Minister Sauli Niinistö, regards it as virtually self-evident that she will be the National Coalition Party's next presidential candidate.
Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen has growled irritatedly that presidential race polls bring the most populist talkers of nonsense to the surface.
Substance has no place in what they say. The immediate interpretation was that the object of the Prime Minister's ire was Riitta Uosukainen's popularity, which transcends political boundaries. That raises the question of where one draws the line between populism and down-to-earth talking.
Riitta Uouskainen believes that line is in the critic's head. "What someone from one's own party says is totally to the point, but people from other parties talk nothing but humbug. That, unfortunately, is the conclusion that we regrettably often come to. It isn't right. I say it again: the Finnish people are not stupid. People are able to think all by themselves. And besides, if we look at what someone has done and left undone, those things can be presented to the public in any light whatsoever. The media wield an awful lot of power. An infocracy (the word was coined by then Prime Minister Kalevi Sorsa years ago) really exists." Hearing this, the interviewer feels full of power for a brief instant, but Riitta Uosukainen immediately brings him back to earth with only a glance. She always looks one straight in the eyes.
When Riitta Uosukainen's book "Liehuva liekinvarsi" (freely translated "Fluttering Tongue of Flame") was published over a year ago, it sparked months of controversy in which no verbal punches were pulled. She had stepped over the limits - specifically the limits set for the institution of Speaker - by writing openly about her long-standing marriage and happy sex life, from both of which she draws strength. The other contents of the book were almost completely ignored. A few colourful sentences referring to her water bed were all the international news agencies needed. The news threshold was effortlessly crossed all over the world.
"A peripheral matter became the main issue,"she says. "I've gone through a year of such turmoil that I could never have even imagined, much less anticipated. But now when I sit here and look back on it, it is easy to see what comments were to the point and which ones weren't. The to-the-point criticism was quite appropriate, and I can take it. In general, as it happens, most feedback has been quite positive. It will be interesting to see what researchers say about this process. Two degree theses are being written, one about the letters that came in and the other about what was written in the press about the book. I'd never have been able to handle such a vast volume of material myself.
"The book has not been translated into other languages, nor will it be. There have been requests from various parts of the world, but I have absolutely refused. The language in the book is not amenable to translation, because it's so national, so Finnish in character. It's message would simply not get across in any other language. A point worth remembering in this connection is that people are never able to express themselves in a strange language as well as in their own. Many shades and nuances of meaning are lost in translation," says the Speaker, whose own Karelian accent and idioms give her Finnish a distinct dash of colour.
"I can also be strict and severe"
Asked whether she considers herself too uninhibited, Riitta Uosukainen answers with an emphatic "no". On the contrary: "I'm just honest and open, although that may not always be wise. Openness is often responded to with cruelty. One thing that I have learned in this is that truly malicious people exist. Everyone should be entitled to their own attitudes. I intend to remain the way I have always been. This may sound like self- praise, but it's true: foreign journalists that I have met abroad come here to Finland to meet me again. One Swiss sighed: 'If only we had one politician like her.' Now, things like that are hardly bad publicity for Finland, are they?"
Her harshest critics have argued that a Speaker of Parliament must not behave so unconventionally in public, but Riitta Uosukainen attributes this to their inability to get used to a woman holding that high position. Others, however, have had no problem with it.
"Some political journalists that I respect have even expressed their satisfaction that I did not get set in the old mould. However, when I am on the Speaker's dais in the chamber of Parliament, I am a different person than here. There, you would think I'm in a slow-motion film. I can be strict and severe there; it goes with the job," she says, looking for an instant like a sergeant-major, in front of whom one stands to rigid attention.
"In politics, a woman is treated differently to men. She is always being scrutinised under a magnifying glass. In press articles men ceremonially say and point out, whereas what women say is coloured any old way. The female members of the cabinet have to suffer this indignity virtually every day. The criticism and praise that journalists dish out contains a certain amount of condescending 'woman extra'. Women are bolder than men at shattering moulds, and that always triggers opposition, not just in politics. In addition to that, women live longer than men even though they certainly do just as much work, and often more. But woman are able to express their feelings more openly and that may be why they lead a better life," she says, looking at the interviewer as though to ask: "What have you got to say to that?"