Image size 20 Kb The Northern Dimension

Under-Secretary of State Alec Aalto at the Prime Minister's Office has spent a lot of time studying complex Union questions as Finland prepares to take the helm for the final six months of the millennium. "Big matters dovetail with each other and we know the timetables. The end of this year is the deadline. Naturally, life will still go on even if agreement fails to be reached on everything. But if the new outlines for structural policy are not decided on, regional policy will lack a foundation. In other respects, too, the Union must have long-term financial plans or else enlargement will be impossible," he explains.

"The country holding the Presidency can emphasise and highlight matters that it sees as important to the Union as a whole," explains Aalto. "The Northern Dimension is an enormous skein of matters that have now been given a collective name. Energy policy, for example, is an important question of the future. The enormous gas reserves in north-west Russia are near the Finnish border, but we should not just announce that Finland will look after the matter. No, we should show the Union that it lies in everyone's interests to take care of this big matter together. Russia will also have a better understanding of the project's importance when the party on the other side of the negotiating table is the whole EU. The Northern Dimension is important from the points of view of all the northern member states, but we need the full strength of the Union behind it. We presented the initiative in good time and now it is on the Union's official agenda."

The EU is geographically, economically and culturally an entity of great diversity, one whose various aspects can sometimes be seen as greater than the totality. The idea is not new; after all, the Union has long had its Mediterranean Dimension, which is an umbrella name for many things. In Aalto's view, the Northern Dimension has proved a very "saleable" and comprehensive heading, which embraces both the problems of the region and all its potential. "Presented individually, they would be lost in the great process of the Union. But now that the heading has been sold, all the projects included under it can be carried through much more effectively. What we have to do is show that a matter has a content rather than being just a slogan."

Visions show the way

As Aalto sees it, enlargement is another matter that will have to be sold to all members. At the moment, it is clearly more in the interests of Germany than of countries like Portugal and Ireland. "We have to be able to show that the prosperity and political stability of the whole of Europe is in everyone's long-term interests. In order to achieve our common goal, those who are enjoying the biggest benefits must be prepared to make compromises when even poorer countries join."

Alec Aalto speaks with conviction and enthusiastically, gesticulating for emphasis. Is it idealism?

"Idealism should not be completely ground up in the big mill of concrete questions," he replies. "Chancellor Helmut Kohl was a good example of a person who clung to his fundamental vision of Europe. He saw beyond everyday problems, and when necessary steamrolled over public opinion. The euro is a typical example of this. Of course, visions must not be too far removed from the views of citizens, even when they do show the way ahead. There has to be a realistic ability to assess what goals people will, in the end, be prepared to aspire to."

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