It has been eight months since business woman Anne Berner became a minister in Finland’s new centre right Sipilä government. She plans to stay in politics for one term, which means she has no more than three years and four months to implement her plans. And she has her plans laid out.
“Personally I am dedicated to creating an electronic ticketing system which makes it easier to buy tickets when you want to travel between Nordic countries by train. That would mean a lot for the freedom of movement,” says Anne Berner.
She is the Finnish Minister of Transport and Communications and Minister for Nordic Cooperation. A joint Nordic integration policy and the removal of border obstacles are top priorities for the Nordic cooperation ministers.
“I’ll ask if there’s anything I don’t understand,” she says with a hearty laugh when we agree that she can speak in Swedish and I can speak in Norwegian.
“My mother tongue is actually German, but Swedish is fine,” she says, and goes on: “I am actually an immigrant child of parents arriving from Switzerland.”
She is Swiss-Finnish and masters at least three languages, has German as a mother tongue and attended the German school in Helsinki. Since Finland is a dual language country she speaks both Finnish and Swedish, in addition to English and French. My Norwegian is easy enough to understand too.
Anne Berner represents the Center Party of Finland (Centern), sister party to Norway’s Center Party and the Swedish Centre Party. She was appointed Minister of Transport and Communications by Prime Minister Juha Petri Sipilä (Centern) when he formed his centre-right coalition in May 2015, with the Finns Party and the National Coalition Party.
You were described as a successful business woman and now you are a politician. What happened?
“I really don’t know,” she says, shaking her head.
What is the main difference?
“Everything is different.”
Could you give us an example?
“The main difference?” She pauses.
“I approach the role as a minister like a vote of confidence. With your own background, what you have learned and what you know, you want to use this position to put something back into society. This has always interested me. I have always worked for the third sector and I have always created new projects. I have always been active in that way.
“But politics does bring some surprises. For me, making decisions is something which is based on facts and knowledge, but in politics it doesn't always work like that. Politics is often based on how things look or on tactical values. This is difficult for me. I can only do a job that I believe is right. I must make decisions based on what I believe is right.”
Can you give me an example of what you feel is difficult?
“There are so many. I think it is important in politics not to loose something of yourself, and not to give in to pressure from the public or the media. Sometimes it would be very easy just to give in to the pressure. It is not easy to fight it. It can be tough.”
Anne Berner is not the only one who has gone from private business to politics with little political experience, but not many are offered or accept that challenge. She thinks the country benefits from more people alternating between politics and business.
“It is more common in the USA. Both sides benefit from it. It gives a mutual understanding and respect both for how politics and the private sector work. We don’t have this mobility in the Nordic region. You need to grow up inside the political world in order to be accepted and then stay on that path. Or you must grow up in business.
“But what I have tried to do with my decision is to show people that you can be a politician for a while and then return to business. We shall see how it goes. We need that kind of mobility.”
The minister has given herself one term in politics. That means she needs to work efficiently with the things she wants to see implemented. She gestures how a period in government has a beginning and an end. From the end she can count back to a beginning in order to figure out how much time she has left to achieve various things.
“If I want to see changes to our transport system, or if I want to get rid of these three border obstacles, if I want this to happen I need to know when the legislation must be ready, when the decision must be made in parliament, when the legislation will be implemented and when I can see the result. Then I can make plans accordingly.”
What are the major issues?
“One is to change Finland’s transport system so that it works. Right now it doesn’t.
“The other is that we need a new financing model for infrastructure. We have not been able to invest in our transport system for years. We need to do that in order to create business opportunities. Our transport system is stuck in a downward spiral. We need growth, and in order to improve public services and to save the environment, public transport needs to become more popular. To manage that we need to change the system, we need more entrepreneurs, we need innovation, we need digitalisation and we cannot do all this if regulations obstruct all change.”
You want more private players on the scene?
“Yes, Nordic societies are small. Their populations are limited and there is a limit to how big the public sector can be. But the public sector in the Nordic countries is large compared to the private sector. We need more growth and we need better services. To manage this we need public sector reforms and better integration between the public and private sectors.
“Private companies must be able to provide more services and the public sector needs restructuring in order to become more innovative and dynamic. To change these structures we need the third sector. The third sector is able to identify weak spots in society. We have now for instance identified weaknesses in the system for receiving refugees. We would not have been able to handle the refugee crisis without the help from the Red Cross and other voluntary organisations. This shows the need for restructuring and a more dynamic public service.”
Has being an immigrant child instructed your view of today’s immigration?
“Yes, I believe it has, the fact that I experienced Finland in the 70s when immigration policies were very strict. I believe it is important not to take too many steps back, but to move forwards. We will always need immigration. It is very valuable for any country. We get knowledge, culture, new points of view, diversity which can help businesses secure better knowledge about exports for instance.
“So I think it is important to distinguish between refugee policies and immigration policies. We need to apply a human approach to refugee policies and help as much as we can. Refugee policies and immigration policies need different political and concrete tools.”
“The refugee situation does have some elements which are not so good. We have a strict policy because human trafficking is not good, and because we don’t want to inflict more hardships on people. We need a uniform policy, so that we don’t give hope to more people than those who we can accommodate.”
Does that mean you can accommodate more than today?
“In Finland we have said there are limits for how many can come, like in the rest of the Nordic region, that we will struggle with good integration when we are not in control of how many are arriving. That is why it is important that we have a clear and uniform refugee policy which does not accept illegal immigration but which always helps those who need it.”
Finland holds the 2016 Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. Speaking at the launch of the Presidency she underlined the need to get rid of border obstacles between Nordic countries. Right now it looks like things are heading in the opposite direction. Border controls have been reintroduced in order to control the flow of refugees. Yet freedom of movement is at the very core of Nordic cooperation.
“Yes! And we must not loose this, and must work to keep it. That’s why we have done three things:
“First of all we need to gather the prime ministers. We must say that a future Nordic region needs freedom of movement and we have to work towards this. We are facing a temporary problem, but the vision must be a borderless Nordic region. We must not loose the right to move freely within the Nordic region.
“Secondly, we have to remove the other border obstacles in order to support the free movement of labour and between businesses. We cannot have border obstacles which limit development.
“Thirdly, we need to work towards a joint integration policy, to avoid the situation we are in right now. We must learn from the examples of good integration policies for the future. We can learn from Sweden which has accepted many immigrants. We can learn from Norway which has a different situation, and a different background, we can learn from Denmark which has a border across which the labour force has wandered back and forth for as long as anyone can remember. So we need to work to make sure things improve.
“With our joint EU policies, even though not all Nordic countries are EU members, we need to work together to improve the EU’s refugee and immigration policies, making sure external borders are maintained so that we avoid having to impose border controls within the union.
“We need to do this in a much better fashion.”
She calls herself Nordic and praises Nordic cooperation. Now she wants the Nordic region to play a stronger role, leading the way as a region on an international level.
“The Nordic region has values which must be maintained. The region has a reputation worldwide as a unique entity – a handful of countries sharing values, with a unique welfare state model which allows for unique opportunities. We have our passport union which has been a trail blazer in Europe. We now need to be pioneer in different areas.”
In what way do you think the Nordic countries have been leading the way?
“Digitalisation,” she says enthusiastically as if she was opening Sarepta’s jar.
“We need to create digital opportunities and this also concerns the freedom of movement. Electronic identification which makes it possible to exchange services across the Nordic region. Personally I am dedicated to creating an electronic ticketing system which makes it possible to buy tickets from Norway to Sweden and Finland. That would mean a lot for the freedom of movement.
“It could be about services in the health sector, allowing us to exchange and use data freely, and I think the Nordic region should lead the way in European and create standards for instance for 5G, like we did it for MSM and GSM.”
The Nordic region’s greatest strength might be the high number of women in the labour market.
“Absolutely,” she agrees, giving this a thumbs-up.
“The Nordic region has a great advantage in its high level of gender equality. This has been a great strength. Women often apply a different kind of logic, a different emotional basis and different preconditions. Everything is needed, all the different ways of leading, all the knowledge.
“But there are certain obstacles, certain difficulties. There are often more women in the service sector, the social sector, in the public sector, but there are fewer business people and less entrepreneurship. This is something we can improve on. We need more women who are willing to lead the way, we need more women who can bring other women with them. We are still struggling with the problem that women don’t bring other women with them. This is an area where we still need to do more.”
You mentioned you were inspired by an international women’s network?
“This has been a great source of inspiration. I was invited to speak about ownership in the USA, and then they invited me to become a member. I have met women who have made a huge impression on me, and I believe that if I had not met these women and seen their ambitions, their complete openness and their total willingness to help, and their trust, I don’t think I would have entered politics. From the USA I learned that you can be a politician for four years, and then move on to the private sector.
“To achieve something similar in the Nordic region we need women who do the same, who put themselves out there, who are willing to share and who are willing to bring other women with them.
“But if women are not willing to take the risk of entering politics, and it is in fact a risk, if we do not get these examples, we will not get others to follow. And these examples are so important. This evening I am meeting a small network of twenty women who have been part of a mentor programme. I spend quite a lot of time talking to young women. To try see how they can become more self confident and how to become entrepreneurs. I have always said that you need to have a voluntary drive in order to remember why we are doing this.”
Your voluntary work is helping other women?
“My voluntary work is to help entrepreneurs. Recently I have spent a lot of time helping build a children’s hospital. When it is completed near the end of 2017, I have also always had women who I have been mentoring – or I have given them a kick and told them: now you need to move on up.”
What was your dream job as a child?
Medical doctor and pathologist.
What is your favourite tool in the office?
What is your hidden talent?
I always feel it is difficult to assess yourself. But from a priest I heard speak in a church in the USA, I learned that all people have a unique talent. And each individual has a talent which is greater than your knowledge in this area. Since then it has always been clear to me that each human being has a talent in an area which is better than my own. But what is my own talent – I don’t know.
Which book are you currently reading?
I read a lot of fiction. I read all the time. Right now I am reading Paul Auster. The New York Trilogy, which he wrote in the 80s. I read literature which makes me think. Not academic literature, and not non-fiction. Only fiction.