Jyrki Katainen is the Vice-President of the European Commission for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness. He served as Prime Minister of Finland between June 2011 and June 2014.
Katainen was previously Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance (2007-11) - in which position he earned the accolade of “best Finance Minister in Europe” from the Financial Times in 2008. From 2004 to 2014, he was President of the Finnish National Coalition Party, and from 2006 to 2012 he was also Vice-President of the European People’s Party.
Katainen was a member of the Finnish Parliament for 15 years, until 2014, having been elected for the first time in 1999. From 1998 to 2000, he served as Vice-President of the European People’s Party youth wing from 2001 to 2004 and as First Vice-President of the Regional Council of Northern Savonia, Finland.
Katainen obtained Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Tampere. Lan Anh Vu sat down with Katainen to learn more about his political career, obstacles he has overcome and the key lessons he has learned over the years.
As told to Lan Anh Vu
My Early Years
I grew up in Siilinjarvi, 400 kilometers north of Helsinki. My family was lower-middle class. My father was an aviation mechanic, and my mother was a secretary at the municipal council. My father taught me how to hunt and make food, so we cooked together often.
At school, I volunteered to participate in organizing school events such as Christmas parties. For some reason, I was always interested in the life of society and decision making. I was 22 when I was first elected to the local municipal council. In 1995-1996, I studied abroad in Britain. I was an exchange student with the Erasmus Programme at the University of Leicester.
I soon started to think about what I would do after the Erasmus Programme ended: whether I should stay in Britain or travel to Brussels to work. I had made the decision to quit politics when I received a phone call from a medical doctor, a very tough lady, whom I knew in Finland and who had been a candidate in many previous national elections. She supported me to continue with political career. It felt very good to know that people with experience in politics believed that I was capable of being a member of Parliament. So, I gave it a try. I returned to Finland and started planning to campaign. In 1999, at the age of 28, I was elected to Parliament. For two months, I had believed that I would quit politics forever, but then things changed. And I’ve been in politics ever since.
When I was Prime Minister of Finland, I led a government of six parties that ranged from the left to the right of the political spectrum. The period was very difficult in terms of economics, and there was a need to cut spending, raise taxes, and implement structural reform in order to set Finland on the right course.
At many times, we were in situations in which we really needed to defend the credibility of the country. It was very difficult to make decisions because the ideologies were so distant from each other. We didn’t have an ideological clue, so to speak. So, we replaced ideology with pragmatism. It was politically difficult, but we had no choice. It was necessary to make decisions that were understandable and agreed with common sense about what would move the country forward and reduce public debt. Even though it was very challenging, we managed to generate good results.
I’ve learned that you must be prepared to make compromises; otherwise, no decision will be made. Even if you don’t make a decision, that’s a decision. And problems usually only get worse if you don’t try to solve them. Even an imperfect decision is better than no decision at all. So, a decision has to be made.
I’ve also learned that you have to be very open, especially if you are in a very difficult situation. You shouldn’t avoid contact with people. The bailout packages that we gave to other countries were highly unpopular in my country. People did not understand why we helped them, and most people were angry. It was a very difficult time. I went everywhere to meet with people and continued to explain why the decision was reasonable. I’ve learned that it’s better to bare all in front of people. Even if others disagree with you, they at least sense that you are sincere and open. People seem to respect the truth even when it is unpleasant.
I’ve also learned that if you have a strong base of values, then that can help you to weather difficult times. I have four core values that I try to follow. The first is encouragement; I want to make decisions that encourage people to work hard and take responsibility. The second is education, because civilized humanity and education are ways in which we can distribute social justice and empower people to take responsibility for their lives. The third is tolerance, which is about dignity. And the fourth is caring, which means that we are all responsible for others, and we must take care of those who can’t take care of themselves.
Structural Reforms in Europe
In some countries, the labor market is too rigid. That’s why competitiveness is too low, which is why there is a lack of jobs. In some countries, the quality of education is not good enough, which poses problems not only in terms of social inclusiveness, but also in terms of innovation.
What we can do at the EU level is to encourage Member States to implement reforms, which are sometimes quite difficult, because people don’t like reforms. But it’s a precondition of the social market economy. If there is growth and job creation, then we have social welfare.
We can implement Europe-wide structural reforms, which means basically deepening and widening internal markets. However, digital products and services, for instance, still follow the regulations of 28 different national legislatures. Therefore, we have to harmonize the regulatory environment in digital products, and the same thing applies to the energy market and the capital market.
Preparing EU for the Future
In order to prepare Europe for the future, three issues are probably more important than all the rest. And these issues are typically in the hands of national governments.
The first issue concerns the skills and quality of education, especially the quality of teacher training. There are huge differences among EU Member States on this issue. We have to pay attention to teacher training, as well as how basic education is organized, and how education should be prepared in many countries. The issue also concerns social justice, because the better educated you are, the more job opportunities you will have, and the better opportunities will be to understand changes that will exert constant pressure in the future.
The second issue is a fairer distribution of income. Globalization has been positive in many ways. It has helped many countries, not necessarily in Europe, but in other parts of the world, to rise above poverty and allow more people to escape poverty. It has also helped businesses to expand their activities and thus created a situation in which the distribution of wealth and income has become further polarized. This is an issue that we need to take care of and that we have to pay attention to in the future more than we have in the past in order to maintain the unity of societies.
And the third issue, we should reform our labor market, which has become more dynamic, because the nature of work has changed, and people are not seeking traditional full-time, 9-to-5 jobs. For instance, the collaborative economy has changed the nature of work. So, we have to be open-minded about reforming the labor market to be more adaptable and responsive than it is at the moment so that everyone can have a job.
Advice for Young People
Young people should invest in their education. They also need international experience to broaden their perspectives and to understand why people in different cultures think the way that they do. Open-mindedness is very important, and I would encourage young people to look at entrepreneurial opportunities. Entrepreneurship is an opportunity, because there are different kinds of need. You don’t necessarily need to sell concrete products, but you can sell your knowledge and knowhow. Just thinking it is one of the options.