The Joensuu conference was a great success. There was a strong Finnish turnout, including the mayors of Joensuu and of the Northern Karelia region, two ministers and an MEP, Ms Riikka Manner. But there were also a large number of forestry representatives from other parts of the European Union and also from other organisations, including the FAO. The discussions were learned and not for the first time I found myself wishing that I could follow such issues on a more permanent basis. My speech, for what it’s worth, is below. Whilst I was reading up for it I discovered that Finland is one of the few countries in the world whose surface area is still expanding. You live and learn!

It is a great pleasure and a privilege for me to be with you here today and to have this opportunity of speaking to you. I speak as the Secretary General of the European Economic and Social Committee, and therefore I am here to represent ‘Brussels’, and I think that is an excellent thing. Some people think ‘Brussels’ is Europe, but it isn’t. Europe is here; you are Europe.

 I would like to thank Mr Wilms and Mr van Iersel, Presidents, respectively, of the EESC’s Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, and of the Consultative Commission for Industrial Change, for having helped to make this occasion happen.

 I would also like to thank Mr Seppo Kallio. I know he comes from the Turku region but, nevertheless, today we are in his home country, Finland, and so I would like to sing his praises just briefly. As you may know, we have nine Finnish members of the European Economic and Social Committee, and each of them is very active and distinguished. Seppo Kallio is a Vice-President of the Committee. He is the President of the Committee’s Budget Group and he is also a very active rapporteur for the Committee. It is a pleasure for me to be able to thank him here, on his home soil. No Secretary General could want for a better Vice-President.

 It is a great pleasure to be here in Finland, a member state that has always punched above its weight and has set a good example in so many different ways. I ‘googled’ Finland, as one sometimes does, and found out an interesting geological fact. You probably won’t know, but the country I know best, the United Kingdom, is slowly sinking beneath the waves – or, at least, southern England is sinking. But I learnt from the Wikipedia entry for Finland that it is ‘one of the few countries in the world whose surface area is still expanding. Owing to the post-glacial rebound that has been taking place since the last ice age, the surface area of the country has been expanding by about 7 square kilometres a year.’ Who knows? If this process continues in the future Finland might need to have more MEPs and two Commissioners!

 It is above all a great pleasure to be here in Northern Karelia, in Joensuu, the forst capital of Europe. As I look out of the windows here I see trees all about us and Joensuu, in its origin and history, is a graphic illustration of the symbiosis between man and forest, a symbiosis so beautifully and distinctively symbolised in the Metla House that I was privileged to have been able to visit this morning, thanks to Jari Parvieinen.

 I would like to say a few words about the European Economic and Social Committee, about its authenticity and the authenticity of its members. I may not have green skin or antennae but I am nevertheless a sort of alien. This is because, as I said above, I come from ‘Brussels’. The problem with ‘Brussels’ is that most of its actors get sucked into the system. We have a distinguished European parliamentarian here with us today and she I am sure would confirm the huge press of legislative and administrative work that absorbs the denizens of ‘Brussels’. Our members, members of the EESC, spend most of their time away from Brussels, back working in the organisations they represent, back in the member states. Our members are not professionals. They don’t get paid for what they do. Our members can truthfully be described as volunteers. They are there – and they are here today – because they truly believe in what they are doing. They are committed. That commitment can be summed up –to take two names out of the hat – by the presence here today of Silvia Gaucci, from Malta, and Brendan Burns, from Inverness, from Scotland – the EU’s points furthest south and north. Both Silvia and Brendan contend for the prize of the most complicated journey to get to Brussels, let alone Joensuu, and their presence here today is, as I said, an illustration of the commitment of our members.

 That authenticity, that commitment, make the Committee unique. Now, I know that each EU institution is unique, but I would like to argue that the EESC is just a little bit more unique than all the others! And that is because it represents what other institutions cannot represent or, at least, not easily; the whole economic and social fabric that goes to make up organised civil society.

 The Committee is an advisory body. It draws on expertise in a non-partisan way. It seeks compromise and consensus. And it looks always to the future. This event today is a good example of the Committee at its best – assembling expertise and stakeholders to address dispassionately a common challenge and to identify consensual solutions.

 I would like now to say a few words about the content matter of today’s conference and the Committee’s role in that regard…

 As previous speakers have stressed, forests have a very important role to play, as providers of renewable raw materials, as protectors of biodiversity, as carbon sinks, and for creating jobs.

 The EESC has worked on forests and forestry issues for many years and this conference is a direct follow-up on previous events – some of which have taken place in Finland – and on four opinions drawn up by the Committee in the immediate past:

  • Innovative and sustainable forest-based industries in the EU – A contribution to the EU’s growth and jobs strategy
  • Laying down the obligations of operators who place timber and timber products on the market
  • Addressing the challenges of deforestation and forest degradation to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss
  • The role of forests and forest-based sector in meeting the EU’s climate commitments

 Each of these four reports will be presented by someone involved in the process of writing them. The conference will focus on cross-sectoral forestry issues with the aim of opening dialogue about the major challenges ahead. Of course, forestry plays a relatively more important role in Finland than elsewhere, but representatives from all over the Union have come to this event to make this a truly broad and cross-cutting sharing of experiences.

 Forests and the entire forestry sector are currently facing challenges at all levels.

 Significant production cuts and lay-offs affect local economies that have relied heavily on pulp and paper mills and related wood-processing industries. At the same time, new opportunities have appeared, in which new technologies are being applied and innovations developed, for example second generation biomass production.

 Europe’s forestry sector is undergoing major restructuring. Increased competition from non-European producers, weak global demand for forestry products and a downturn in the economy are the main challenges. Despite these challenges, new technologies and emerging global markets can offer a better future for the European forestry sector, if the sector can adapt and make use of its strengths. 

 For every extra tree in Europe, eight are cut down in the tropics. But one tree is better than nothing. The forestry sector in the EU must be seen in this broader context. Deforestation in tropical forests amounts to 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable forest management has an important role to play in offsetting climate change. In view of the preparations for the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 and the post-Kyoto rules after 2012, more information is needed on the links between forest ecosystems and climate change, and here the Committee has also been very active.

 I strongly believe that due to its special composition and working methods and above all the authenticity of its members the EESC is in a very special and appropriate situation when it comes to addressing such complex problems and setting them in a wider framework. That is also why I am very happy to be here today, because events “on the ground”, in the individual Member States, strengthen the dialogue between professionals like yourselves and the EU institutions, between stakeholders and policy-makers and between researchers and practitioners from all over Europe. The results of the discussions here this week will surely find their way into the future work of the EESC. Believe me, you can trust Seppo Kallio to make sure that this will happen.