Finland, Sweden and Nato agreed to strengthen information exchange in crisis situations. MPs found out two years later.
Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees say they plan to express their dissatisfaction over key information they say was withheld from MPs about Finland's cooperation with Sweden and the Nato military alliance.
The committees say they are planning a joint statement to the Constitutional Law Committee on Parliament’s right of access to information.
The committee members said they were kept in the dark about an agreement drawn up among Finland, Sweden and Nato in 2018 regarding intensifying information exchange and dialogue during crisis situations. Matters relating to foreign and security policy as well as military cooperation are within the purview of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees, respectively.
The agreement is referred to as an "arrangement" in government circles. According to it, in difficult or crisis situations, Finland, Sweden and Nato could separately agree to increased information exchange and dialogue. For example, Finland could ask Nato for confidential information and vice versa. The country holding the information or the military alliance would be able to decide whether or not to share it.
Two years to reach MPs
The Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees only became aware of the arrangement in February this year, two years after it was agreed upon. Word of the arrangement was relayed to MPs by civil servants from the relevant ministries. According to Yle’s sources, it was not previously disclosed to MPs and the existence of the arrangement had not been previously publicised.
Parliament is currently polling committees on how they get information from different ministries. The Constitutional Law Committee has also begun to look into the matter, following reports that lawmakers experienced difficulty getting background information when the current government wanted to invoke the Emergency Powers Act.
According to the constitution, Parliament must receive all the information it needs from the government without delay.
The arrangement has been classified "secret" by Nato and it has been assigned the highest security classification in Finland.
Parliament unaware of Finland's commitments
One source told Yle that keeping information from the committees was a serious matter. In effect, Parliament did not know everything that Finland was committed to.
At the time that the arrangement with Sweden and Nato was finalised, Timo Soini was Foreign Minister and Jussi Niinistö was Defence Minister. Yle’s sources were unable to say whether or not the information was not shared by politicians, civil servants or the military.
The then-government led by ex-Centre Party chair Juha Sipilä was said to be aware of the arrangement. The current government led by Sanna Marin was also reportedly informed about it. Meanwhile MPs only got wind of it in February.
Committees unsure of arrangement’s importance
The committees have not yet evaluated how important the arrangement might be in political and military terms. At this stage, lawmakers are miffed that they have been kept in the dark about it.
Moreover, their work analysing its contents has been slowed by the coronavirus crisis and their avoidance of common working spaces. One source described the arrangement as "harmless" to Yle and said that it offered "mutual" benefits. It said that it does not bind Finland to Nato or change its relationship with the military alliance.
Another said that the arrangement does not seem to be as significant as the controversial "host nation" agreement between Finland and Nato. That agreement formed the basis for advance technical compatibility in the event that Finland decides to receive Nato member state troops for drills or in disaster or crisis situations.
Source: President, key ministers in the know
One of Yle’s sources confirmed that the arrangement was discussed by the Foreign and Security Policy Committee that includes the President and the Government. Other sources did not corroborate the claim. However similar matters are discussed by key ministers and the President in the committee.
Deputy chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja hinted at his dissatisfaction with the situation in a Facebook comment that he posted on Tuesday.
"Today the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees prepared a statement to the Constitutional Law Committee about Parliament’s right of access to information. While the overall performance is commendable, there is also a more serious case [before us] that should not be repeated," he wrote.
It appears that the Defence Committee has still to determine who eventually approved or signed off on the document. Once the issue of access to information has been settled, members of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees said they aim to review the significance and content of the arrangement as far as confidentiality rules allow.