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Saturday, 18 June 2016 20:06

I CONDUCTED EU DIPLOMACY IN A SAUNA

Jan Store, Joshua Chaffin, The Financial Times, 17.06.2016

FORMER FINNISH AMBASSADOR TO THE EU JAN STORE ON HIS UNIQUE BRUSSELS MEETING PLACE.

In Brussels, you are invited for lunches and dinners all the time. However interesting the discussion, though, they tend to feel much the same. But using a sauna to conduct diplomacy — that is an entirely different concept. You might be introduced to someone you’ve never met before, shake hands and, five minutes later, you are sitting together naked! The atmosphere and the setting are conducive to good discussions.

I did not invent sauna diplomacy. But when I became Finland’s ambassador to the EU in 2008, we hosted regular evenings of the Finnish Sauna Society — bringing together top diplomats, journalists, ministers and civil servants. It proved highly successful.

The sauna created openness, and we had confidential discussions on every subject you can imagine. I’m pretty sure the eurozone crisis negotiations would have gone better if they had been conducted in a sauna! The only rule was that anything said in the sauna was to remain there. During my five years in Brussels, no one ever broke it

I grew up on the west coast of Finland, 500km from Helsinki, in a Swedish-speaking region. As it is for all Finns, the sauna was a basic part of life. Every family goes to the sauna at least once a week. It’s a special place and I don’t think any Finn could imagine life without it.

Fortunately, when I arrived in Brussels I inherited an excellent sauna on the grounds of the ambassador’s residence. It was an old bowling hall in a separate building that had been converted 20 years earlier. There is even a log cabin built inside it. There are saunas of different quality. This one was extremely good.

But the eurozone was in crisis and everybody was busy. So I had my doubts about whether people would accept an invitation to the sauna. I soon discovered, however, that the difficulty was not getting people into the sauna — but getting them out of it.

A normal session would start at 6pm. I always explained that in Finland people go naked but if guests prefer they can wear a towel. One fellow had a towel around his hips, a bathrobe and something like a turban on his head. I told him, “No, it will be really hot. The towel will do.”

We would go into the sauna and then take a dip in the swimming pool. Then, after some time, we would return to the sauna. Twice was usually enough. After that, we would have a dinner that normally lasted two hours.

The Brits and the Germans were enthusiastic sauna-goers; the French less so. If I asked a French journalist to attend, I never got a clear answer.

There are a few things that people may not know about Finnish saunas. The first is that — unless they are family — men and women tend to go separately. The mixed sauna is a continental invention. There is also a misconception that the sauna is a place for heavy drinking. That is not the case. If we’re drinking something, we have beer and water — and that’s it. No vodka.

We did run into some criticism. A female Finnish journalist complained that the all-male sauna nights were exclusive, and that this was not appropriate in this day and age. My response to her was that, since Finland is not the biggest member state in the union, we have to use our natural strengths — and the sauna is one of those.

You know how it is: there are 28 member states in the EU and everybody wants to have an impact. If we are competing with bigger member states on their terms, we have no chance to have our voice heard. So if there is something we can do that’s different, then why not do it?

I retired from the foreign service in 2013 and, after writing a book about Finland and the EU, agreed to open a Brussels office for Miltton, a Finnish communications company. The business is developing nicely. But we don’t have a sauna, and this is a big handicap.

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