Controversy over possible agriculture and environment ministry merger in Finland

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What would a merged environment ministry mean for Finland? (iStock)
What would a merged environment ministry mean for Finland? (iStock)
Finland’s Prime Minister-elect Juha Sipilä dropped a hint recently that his proposed coalition is considering merging Finland’s Ministry of Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in order to save on operating costs, thereby creating a new Ministry of Natural Resources.

The proposal has many opposition parties, especially the Greens, concerned about the fate of pressing environmental issues.

The leader of Finland’s ongoing government formation talks Juha Sipilä has revealed that his team is considering merging two of the country’s ministries, the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, into one new ministry entitled the Ministry of Natural Resources. The proposal has outraged many, who feel that environmental stewardship can’t be watered down at a time when several critical environmental issues like climate change and a loss of biodiversity pose a clear threat.

On Friday, the parliamentary group of the Greens Party made an appeal to the three parties leading the government negotiations to preserve an independent Environment Ministry. A Ministry of Environment-compiled summary indicates that if Finland were to implement this change, it would join a handful of countries where environmental issues are taking care of by a Natural Resources Ministry, a government body whose name wouldn’t even reflect an environmental mandate.

The only other EU member state without a Ministry of Environment is Hungary, where a decision to abolish the Ministry for the Environment and Water Affairs and integrate it into the Ministry of Agriculture was made a few years ago.

Russia is another example

Finland’s neighbour to the east also merged its governmental branch responsible for environmental matters into a natural resources ministry at the turn of the century, but a decision to add a mention of the environment to the title was made after that. Today, just one deputy minister of many in the ministry oversees the environmental matters of the Russian Federation’s Ministry for Natural Resources and the Environment.

Combining the ministries of environmental and agriculture affairs is nothing new in the EU. Austria, the UK and three Mediterranean countries join Hungary in doing it. The difference is that the word ’environment’ is still used in the merged ministry titles in these other countries. For example, the UK has a Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and Austria has a Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management.

Juha Marttila, Director of Finland’s largest agricultural and forest owners’ interest group MTK, was quick to point this out as an example of how various objectives could be integrated on Friday via Twitter.

Greens Party Chair Ville Niinistö tweeted in response that Austria chose not to belittle environmental issues in the same way as the likely coalition’s current proposal.

Tense times at the ministry

Hannele Pokka, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of the Environment at present, wrote in her blog recently that if the incoming government wants to improve the ministry’s productivity, moving staff from one facility to another is not likely to help. She was not willing to comment on the ongoing government negotiations when asked for a statement on Friday.

Jaana Husu-Kallio, Pokka’s counterpart at Finland’s Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry was also reluctant to comment any further, only saying that “civil servants comply with the decisions of the political decision-makers.” Husu-Kallio lobbied during the last parliamentary campaign in support of changing the name of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to the Ministry of Food and Natural Resources, as she said the name would better reflect the work the ministry does.

The western European way

The fact that Finland currently has a ministry devoted entirely to the environment puts it in the same camp with Denmark and a handful of eastern European countries. Sweden and the Netherlands follow the more prevalent western European model of combined administrative bodies, with a Ministry of Environment and Energy and Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, respectively.

Germany takes the cake in Europe for the longest ministerial name that references the environment: The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety. France, on the other hand, is one of three EU countries to lump environmental issues under the heading of sustainable development, with its Ministry of Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy.

The state structure of tri-lingual Belgium is so complex that the country has four separate ministries responsible for energy, environmental and sustainable development matters.

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