Mr Jyrki Katainen

Posted by pt91 at Jul 21, 2015 04:35 PM |
Oration by Mr Nigel Siesage

Jyrki Katainen has a doubly unique position in the history of this University. The list of the University's many distinguished alumni contains scientists, economists, lawyers, doctors, novelists,  church leaders and indeed politicians; but no other previous student in the past 90 years has gone on to become a Prime Minister, and none has become a European Commissioner, let alone a Vice-President of the Commission.

Mr Katainen was born in 1971 in Siilinjarvi in eastern Finland, the son of an aeroplane mechanic and a management assistant. The city fathers of Leicester may wish to note that Siilinjarvi has twinning relationships with other cities in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, but none in the UK. So far.

It might be supposed that economic and cultural connections between Leicester and Siilinjarvi cannot be close. Nearly 3000 kilometres separate us, and it may therefore seem remarkable that Jyrki, having completed his education at his local senior high school and gone on to study at the University of Tampere, should have found himself at Leicester.

The explanation - and in many ways the clue to his subsequent development - lies in a single word:  Erasmus. In view of the lively political debate in UK politics about this nation's relationship with the European Union, it may be seen as controversial to express admiration for one of the EU's longest running programmes; but the Erasmus programme is unquestionably the largest, most successful student exchange programme in the world, providing students from every member state with the opportunity to carry out fully accredited study (not a glorified gap year) in another European country. In the body of the hall today, there are many graduating students who can testify to the value of this scheme to their personal and career development. And there is one more of them here on the stage.

For it was in the course of his studies at Tampere that Jyrki Katainen came to spend the academic year 1995-96 in Leicester as an Erasmus student in the Law Department. He has since said that this was a very happy year and that the "experience opened my eyes to the importance of European integration. It really changed my life.”

And he is clearly not alone. For notwithstanding that distance, it is estimated that some 40% of Finnish students who study abroad choose to do so in the United Kingdom.

Initially after graduating from Tampere with a master’s degree in political science in 1998, our honorand briefly pursued a teaching career, but politics beckoned. Even before graduation he was active in local politics, serving as a member of the Siilinjarvi Municipal Council from 1993 and then on the regional government from 1997. He was also actively involved in international affairs from an early stage, being Vice-President of the Youth of the European People’s Party from 1998. This is the youth wing of the European People’s Party - the main EU-wide centre-right grouping. It is Europe's largest political youth organisation, with affiliated organisations from 39 countries - excluding, it must be acknowledged, this one.

Jyrki’s political career is one which genuinely deserves the hackneyed description of meteoric.

It was in 1999, at the age of 28, when he was first elected to the Finnish parliament, that his political career really took off. Within two years he had been elected Vice-President of his party, and then became its President in 2004. The roll call of his committee activities as a member of parliament is a long one, but one seems particularly appropriate for such a forward thinking man – his chairmanship of “the Committee for the Future”.

Following the Finnish general election in 2007, his party, in coalition with others, formed the government, with Jyrki as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister - in which position he earned the accolade of "best Finance Minister in Europe" from the Financial Times in 2008. Then in 2011, when his party became the largest partner in the governing coalition, he was elected Prime Minister. Recent British political leaders may wish to note that the coalition he led successfully for the next three years consisted of no fewer than six parties.

Finland, however, is too small a stage for a leader with the breadth of international vision demonstrated by Jyrki Katainen. Following the European elections in 2014 and the formation of the new commission, the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, appointed him as a Vice-President with a vital but unenviably challenging portfolio which includes responsibility for implementing the European Commission’s £220 Billion investment plan to boost the European economy by supporting strategic investments in infrastructure, education, research and innovation, as well as risk finance for small businesses.  Part of the appeal of the role is the opportunity it gives him to ensure that future generations of young people benefit from the same chances as he had to make the most of their potential.

With such an immense task (even for a former “best finance minister”) as turning round the tanker of the European economy, it might be thought that Mr Katainen has little capacity for anything else, but he has found the time to marry, and with his wife, Mervi, has two children, Saara and Veera. He has a reputation as a chef and enjoys hunting, running, cycling and tennis. It is not surprising to hear that he also speaks Swedish, English and French.

With such credentials and achievements before the age of 45, it comes as no surprise that  Mr Katainen's Finnish alma mater, Tampere, has made him its first 'Alumnus of the Year', or that he has recently received an honorary degree from the University of Eastern Finland.

We at his British alma mater are not to be outdone …

Mr President and Vice-Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Jyrki Tapani Katainen, that you may admit him to the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

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