Once the most EU-friendly country in the north, recent developments have turned Finland into one of the most ferociously contested battlegrounds of Europe’s ongoing political crisis. With sceptics seeing Finland and its reaction to Europe’s woes as a role model for other countries, could the term “Finlandization” take on a new meaning? By Benjamin Zeeb
Despite its relatively small size, Finland is one of the countries to watch during the upcoming European elections. Finnish politics has shed a light on the huge impact sceptics can have on the political process once their ranks reach critical mass.
During the chaotic early months of the Eurozone crisis, the Finnish government stood out by demanding securities from Greece and Spain in return for its participation in the European bailout fund. Partly out of conviction, partly to placate the supporters of the rising populist party that back then went by the name “True Finns”, the Finnish government negotiated separate bilateral agreements with both Greece and Spain to minimize the country’s exposure to any potential bankruptcy.
The move was a consequence of a deeper change in attitudes among the citizens of a country that was once the most Euro-friendly in the north. Now, with citizens all across Europe calling into question the EU’s policies and crisis management, this strategy of accommodating the sceptics could become a blueprint for moderately pro-European parties in other countries.
Up until very recently, the shared history of Finland and the EU was perceived as a story of liberation. While never fully conquered during the Second World War, and despite its ability to retain its sovereignty during the Cold War, until the collapse of the USSR Finland had stood under the influence of its powerful neighbour to the east. Only with its accession to the EU in 1995 and its adoption of the euro as currency in 2002, Finland succeeded in escaping Russia’s grasp for good. The term Finlandization, coined during the Cold War to describe the preemptive obedience Finland and other countries had shown towards the USSR for many years, seemed forever to be confined to the history books. In the following years Finland prospered and, largely thanks to its flourishing electronics sector, became one of the leading exporters for high-end technology. The boldness with which it had decided to fully integrate itself in the EU, going far beyond its more sceptical neighbours Norway and Sweden, seemed to have paid off.
Then the crisis hit, and in an environment where its exports had already leveled of – a consequence of both increased European competition and severe management mistakes (most notably in one of its biggest companies, Nokia) – Finland suddenly stood to guarantee for its weaker partners to the South.
As a consequence, sceptics prospered. While the Finnish government took on the role of a strong supporter of Angela Merkel’s austerity policies, for many in Finland this still wasn’t enough. Their Scandinavian neighbours didn’t have to bear the burden of sharing their wealth with Europe’s struggling periphery, so why should they? In the 2012 presidential elections the True Finns came in fourth with around ten percent of the vote. This European election its successor, the Finns Party – which continues to run on a platform of anti-European sentiment, right-wing chauvinism and old school socialist economic policies – stands to improve this showing. Pollsters see them at around 15% of the vote.
The danger of resurgent nationalism, however, doesn’t only stem from the outer edges of the political landscape, but is developing instead in Finland’s political centre. How Finland’s established parties will react to the challenge from the right is not only an internal Finnish matter. All over Europe, leaders of the major parties are taking note of how the Finns address a situation they themselves might well have to deal with in the near future.
Finland’s prime minister, Jyrki Katainen of the centre-right National Coalition Party, who recently had to announce yet another round of domestic austerity cuts to the tune of €2.3 billion as Finland’s economic outlook continues to worsen, is among the few politicians that stay committed to the Commission’s roadmap and economic policies. Even the Finnish Centre Party, whose most prominent member outside Finland – Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro Olli Rehn – remains a staunch defender of the common currency and the Union, has become a battleground of opposing views regarding Finland’s future within the EU. The quarrel within Rehn’s formerly rather moderate party, where right-leaning challengers have gained some ground as of late, stands as an example of the overall tendency in Finnish politics to assuage the sceptics.
Let us hope this timid approach to nationalists and the appeasement of the enemies of unity doesn’t catch on beyond Finland’s borders. Among the Finnish population, there is still much support for a common European future. Now it’s up to them to show Europe that following the Finnish example is to boldly reject yesterday’s nationalisms and to pick up the sucess story of Finland’s European integration where it left off when crisis hit.
Image: ‘Flag of Finland’ courtesy to Seppo Vuolteenaho via flickr, released under Creative Commons.