Finland in July has an otherworldly quality to it: the midnight sun makes 11 p.m. identical to 11 a.m. and, because by August it might be cold again, cities quieten as people head to cabins by a lake, or to the archipelago, to enjoy the delightfully mild summer. Not all Finns closed up shop for the summer, however.
The recently formed Finnish government of the center right and the far right nationalists was busy drawing a chilling hard line in debt-crisis talks with a zeal for austerity so fanatical as to make Angela Merkel look charitable toward Greece.
The new government includes some familiar faces, such as Finance Minister Alexander Stubb, head of the National Coalition party. Stubb has served as Foreign Minister, Minister for European Affairs and Foreign Trade, as a Member of the European Parliament and, up until recently, as Prime Minister. But it also includes some controversial newcomers, such as Foreign Minister Timo Soini, leader of the far-right, ethnonationalist Perussuomalaiset party. In English the name, which is a compound word, translates directly to “Basic Finns”, but the party calls itself “The Finns”. Given the amount of Finns who take issue with the co-opting of the word, we use the Finnish abbreviation, PS.
While Finland has a President, the power of that post has diminished significantly over the years as more power has been transferred to the Parliament. The new government is led by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, a technocrat and millionaire businessman and leader of the Centre Party. But Soini and Stubb are the public faces of the most recent round of debt-crisis negotiations in Finland.
At first glance, theirs is an awkward partnership: Where Stubb is a polyglot and avowed pro-European, Soini is a self-proclaimed Eurosceptic who runs a political party with a proclivity for flirting with neo-Nazis. Stubb was raised bilingual with both of Finland’s national languages: Finnish and Fenno-Swedish. Soini wants to end existing minority protections for Fenno-Swedish, which is spoken by approximately 5% of the population.
It is on economic issues that these seemingly different politicians have found common cause. Together they have held an unyielding hard line against Greece. How this unity was found tells us a lot about how an anti-European party agenda-item became government policy in the overwhelmingly pro-European Finland, which joined the EU in 1995 and the Eurozone in 1999.
In many respects Finland was late to the far-right party. Unlike many of PS’ European counterparts, the party does not owe its electoral success to a xenophobic, anti-immigrant platform. PS’ astounding 2011 electoral victory, where they won over 30 new seats, was a direct result of its staunch anti-bailout stance.
So significant a theme were the bailouts in the 2011 elections that then Finance Minister and leader of the Social Democratic party, Jutta Urpilainen demanded collateral in exchange for bailout funds. Urpilainen’s adamance led to a new economic term entering the Finnish lexicon: takuu. Though Urpilainen remains proud of these conditions, she angered European leaders, and the obscurity of the term has led to ongoing confusion and debate about what kind of deal Finland actually made with Greece.
That the success of the far right, previously an insignificant player in Finnish politics, is linked directly to Greece has, perhaps more than anything else, resulted in the timidity of those opposed to the government’s fanatical austerity. And it made anyone within a stone’s throw of the political center a staunch advocate of extreme austerity.
The most prominent Finn to speak out against the hard line is former Foreign Minister, Social Democrat Erkki Tuomioja, who warned of the repugnance of kicking those who are already down. In the last few days a member of the Green Party and of the Swedish People’s Party of Finland have spoken in favour of debt relief for Greece. Their views, however, are individual and thus far no political party has spoken forcefully against the government’s line.
These are economically insecure times for Finland: sanctions against Russia hit its economy harder than most and the contraction of the paper industry and layoffs at Nokia have made for nationwide anxiety about the future. The media has seized on this anxiety to stoke national pride –Finns identify as frugal and debt-averse and take great pride in having paid off their World War II reparations– with the tired trope of the hard-working-North vs. lazy-South.
National pride, however, is proving a poor substitute for sound economic policy and the extension of a basic standard of living to the Greek people. The already battered Finnish economy would surely be crushed by a reversion to nationalism, were this trend to persist. But without viable opposition from the left and with so-called centrists climbing in bed with the far-right, a change of course is unlikely.
The ease with which otherwise non-nationalistic political leaders have formed alliances with overtly nationalistic, xenophobic parties is perhaps a greater threat to Europe than the right-wing parties themselves. That no incumbent parties, even those in opposition, have stood up to the extreme course of the government leaves those of us who vote in Finland up for grabs for anyone with the vision to work for Finland as a European partner, not the northern bully we’ve become.
The author, Eeva Moore, is Head of Communication at European Alternatives. She is part Finnish.