Eurosceptics still a threat in “recession-proof” Finland
Europe's World

Finland is slightly more eurosceptic than the EU average; its 1995
referendum on joining was won by a whisker and public attitudes have
not changed much since then. The European Union has nevertheless become
the central policy reference point for successive governments and is
not only fundamental to Finnish foreign policy but is also becoming
more important in defence policy; a point underlined by a recent
government report on Finland’s security and defence policies.

has so far been weathering the economic storm. This is not to say that
times aren’t hard for an economy heavily reliant on exports – they are
and the newspapers are full of stories of job cuts and quarterly
corporate earnings that are significantly down on a year ago. But the
Finnish banking sector remains solid, having learnt very hard lessons
from its own sub-prime collapse during the early 1990s. A number of
banks failed then over bad debts, and those that survived became very
cautious about lending. That recession forced the government into major
cost-cutting and rationalisations of social services, so the Finnish
economy was better prepared for the present downturn than most other
European countries.

These factors mean that the financial
crisis has not greatly changed Finnish perceptions of the EU. For those
in business and government who saw EU accession as the means for
Finnish business to gain full access to the common market, the current
situation has only reinforced their viewpoint. For those who thought
that Finland should never have joined the EU, it is hard to lay today’s
job cuts and closures at Brussels’ door. If Finland is in a better
position than, say, Spain or Britain it would seem to be the result of
Helsinki’s policies not Brussels’.

The present government is
due to remain in office until 2011 and is dominated by two major
parties: the Centre Party, the former agrarian league, whose strong
support across rural Finland isn’t echoed in metropolitan areas, and
the National Coalition party made up of moderate conservatives who are
pro-business. The National Coalition did particularly well in the
recent European and local elections, enjoying historic levels of
success. This has in part been due to a relatively young leadership,
notably finance minister Jyrki Katainen, who earned the plaudit of
being named in 2008 by the Financial Times as European’s most
successful finance minister, and foreign minister Alexander Stubb, a
former MEP and outspoken pro-European who has brought a new dynamism to
Finnish foreign policy. The Centre Party, meanwhile, has been losing
support. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen suffered a serious defeat when
he proposed extending the retirement age and thus triggered so much
opposition from the trade union movement and the Social Democrats that
the government had to retreat. Vanhanen also lost credibility when his
own private life became tabloid fare, and when his party was embroiled
in a funding scandal.

The mid-year elections to the European
Parliament and last October’s local elections not only saw the Centre
Party lose support but also revealed another important trend; a major
boost for the populist, eurosceptic right-wing True Finns party. Its
new votes don’t come from the National Coalition’s base but rather from
alienated working class supporters of the Centre Party in rural areas,
and of the Social Democrats in urban centres. The True Finns’ stance on
immigration has aroused much interest, even if they claim it is not
their primary issue. Yet their core popularity seems to be with those
who have lost out as Finland has “Europeanised” and its economy
globalised. For these voters, their sense of insecurity has been
amplified by the recession. With the Centre Party leadership apparently
happy to place itself uncritically in the European mainstream, it looks
as if they may have alienated some of their traditional eurosceptic
voters and are paying for this at the ballot box.