What do we vote on in the European elections? Competing Visions on Europe for 2009-2014

· 26.05.2009 15:00 - 15:00

15.00    Opening: Jarmo Mäkelä, Foreign Corespondent, YLE
Nina Suomalainen (kok)
Johanna Korhonen (kesk)
Fredrik Almqvist (sd)
Anna Mikkola (vas)
Jukka Relander (vihr)
Charly Salonius-Pasternak (rkp)
Sauli Ahvenjärvi (kd)
Erkki Havansi (ps)
Chairing the discussion was the Director of the NES Teija Tiilikainen.

Summary of the Seminar

Jarmo Mäkelä, Foreign Correspondent of the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, began the discussions by addressing the issue of the poor image of the European Parliament (EP) in Finland. He noted that both the EP and the European elections are considered either uninteresting or as somewhat of a circus. Mäkelä challenged the view of Helsingin Sanomat, according to which this could be blamed on the Finnish MEPs. He said that in the course of his work as a journalist he had realised that the Finnish MEPs are much more influential and hard-working than what they are given credit for. He thought that some had even risen to a “statesman level”.

According to Mäkelä, the Finnish MEPs are afraid to criticise their national parties and the Finnish media. While they regretted that there was not more reporting on the work of the EP, they did not dare criticise the quality of it. The MEPs did find fault in the insufficient contacts between themselves and the Finnish decision-makers. Mäkelä cited the current MEPs as saying that this lack of cooperation is caused both by the jealousy felt towards them in Finland as well as the differences between the national and the European systems of decision-making. Presently, there is no common forum where the MEPs could participate in the preparatory and legislative work of the Finnish parliament and the government.

The central challenges of the EP during its next term, according to Mäkelä, will be encouraging recovery from the economic crisis, reacting to population ageing and reshaping the EU’s budget frame, especially with regards to farming and regional subsidies.

Actions against climate change will also shape the next term. Mäkelä noted that there is a lack of consensus in the EU on issues such as the Lisbon Treaty and the enlargement process. He finished by pointing out that the Commission, although qualified, reacts far too often to circumstances instead of being in charge.

The panel consisted of one MEP candidate from each parliamentary party and was chaired by Teija Tiilikainen, Director of the Network for European Studies of the University of Helsinki, with Jarmo Mäkelä posing specifying questions to the candidates. The central themes of the discussion were the powers of the EP under the Lisbon Treaty, the election programmes of the parties, the measures of the EU in response to the economic crisis, the free movement of labour and the relationship between the EU and Russia as well as budgetary questions.

Powers of the European Parliament and the elections programmes of the parties

The legislative competence of the EP will increase with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. The majority of the panel agreed that its powers will then be appropriate and that there is no need to increase them further. Only Erkki Havansi of the True Finns thought that the powers of the EP should be increased even more, but that this should be done without adding to the powers of the EU itself.

The other candidates considered the role of the EP, as the sole EU institution elected directly by the people, to be very important. However, as a remedy to the union’s democratic deficit, the candidates thought it important to improve the quality of democracy instead of increasing the EP’s powers. Anna Mikkola of the Left Alliance called for a real discussion forum for citizens, but without defining its character more. She did not think the EP fulfils the criteria of participatory democracy.

The Green League is the only party with a completely European election programme. Fredrik Almqvist of the Social Democratic Party noted that their national programme is in harmony with the Manifesto of the Party of European Socialists. Johanna Korhonen (Centre Party) said the Liberal Democrat Group was too diverse to have a detailed common election programme. Nina Suomalainen (National Coalition Party) considered the national election programmes to be important as well, because the programmes of the European party coalitions are too general.

Divided opinions on the economic crisis

The question on the measures taken by the EU in response to the economic crisis drew divided opinions from the candidates. Some thought the EU had done enough and now would be the time to focus on long-term measures to prevent future crises and encourage new wealth and competitiveness. Actions against tax havens and calls for the responsibility of business leaders were regarded as positive measures. Part of the candidates thought, however, that although there had been a great deal of talk of action, the EU had not done enough yet, as trust towards the markets has still not been re-established. The candidates did admit that the limited budget of the EU does not allow for substantial measures to stimulate the economy but they did not think it necessary or desirable to grant the Commission permission to seek loans.

In the discussion on the improvement of the free movement of labour, the central themes to emerge were labour rights, social security and improvements of the pension system. 

Questions from the audience on taxation, immigrants and national interests

In the Q & A section the Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Raimo Väyrynen, wanted to know if the candidates thought the EU should have a common tax policy. None of the candidates supported harmonization of taxation on all areas even though some thoughts were given on the positive effects of indicative taxation and a more unified tax policy. Common taxes in cross-border matters, such as the environment, got support from the candidates. The Green League candidate Jukka Relander hoped that there could also be a more unified tax policy to avoid the creation of “social benefit paradises” within the EU borders.

Ahmed El Ashram from the European Movement in Finland asked how the candidates would improve the situation of immigrants in Finland. He also wanted to know why it is still unclear to voters that in the European elections the whole country forms one electoral district. Other questions from the audience focused on the advancement of the principle of subsidiarity and on whether the candidates would want to be considered explicitly as defenders of Finnish national interests.

The candidates considered that there had been insufficient information given by the authorities on the electoral districts and criticised the inclusion of the candidates’ home town in the electoral advertisements. Jukka Relander noted that a sole electoral district in Finland is a necessity in the European elections, since otherwise the small parties would be left without representation.

To improve the status of immigrants, the panelists underlined the need for a general change of attitude, while Sauli Ahvenjärvi (Christian Democrats) suggested that YLE should be tasked with advancing the cause. Nina Suomalainen considered the question to be most of all a challenge of the local level and believed concrete integration measures to be more effective than information campaigns. Erkki Havansi questioned the expediency of financing long-term integration programmes whereas Anna Mikkola stressed the importance of enforcing the non-discrimination directive of the EU.

On the question of being labeled as defenders of national interests, most of the candidates questioned the existence of clearly definable national interests. Charly Salonius-Pasternak (Swedish People’s Party) wondered what “magic” common interest Finland would have in matters that fall under the competence of the EP. Nina Suomalainen and Fredrik Almqvist stressed a common European and human interest. Jukka Relander pointed out that he was also representing his own voters in particular. Sauli Ahvenjärvi saw himself as a Finnish lobbyist more than a defender of national interests.

Anna Mikkola and Erkki Havansi were ready to be labelled as defenders of Finnish national interests. In response to Jarmo Mäkelä’s question on who defines this interest, Havansi noted that it would certainly not be defined by the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) or the voters of the National Coalition Party, but in his case, by the supporters of his party which currently works from the opposition. Also Mikkola did not think that the contents of the national interest are defined by the current government.

Foreign and security policy – How to deal with Russia?

On the EU’s foreign and security policy, the candidates were asked for the most important theme, in their opinion, in the relations between the EU and Russia. Points such as good dialogue, the human rights situation of Russia and energy issues were brought up. Charly Salonius-Pasternak thought it essential to get Russia to understand that the planned common energy market of the EU does not pose a strategic or existential threat to Russia.

According to Nina Suomalainen the EU should try to achieve greater energy independence in its relationship with Russia. She also said the Nord Stream gas pipeline project included not only environmental questions but also strategic and political issues where the EU and Finland have to stand up for themselves. Anna Mikkola criticised the conflict-oriented attitude towards Russia as well as the emotional basis of discussions on Russia. As an example of this tendency she mentioned that the EU criticises Russia strongly in questions of human rights but does not intervene in the human rights situation of the Russian minorities in the Baltic countries. The question on Russia generated a heated dialogue between Nina Suomalainen and Anna Mikkola.

Suomalainen supported the EU taking a tough stance in its relationship with Russia, while at the same time searching for models of cooperation. Mikkola, on the other hand, hoped that Russia be included, rather than sidelined, in negotiations on matters causing disagreements, such as the Eastern Partnership project of the EU. Suomalainen admitted that keeping good relations with Russia is important but pointed out that this goal should not lead to naivety. Erkki Havansi supported the idea of using the Nord Stream gas pipeline as a tool to pressure Russia in the question of the export duties on lumber. He also called for a stronger common EU policy towards Russia.

The EU budget should be redirected but not increased

There was a large consensus among the candidates on the size of the EU budget, which is approximately 1 % of the sum of the GDPs of all the 27 EU member states. According to the candidates the budget does not need to be increased but its components should be redirected. According to the panelists, especially the share of farming subsidies should be diminished. Nina Suomalainen and Anna Mikkola hoped that EU-wide social cohesion be improved while Fredrik Almqvist and Charly Salonius-Pasternak called attention to development aid. Erkki Havansi noted that the size of the budget is appropriate but criticised that too much of it is being directed at supporting the agriculture of the Southern countries and on EU bureaucracy. Johanna Korhonen pointed out that only 6 % of the budget is spent to cover administrational costs of the EU and suggested that budget funds be redirected at measures reducing extreme poverty instead of farming. The panelists thought the question of synchronizing the budgetary term with the EP electoral term to be of secondary importance.

To end the panel, the candidates described their hopes with regards to a career as an MEP. Most of them considered it to be a natural part of their life-long careers instead of being a final goal.