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.

Finland 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.