Multi-speed Europe: Count on Finland being in the core

, by Juuso Järviniemi

Multi-speed Europe: Count on Finland being in the core
Security concerns are one key factor in keeping Finland near the core of integration, even though ambitious proposals for integration rarely come from Helsinki. © CGP Grey // Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

On May 25, the Day of Ascension, the former Finnish President Mauno Koivisto’s state funeral took place. Koivisto, who served as the President from 1982 to 1994, guided Finland’s path to the European Union which the country joined in 1995. The decision to apply for membership represented continuity in the history of Finnish foreign policy. With EU membership, Finland became tied to the European community of which it had long strived to be a part to the extent that it was strategically feasible.

In their 2017 book on the history of Finnish EU policy from the mid-1990s onwards, professors Tapio Raunio and Juho Saari note that security and embracing Western values were important considerations as Finland joined the European Union. The fact that these themes are more strongly present in EU debates in Finland than in other Nordic countries contributes to explaining why support for the EU is comparatively high in Finland, they argue.

Finland is firmly a part of the European Union. But what if there was a choice to be made between the core and the periphery of a two-speed Europe? As the Finnish Parliament debated the topic in the spring, the opposition accused the government of a lack of clarity, while the Social Democrats as the main opposition party expressed their commitment to remaining in the core of the European project. Prime Minister Juha Sipilä rejected the claim that the government’s position is ambiguous, noting that Finland’s practical choices have always brought it closer to the core.

Contacted by me, Erkka Railo, political scientist at the University of Turku, argued that there is a widespread consensus among Finnish party elites that the country should be in the core of the European Union. It can be construed that it is both unnatural and unlikely that Finland should find itself in the periphery of European integration. According to Railo, the Left Alliance, Christian Democrats and particularly Finns Party could support slower integration, but the support for these parties is too low for them to have sufficient leverage. (In the April 2017 municipal election, the parties recorded a combined support of a bit more than 20%, with the Finns Party and Left Alliance both at 8.8%, and the Christian Democrats at 4.1%.)

In fact, Railo argues that even for these parties conforming to the decision to join a “core Europe” would ultimately not be difficult. He goes so far as to posit that, due to security concerns, even the Finns Party, of whose agenda Euroscepticism is a key element, may quite easily be convinced of the benefits of a strong Europe if Russia’s foreign policy is threatening. Railo’s account of Finnish EU policy complements that of Raunio and Saari in that security is presented as an ever-present theme in both.

In the book edited by Raunio and Saari, Finland is presented as a reliable partner in the European project, but also as one which rarely assumes leadership. If further differentiation in integration is deemed necessary, one can expect Finland to be on board, but new major initiatives should rarely be expected to originate from Helsinki. For Raunio and Mattila, the ideological diversity within coalition governments in recent Finnish history has stifled innovativeness, as defining priorities in such coalitions is difficult. Another reason is the Finnish mechanism of preparing for EU summits and Council meetings, which is highly commended in many other regards, but which has tended to encourage reactiveness through forming opinions on questions already on the agenda, rather than innovativeness and shaping the agenda oneself.

However, perhaps timidity is another reason, as fears of a populist backlash against overly high-profile advocacy of further integration may be feared among the established parties. Since 2011 when the Finns Party gained its status as one of the main parties in Finland, the configuration of domestic politics has influenced the positions that governments have taken on the contentious topics of migration and the Eurocrisis. Any ambitious initiative might, like proposals for European solidarity on these two issues, fall prey to nationalist rhetoric.

Taking initiative may be politically hazardous, but conforming in order to remain in the core of Europe, on the contrary, is historically the natural choice to make for Finland. Joining European institutions where possible is in Finland’s DNA, and one should trust that state of affairs to persist, even if Finland wasn’t always in the vanguard of integration.

Resources

Raunio, T. and Saari, J. (2017) Reunalla vai ytimessä? Suomen EU-politiikan muutos ja jatkuvuus. Helsinki: Gaudeamus. Available at http://julkaisut.um.fi/media/attachments/a7f0c/Reunalla%20vai%20ytimess%C3%A4.pdf.

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