Twenty-five years after joining the EU, support for EU membership has climbed to a new record high in Finland. A deteriorating security policy environment, a more assertive Russia, and an increasingly competitive global milieu marked by great power competition, have again highlighted the key rationale of the country’s EU membership. Namely, the benefits of political and economic alignment with the EU, which is seen to provide a fast anchor for a relatively small state with an export-oriented economy and challenging geostrategic location.
Interestingly, Finns seem to be relatively happy with their influence in the EU. According to a recent Eurobarometer (2019), 67% of Finns think that their voice counts in the EU. Even if the country has witnessed a significant re-emergence of Euroscepticism manifested by the entry of an openly populist party into the league of the major political parties, Finland must have done something right in the eyes of the citizens in terms of its influencing powers in the EU.
Yet, Finnish policy planners and makers have been concerned with the country’s standing and influence in the EU. In recent years, these concerns have been related mainly, firstly, to the implications of Finland’s hardening EU positions and, secondly, to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Aiming for the Core of Europe
Finland is known as the most integrationist of the Nordic states. Iceland and Norway have decided to stay outside of the EU, yet they are members of the European Economic Area. Denmark and Sweden are in the EU, but they have not joined in the euro. In Finland, the country’s decision to adopt the euro has been largely understood as a political one. The economic assessments of the euro were inconclusive at the time of the membership debate, and the decision was linked with Finland’s political goals towards European integration in the 1990s: that is, to overcome the country’s challenging geopolitical location in the north-east corner of Europe. As a new EU member state, Finland aimed to re-locate itself in the “core of Europe” by active participation in the key projects around deeper European integration. In doing so, it aspired to be included at the key decision-making tables in which issues affecting it were decided.
In addition, Finland has supported the transfer of competences to the EU level in consecutive EU Treaty reforms. Relatedly, it has supported strong Community institutions and, in particular, the European Commission as the key partner of smaller member states in the EU system. In this regard the Finnish parliament, which is deeply embedded in day-to-day national EU policy-making, has called for foresight and early engagement with regard to EU policy-making. Given the resources of a relatively small state, clear political prioritization has also been seen as imperative for Finnish influence in the EU.
In terms of influencing in the EU Council, a generation of Finnish policy planners and policy-makers have reasoned that a constructive rather than obstructive approach to EU decision-making has enabled Finland to accumulate “political capital” which can be used when vital national interest are at stake. In terms of enlarging qualified majority voting in EU decision-making, Finland has reasoned that very little can be achieved from a minority position, yet joining the majority might open up some possibilities to shape the outcome.
Finland has also emphasized flexible coalition-building among the member states, based on case-by-case assessment and depending on the issue and interests at stake. Relatedly, it has called for inclusive rather than exclusive forms of differentiated integration. This approach is only natural for a relatively new and geographically distant member which sees the unity of the EU as strengthening Europe’s and Finland’s position in the world.
A More Assertive Finland in EU Decision-Making
Finland’s constructive and deep engagement with the EU has been facilitated by a broad national political consensus on EU membership and associated policies. This broke down briefly in conjunction with the EMU decision in 1997, and it was the euro crisis some ten years later, which led to a more profound fracturing of the consensus. The rapid emergence of the Eurosceptic ‘the Finns Party’ (also known as the True Finns) reflected a broader political frustration towards the dominant parties; yet it was the management of the euro crisis and in particular, the unpopular bailout packages, which led to its landslide election victory in 2011.
The emergence of a challenger party led to some notable changes in Finnish EU policy and its approach to influencing. First, Finland opted for a harder EU policy and, at times, for obstructive positions. Even though the Finns Party remained in opposition after their first electoral victory, Finland demanded a collateral from Athens as a condition for signing-off the second bailout for Greece. It also invoked constitutional reservations with regard to the setup of the European Stability Mechanism, and announced that it was ready to block the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen area, on its own if necessary.
Second, Finland’s level of ambition in terms of integration arguably lessened when the Eurosceptic party made it in the centre-right coalition government in 2015. However, and in order to pave the way into the government, the Finns party had become more moderate in its EU policy. Consequently, on the one hand, the government, now including a Eurosceptic party, resisted any increase of joint liabilities in the context of EMU reforms, yet, on the other hand, it approved the third rescue loan package for Greece. Similarly, Finland abstained in the Council vote on the temporary re-location scheme to ease migration pressures in southern Europe, yet it then became one of the few member states which lived up to the commitments of the established system.
These developments led to some notable criticisms which suggested that Finland was rapidly consuming its accumulated political capital in the EU, and that obstructive positions could turn out to be counterproductive for Finnish influence and interests in the EU. Moreover, the government including the Finns party was accused of lacking a clear EU vision at a time when the future of the EU was being addressed by member states and the EU institutions alike.
Return to a More Ambitious and Constructive EU Influencing Approach?
Against this background, the suggested return towards a more constructive EU approach has been largely welcomed by EU observers in Helsinki and beyond. Yet the changing European political landscape and Brexit have led to adaptation in Finland’s EU policy and influencing.
Domestically, the current centre-left government aims to restore the level of ambition in Finland’s EU policy, and a new EU political consensus seems to be emerging with the exception of the Finns Party. Yet political fragmentation is also shaping Finnish politics, and, despite high support for the EU, Euroscepticism has not faded away. The Finns party has fully recovered from the party’s split in 2017, which was punctuated by falling support after several difficult political compromises in the coalition government. As the party is currently second largest in the parliament and number one in the polls, the EU could yet again become a polarized issue in Finland should the EU face another crisis, for instance.
Moreover, the changing political dynamics of the EU linked to the Brexit has emphasized the need to re-assess Finland’s influencing strategy. Finland has lost an important ally in EU decision-making with regard to the single market, trade and EU spending due to the UK’s withdrawal. Even if Finland has traditionally also looked towards Berlin in EU affairs, both in general and in euro matters in particular, some adaption can be discerned from the recent Finnish positioning.
Finland has also aimed to strengthen its ties with France by highlighting its joint aspiration to deepen European defence cooperation. It has advanced the launch of Permanent Structured Cooperation and joined the French European Intervention Initiative. Finland has also utilized the so-called Hanseatic group of northern member states, which was created shortly after the Brexit vote, to advance its position towards the euro reforms. Yet the inclusion of Sweden and Denmark in this group might speak for the broader aspirations of this group including the northern free traders.
Finally, Finland might need to address its approach to differentiated integration as one of the potential pathways for the EU to move forward. Despite the harder Finnish EU positions, the country has traditionally called for a unitary rather than differentiated approach to EU reforms. Given the current political landscape of the EU, marked by notable dividing lines among member states, the policymakers in Helsinki might need to agree whether joining all the key EU projects still constitute the corner stone of Finland’s EU influence.
Iso-Markku, Tuomas (2016), “Finland – Pro-European arguments prevail despite Euroscepticism”, in Karlis Bukovskis (ed.) Euroscepticism in Small EU Member States, Riga: Latvian Institute of International Affairs
Haukkala, Hiski and Ojanen, Hanna (2011), “the Europeanization of Finnish Foreign Policy: pendulum swings in slow motion”, in Reuben Wong and Christopher Hill (eds) National and European Foreign Policies: Towards Europeanization, Abingdon: Routledge.
Raunio, Tapio and Tiilikainen, Teija (2003), Finland in the European Union, London: Frank Cass.
This blog is published in the context of SCER’s 2019-20 research programme on ‘small states in the EU, lessons for and from Scotland’. This is a project with, and supported by, University College London’s European Institute, within their Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence Programme 2019-2022, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Commission.
Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Dr Juha Jokela is Programme Director of the European Union Research Programme at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. His areas of expertise include EU foreign and security policy, Economic and Monetary Union governance and Finland’s EU policy.