Lessons from the EFTA Enlargement: How Would the EU Accession Process Look Today?

Saila Heinikoski 17 March 2020

© 2019 SCER

On 1st January 1995, 25 years ago, three EFTA (European Free Trade Association) countries, Finland, Sweden and Austria, joined the European Union. Norway was also involved in the accession negotiations, but 52.2 % of Norwegians voted against the membership in their 1994 referendum, just as an equally slim majority (53.5%) had done in the 1972 referendum.

Looking back after twenty-five years, two important perspectives on the enlargement process arise. Firstly, what characterised the public debate in the EU pre- and post-accession phase and secondly, how would the accession process look today? These questions will be assessed from the perspective of the smallest country in the EFTA enlargement process, Finland (ca. 5.5 million people), and how its possibilities to influence were seen.

EU De-Politicised in Finland for almost Fifteen years Post-Accession

Compared to Sweden (application submitted in July 1991) and Austria (application in July 1989), the Finns entered the Union in a record time: after less than three years from Finland’s application, the country was a member of the European Union. The 1995 enlargement process was speedy, and the actual negotiations were concluded in a year, but some sources tell us that Finland was still lamenting their too slow progress at the time. After Finland signed the accession treaty, on 23 June 1994, a consultative referendum was organised on 16 October 1994. It was after the Austrian referendum, but before the referendums held in Sweden and Norway. Citizens in Austria, Finland and Sweden gave their consent to joining the Union, with 66.58 % of Austrians, 56.89 % of Finns and 52.3 % of Swedes voting in favour of joining the European Union.

Practically all political parties in Finland were internally divided over EU membership, but officially, the three main parties supported membership, which was thought to bring economic and security benefits for a small country that had aimed to achieve a balance between the East and West with its neutrality policy during the Cold War. Prior to the referendum, the major Finnish newspapers also declared their support for EU membership and the government sent out an information leaflet on the EU to all citizens. So the climate of opinion seemed favourable to membership, while the main and most vocal opponent of EU membership was the Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners (MTK), which was worried about the negative effects of EU membership for Finnish farmers.

Even though only a fairly slim majority voted in favour of EU membership, EU issues were subsequently hardly visible in the political debate post-accession. The first fifteen years of Finland’s EU membership were, by and large, characterised by general acceptance of that membership and non-politicisation of EU issues. This applied not only to politicians but also to the general public. In a Eurobarometer survey conducted in April-May 1995, a year after the referendum, only 18% of Finnish respondents regarded EU membership as a bad thing. This figure did increase, however, during the financial crisis, when almost a third of the respondents had a fairly or very negative image of the EU. However, the EU seems now to have regained its popularity among Finns. Despite the recent re-politicisation of EU issues and re-emergence of euroscepticism, the most recent Eurobarometer showed an even lower figure than in 1995. In autumn 2019, only 14 per cent of the Finnish respondents had a negative image of the European Union, which is six percentage points lower than the European average (at 20 per cent).

There can be many reasons for EU issues disappearing from the political debate from the mid-1990s on, evidenced already in Finland’s 1995 parliamentary elections where EU issues practically played no role. One explanation could be the more pressing domestic concerns for a country recovering from severe recession. Furthermore, a role was certainly played by the reluctance of the party leaders to bring up controversial issues that divided basically all parties prior to accession. Judging by the Eurobarometer results, it seems that the public acquiesced to the result along with the political leadership.

The post-accession EU debate was characterised by political consensus and the Union remained effectively marginalised in political debates until the 2010s. Starting from the financial crisis, the populist Finns Party gained electoral victories with, among other issues, criticism towards the EU particularly over the bailout packages during the financial crisis. After the 2011 elections, an electoral promise of no more bailouts kept the Finns Party out of the government. Even so it became the second largest party in the 2015 and 2019 elections, and even joined the governing coalition in 2015–2017 until the party split in 2017. Now, the EU seems to have come to stay in the political debates, mainly because topical EU issues such as migration and asylum policies are no longer characterised by cross-party political consensus but by fierce debates over the role of the EU, sometimes even inside the governing coalition. But would Finnish citizens decide to join the Union if the referendum was held today?

A thought experiment: what if Finland applied for EU membership today?

If Finland’s accession negotiation took place today, it would probably take more time and focus on more issues. In the early 1990s, the Finnish negotiations were divided into 29 negotiation chapters, whereas contemporary negotiations include 35 chapters, which may, therefore, take more time to conclude.

Take, for example, the Icelandic accession negotiations, which were started in July 2010 and discontinued in June 2013, when only 10 negotiation chapters were closed. Iceland is a member of the European Economic Area (as Finland was from 1994) so both already met EU single market criteria.

Upon joining the EU, it was important for Finland not to be left on the sidelines in economic and security terms, so much so that Finland reformulated its previous neutrality policy into one of military non-alignment and decided to join the euro from the beginning. Out of Finland’s four Nordic partners, two are EU members (Sweden and Denmark), whereas two NATO countries have decided not to join the EU despite being involved in accession negotiations with the Union (Norway and Iceland). Had Finland not joined the EU, it would have been the only Nordic country not belonging to either NATO or the EU.

Probably, Finland would also have become a member of the Schengen area just like Norway and Iceland, if it had been in the EEA not the EU. It would have had to join Schengen when becoming an EU member state and fulfilling the conditions such as the effective control of the country’s external borders.

Becoming a member of the Eurozone could also have been more controversial in the current post-crisis environment. Currently, Finnish support for the euro reaches 81% according to the most recent Eurobarometer, three times higher than the figure in Sweden, 27%, where citizens rejected the euro in a 2003 referendum.

In the early 1990s, the hardest part of the Finnish negotiations was agricultural policy, which would probably constitute the most difficult issue to agree on even today, though the number of farmers has gone down in Finland since then. Pre-accession, food prices were higher in Finland and farmers were provided with more subsidies than in the EU member states, but the issue was eventually settled with special support for Finnish farmers. In the last 25 years, the size of farms has increased while the number of farms has decreased from ca. 100,000 farms to the current 46,700. And while the total utilised agricultural area as well as the number of livestock has slightly increased during the past 25 years, the number of people who get their living from agriculture has more than halved from 141,000 to ca. 65,000 people.

Joining the European Union also affirmed Finland’s western identity especially for young people: 68% of those aged between 18 and 25 voted in favour of accession. As we saw in the exploitation of social media in the Brexit campaign, it is safe to assume that, held today, pre-referendum campaigning would involve much more polarisation. Today, the confrontation between the factions would likely take place mainly through the instant and sometimes anonymous social media platforms rather than through letters to the editor where only the most carefully formulated opinions become published. In the pro-membership media and political climate in 1994, it was much more difficult for the anti-EU campaigners to reach and target anti-accession contents to the ‘don’t knows’ than it is in the contemporary social media environment.

The EU in 1994 was in some key ways different from today’s Union. When Finland joined, the ‘sovereignty-sensitive’ issues, justice and home affairs and foreign and security policy, were separated in intergovernmental pillars and aroused little debate in Finland, which was mainly concerned with maintaining some sort of continuity with the country’s Cold War neutrality policy. The contemporary European Union is a different constellation, with much deeper integration in the field of core state powers, such as border management and the euro/monetary policy – even though defence and foreign policy remain essentially intergovernmental. Accepting everything in one package would be a bigger step than being involved, as a member state, in designing the deepening cooperation over 25 years. Then again, even as a non-member Finland would have had to conform to EU standards in order to participate in the single market. Being a member of the club gave Finland the voice and vote – and so the power – to contribute to common rules and not just to conform to them.

If an independent Scotland applied to join the EU, it would be able to draw some lessons from Finland’s experience. If Scotland had not diverged much, at the time of its application, from EU rules and regulations, then the single market part of EU rules might not take too long to negotiate. However, the broader areas including those around the euro, monetary policy, justice and home affairs, borders and more, mean that Finland’s experience offers only a partial guide.



Arter, David (1995), “The EU Referendum in Finland on 16 October 1994: A Vote for the West, not for Maastricht”, Journal of Common Market Studies, 33(3), 361–387.

Granell, Francisco (1995), “The European Union’s Enlargement Negotiations with Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden”, Journal of Common Market Studies, 33(1), 117–141.

Grunert, Thomas and Rigler, Ingrid (1994), “The Accession negotiations with Austria, Sweden, Finland and Norway”, European Parliament, Directorate General for Research.




Saila Heinikoski

Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Dr Saila Heinikoski works as a Senior Research Fellow in the EU Research Programme at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA). Her areas of expertise include EU border management, free movement policy and national EU discourses.