Loose lips…


Apologies for the parallel; I just couldn’t resist. In the current atmosphere of tensions and worries in Europe, the smallest declaration is observed and dissected. Even in Finland – actually, especially in Finland, a country that hasn’t particularly hidden away its frustration as to the current workings of the EU. At some point, someone was bound to say a little too much.

In this context, Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja found himself in the middle of a small media storm last week. After the Daily Telegraph titled an interview with him “Finland prepares for breakup of the eurozone“, several European media outlets spread the news that Finland was actively making contingency plans for the Big European Bang. The French daily Le Monde, seldom reliable when it comes to international news coming from exotic countries, titled on its website that “Finland was preparing for leaving the euro.”

Finland would not be completely unconvincing as the undertaker of the eurozone.It is the only European government that demanded collaterals for his participation to loans to Southern Europe. The coalition government is weekly assailed in Parliament by an opposition who would like nothing more than extracting Finland from the current European mess – consequences be damned, and of course while retaining those nice agricultural subsidies… The last proposal of the opposition’s strong man Timo Soini was some kind of Northern European euro between the reasonable, fiscally conservative states of Northern Europe. Good luck with convincing Germany, Sweden or Norway to join in (it has been tried, by the way, and failed)

So one could easily see Finland as the country from which would come the first signals of euro-fatigue. In casual conversation or intellectual debates, you don’t need to scratch too much the surface to get people admitting to, at the very least, a certain uneasiness about Finland’s links to the European crisis. Of course, for everybody Finland is in “Europe”, whatever that means. But most Finns feel that they have been the only good pupils of the class, a small country respecting Maastricht’s convergence criteria, and that they are now forced by Great powers (those evil, evil Great powers) to fall in line in order to rescue banks in Germany and France and countries in the Southern rim of the EU, while the crisis puts great strain on the welfare state and the economic situation at home. Since the entrance of the country in the European Union, in 1995, “Europe” had been a contested notion; after 2008, it has become a political swearword.

The Minister felt the need to precise his exact thoughts both in a press conference and on his blog, basically restating the governmentofficial  line. But one cannot help to think Tuomioja spoke his mind during the interview. The general tone was quite gloomy. Answering a question, Tuomioja said that, while Finland certainly did not wish for a breakup of the euro, the government would be irresponsible not to be prepared for such an eventuality: it is in everybody’s mind. Finland, Tuomioja hinted, should not be counted on to support anything at any costs and any time.

The journalist, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, said that he reported the Minister’s speech as heard; the rest (title, especially) was up to the Telegraph‘s staff, who decided to buff things a bit in their title. Normal practice, and as a politician Tuomioja should know that. Invited to comment on this episode, Evans-Pritchard wondered about the naivety of Finnish politicians: you should know what can be told a journalist, and what cannot be. ButTuomioja is not naive, nor is he dumb. He is a sophisticated, intelligent politician. He is also quite clearly on the Left of the Social-Democratic party, and holds genuine, long-standing concerns about European Integration in its past and current forms. He has watered down his 1970s opposition, but he still can’t be described as a Euro-enthusiast. Since the 1970s, he has documented and developed his concerns in several books and articles (about the EU’s economic creed since the 1980s and lack of democratic accountability, the action of Great Powers inside the system, the situation of the welfare state, etc). He is also a man with a taste for snarly comments, a propensity to shoot from the hip, and I would say an intellectual’s disdain for the langue de bois someone like Mario Draghi manipulates with such joyful abandon.

But apart from Tuomioja himself, this little sortie documents better than anything the current mood in the country regarding Finland’s presence in the eurozone. A few weeks from now, an issue of the weekly news magazine Suomen Kuvalehti interrogated the same panel of economic experts who prepared Finland’s eurozone accession in the 1990s. If the panel agreed to the fact that a Euro break-up would have dire and unknown consequences, the magazine’s front-page title was clear: “Finland’s return to the mark is not impossible.” In the article, one of the economic wise men deplored the 1990s committee’s “naive” faith in the criteria of the Growth and Stability Pact. Times are changing, and the crisis brings back the old debate about Finland’s accession to the EU: pushed under the surface by the 1990s euro-enthusiasm and the obvious economic gains Finland got from its accession to the EU, it comes back with a vengeance.

Tuomioja did not only voice concerns about the current situation and the policies to adopt in order to solve it; he expressed a deeply felt, widely shared concern about Finland’s economic and political situation in Europe, and the links the country has with European integrated institutions. This concern takes different forms in different group of population and political sensibilities, but it is here. It focuses now more on the euro than on any other common policies, but it will increasingly linger above Finland’s dealings with other European institutions. Finnish reactions to whatever comes out of Franco-German negotiations and of the Barroso-Draghi-van Rompuy committee will be tainted by this diffuse feeling.

Edit 1: Preparing a lecture series, I just stumbled upon this: a conference paper by Tapio Raunio, University of Tampere, on “euroscepticism” in the Nordic Countries. A good introduction to the subject, the paper tells us much about different brands of “Nordic” criticism towards the participation of Nordic Countries in European Integration. This criticism has been dormant during economic boom years, and it is resurfacing nowadays in the context of a crisis.

Tapio ends up with an ominous quote: “Nordic citizens have thus come to accept membership, and see that EU does benefit them, particularly through trade, but they will continue to be unenthusiastic about proposals to deepen integration.” Something to keep in mind as the ratification discussions for the March 2012 European Fiscal Compact approach.

The conference was held in 2005 in Amsterdam.

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