A Finn Man Trying to Get Out
The EU’s bailouts spark an uprising.
Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
True Finns party leader Timo Soini
AP / Lehtikuva H. Saukkomaa
Elections scheduled for April 17 in Finland have put the eurozone rescue plan (as they call it in Greek) or bailout (as they call it in German) on a collision course with a populist uprising. “It is not possible to pull out by ourselves,” says Timo Soini, the man who is leading that uprising. “But it was a mistake to join.” In the not inconceivable event that Soini becomes prime minister, Europe’s mechanism for paying off government creditors is going to get much trickier.
The European Council made a big accounting mistake last May. With the help of the IMF, it set up the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), a 750-billion-euro fund to tide over Greece and any other member states that ran into financial trouble. The EFSF was supposed to be a safe, triple-A fund with a big cushion of equity. This meant that it could not lend all its money—only about 440 billion euros of it. But there are just six triple-A countries in the EU, including Finland. (The others are Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Luxembourg.) The equity that member states put up was more wobbly than assumed. The fund’s real bailout power was only half of what Europeans claimed it was. So a month ago, at a meeting in Brussels, the European Council told member states that they would have to roughly double their contributions.
That is where Finland comes in. Key EU votes require unanimity, and Finns are not happy being told that they need to guarantee 16 billion euros of a dangerous bailout fund rather than the 7.9 billion they were first asked for. Already Europe’s self-styled financial rescuers find themselves warming their hands over the pressure-cooker that is the German electorate. German voters, who are paying more than a quarter of the tab for the bailouts, are convinced that all the money they’ve saved by cutting and scrimping over the past decade is now being commandeered to pay off the debts of a bunch of Mediterranean freeloaders. An increasing number of Finns feel the same way, although their tiny country covers only 2 percent of the bailouts. In Finland as in Germany, there is suspicion that the EU is turning into a “transfer union,” i.e., an arrangement by which high-earning countries transfer income and resources to low-earning ones.
Finland requires a parliamentary vote before assenting to the hike in its EFSF contribution. But no vote can be taken, because the parliament has been dissolved for elections, and every mention of the bailout seems to drive voters into the arms of Soini’s Perussuomalaiset (“True Finns”) party. Soini founded it in 1995 as a successor to the country’s Rural party, and his personal popularity is immense. In elections for the European parliament in 2009, he ran on an anti-EU platform and got more votes than any other candidate in the country. But until recently the True Finns were a splinter party in Helsinki, with only half a dozen seats in parliament and a reputation as populist and therefore beyond the pale. Real power is swapped back and forth between three parties that command about a fifth of the vote apiece: the conservative National Coalition, the Center, and the Social Democrats.
“Populist” is an unambiguous slur in Western Europe. The word is used to tar movements as vaguely fascistic when proving them so is difficult. Something has happened in the past year, though, that has allowed the True Finns to vault into a tie with the other parties in the big three. What is it?
According to Soini, the most important issue to his voters, from the beginning, has been skepticism about Europe and the euro. The True Finns see their sovereignty imperiled by the EU in much the way their independence once was menaced by their neighbor the Soviet Union. “When they had problems in the USSR, everyone went to Moscow and said the answer was ‘More socialism,’ ” he says. “Today, every time a problem comes up in the EU, the answer is ‘More Europe.’ ” Asked to liken his party to another in Europe, he chooses the madcap constitutionalists of the U.K. Independence party, rather than any of the groups upset about real populist issues—such as immigration, multiculturalism, and Islam.