If you believe the members of the fastest growing political party in Finland, their country is the sucker, the sap, the patsy among the Nordic nations. Norway never joined the European Union. Sweden and Denmark opted out of using its currency, the euro. Finland, however, is a full member in every respect, and as such has seen its AAA-rated bonds used to guarantee the bailouts of profligate elites in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal.
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.
Certainly, the True Finns are skeptical about immigration. One party member, a Helsinki city councilman, was convicted in 2009 for writing nasty things about immigrants on his website. But the party as a whole is not rabid on the matter. Its preoccupations concern failures of immigration policy. Soini himself has spoken in favor of labor immigration, but points to abuses of the welfare state and ghettoization as the main problems. The spectacular failure to assimilate a large group of Somalis who arrived in Helsinki roughly a decade ago has left the general public strongly disinclined to encourage more newcomers. All three mainstream parties have hardened their policies on immigration.
After 2005, according to public opinion surveys taken by the businessmen’s think tank EVA, public opinion on immigration turned sharply negative. Still, Soini thinks Finland has been so relatively untouched by immigration that only a foolish politician would build his career on outrage over the issue. As a way of conveying his comfort with foreigners, Soini notes, a bit quaintly, that he is a Catholic. Impressed by John Paul II, he converted while living in Ireland in the 1980s. There are only 11,000 Catholics in Finland, and most of them are foreign born.
Soini’s party puts forward a grab bag of conservative policies that sound a bit strange in Scandinavia. They would be a better fit for a pre-Tea Party American conservative. Soini likes monuments and statues, but has thrown down the gauntlet against government-funded modern art. He is one of the rare European politicians to assert that climate change is a scam, a ruse for raising taxes. Thanks to a recent “green” tax reform that dramatically raised the price of both gasoline and heating oil, Finns have been receptive to this message. Five years ago, 7 in 10 were ready to pay to fight climate change, according to Ilkka Haavisto of EVA; today the figure has fallen to 5 in 10.
Soini is a social conservative. He opposes abortion categorically. Finland does not have full same-sex marriage, at least not in churches, and Soini, like the Finnish Lutheran church and probably a majority of Finns, does not think it should. The three main parties, meanwhile, will not touch the issue with a stick, so Finland is drifting towards same-sex marriage just as the rest of the world is—out of a vague sense, cultivated by lobbyists and activists, that “history” somehow compels it.
On many political issues, this uncomfortable sense of drift is the real source of Soini’s rise. The Finnish culture of government is reminiscent of the one prevalent in the Netherlands in the late 1990s before the rise of Pim Fortuyn. Then a series of “purple” governments, yoking the left (red) and the right (blue), delivered the country over to rule by experts. Today Finnish voters complain that, while ruling coalitions change, policies never do. And even ruling coalitions don’t change that often. Over the past half-decade, Finland has undergone a nationwide scandal surrounding the financing of the major parties. It culminated last year with the resignation of Center party prime minister Matti Vanhanen, who was succeeded unproblematically by his Center party colleague Mari Kiviniemi. Fewer than a third of Finns can name the parties that make up the government. Says Haavisto: “The only guy in Finnish politics who says we have options is Timo Soini.”
In every European country there exists a party or movement that bundles together the losers of globalization. These parties vary a lot more than is commonly appreciated. Some are buttoned down (like Soini’s party) and some are libertine (like Fortuyn’s). Some are religious (like the Danish People’s party) and some are secular (like Geert Wilders’s Freedom party in the Netherlands). But the one position they all defend is a strong welfare state—a curious thing, because these populist parties tend to be lumped together as “right-wing” by their detractors.
This, it turns out, is an oversimplification. What these parties ultimately care about is national sovereignty—which might indeed be called a right-wing cause. But politicians selling its virtues to a democratic electorate will not hesitate to lay out the “left wing” benefits that citizens used to enjoy before national sovereignty was called into question, whether in the name of human rights or free markets or “building Europe.” Of the three main parties, it is the Social Democrats who have lost biggest from the True Finns’ rise. Soini describes his movement as a “labor party without socialism.”
“I’m being stoned in Finland for saying this,” Soini says of his opposition to the EU’s bank bailouts and to Finland’s membership in the EU more generally. “I’m not a bad man. I’m just saying that, in economic terms, this won’t work.”
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West.