He won more votes than any other candidate in Finland’s 2011 parliamentary election, and the maverick party he leads is a profound embarrassment to the current eurozone regime, but there’s something refreshingly down-to-earth about Timo Soini, the leader of the euroskeptic Perussuomalaiset (PS), or, perhaps more easily for you and me, the Finns party. (The former translation of their name—the True Finns—was felt, a party official told me, to have an “ominous echo” in some corners of Europe of a sort that the PS did not wish to convey.)
Soini, 50, an eloquent, likable, and often amusing former “concrete boy” from Espoo, a city on the edge of Helsinki, was sitting across from me a few weeks ago in a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. He’s a big man, with big opinions, haphazardly shaven, with rough-hewn features, thick glasses, a shirt with a touch of the lumberjack about it, and an air of genial dismay at my choice of Diet Coke to go with lunch. He has a beer (just one, I note, in case any of the more puritanical members of his party are reading). In his soft-spoken, pleasantly old-fashioned and very Finnish way, he’s outraged by what is now unfolding in Europe.
“A deal is a deal,” he says. The technocrats who once promised that under a shared European currency no country would ever have to bail out another now see things differently. As for the mendicants of the eurozone periphery, let’s just say that Soini is a man with a sharp sense of right, wrong, and history.
Unlike many European countries, Finland, Soini recalls, honored its debts throughout the Depression. And then it paid off the penalties imposed upon it by a vengeful Soviet Union after the Second World War. Later still, it worked its way out from underneath the wreckage of a savage banking crisis in the early 1990s. Left unsaid is the contrast with the Greeks, the Spanish . . .
Then it’s not left unsaid. They can be blunt, Finns. The mayhem that the single currency has brought in its wake has upset the European political order in ways that must shock even the utopian gamblers who originally calculated that a “beneficial crisis” was just what was needed to herd the EU’s recalcitrant nation-states into ever closer union. Governments have tumbled across the continent. The far left and neo-Nazis are on the march in Greece. The Catalans are eyeing an exit from Spain. Italy’s democracy has taken a timeout in favor of a technocracy that may soon be replaced by who knows what. Britain could, one way or another, be stumbling towards some sort of end to its unhappy European marriage. And there are plenty more melodramas to choose from.
Where there is Europe, there are euroskeptics. They are a motley crew, ranging from Britain’s neo-Thatcherite UKIP, to the Dutch Koran-bashers of Geert Wilders’s Freedom party, to the postmodern leftists of Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement in Italy, to some groups to the east about whom—Soini rolls his eyes—the less said the better, and the list doesn’t end there.
Soini’s party, in time-honored populist style, draws on elements of left and right. In a nod to my Englishness, Soini describes his supporters as “working-class Tories.” Yes and no, I’d say. The PS, he explains, is for the workers (“but without socialism”) and for small businesses (“they create the jobs”). Like its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, it draws on the support of older folk and, in return, supports their right to a decent pension. The PS may not, strictly speaking, be socialist, but its 2011 program checked most of the boxes of the traditional Nordic welfare state, including high taxation as a moral good. The Tea Party it is not.
Soini himself is a Roman Catholic convert, exotic for Lutheran Finland. His opposition to abortion is, he admits, a minority view within his own party, but the PS is socially conservative, sometimes abrasively so. Like many euroskeptic parties, it is immigration-skeptic too, occasionally harshly so. When I ask him about this insult or that slur, he replies that a party should not be blamed for everything that one of its members might have said or done. That’s a stock response. What was not was his honest admission that not all his elected representatives are ready for prime time. Some, he sighs, are “stupid” or, he adds more kindly, “semi-stupid.” In a party that has risen so far so fast, that’s not surprising, but, that said, there is undoubtedly a harder edge to Soini’s lot than you’ll find with UKIP’s merry pranksters.