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.
That the success of the PS and its kin elsewhere is due to the overreach of a project—an ever more deeply integrated Europe run by a small transnational elite—designed to head off such unruly expressions of populism is an irony to appreciate, if not always to savor. That it has happened in Finland only adds to its piquancy. Since joining the EU in 1995, Finland had always been a model pupil, diligent and thoroughly communautaire. Unlike Denmark, and despite initial considerable skepticism on the part of its population (in 1996 fewer than 30 percent of voters supported the idea of a single currency), Finland never negotiated an opt-out from its obligation to sign up for the euro, nor, like Sweden, did it simply grab one. The Swedes and the Danes then rejected the single currency in referenda, an opportunity never offered to the Finns. Eager to please the membership committee of a club they were desperately keen to join, Finland’s politicians were never going to risk allowing their electorate to second-guess the goal of monetary union.
For there was something else at work in Helsinki: the thought of a large and still troubling neighbor. Every step Finland took deeper into its new “European” identity, even the adoption of the EU’s funny money, was a step away from Muscovy. And it is not only the Finns who feel that way. Anxiety over the bully next door does much to explain the increasingly egregious Europhile posturing—plus royaliste que le roi—by some members of Poland’s political class, and, more poignantly, the reason given by the Estonian prime minister for signing his frugal, well-run country up for the madhouse math of the European Stability Mechanism: “Our objective,” he said, “is to never again be left alone.”
These are sentiments that Soini evidently understands. He shows me a photograph of his daughter standing on the apparently unguarded Finnish side of a stretch of the Russo-Finnish border that runs through the forests to the east. He reminds me—with a smile—that the U.K. did not exactly rush to Finland’s assistance when the Soviets invaded in 1939. I suspect he is not convinced that, if it ever really came down to it, Brussels’s umbrella would amount to much either. Finland must look after itself.
The still widespread idea that Finland needs Brussels to anchor it in the West is not one that the Finns party shares. It is opposed not only to Finland’s participation in the bailouts, but also to the euro itself (if a tad cagey about what to do about it). Most iconoclastically, the PS would prefer to see today’s EU replaced by a free trade area somewhat akin to the “common market” that gullible Britons believed they were joining in 1973. Within that looser association, Soini mentions there could be room for closer regional cooperation where it made sense, with the other Nordic nations, of course, and the Balts, say, and the Poles and maybe the Brits, too. And the Germans? “No, they would want to bring France with them.”
For now this is just talk. A large majority of Finns want to remain in the EU, and most still prefer to hang on to the euro. The bailouts of the eurozone’s weak sisters are a different matter. They are opposed by well over half of all voters.
It was voter anger over the bailouts that propelled the PS into the big leagues, but the party will struggle to take the championship. In the 2011 general election, it came in third with 19.1 percent of the vote, nearly five times the tally of four years before, but it was a triumph it failed to repeat in the presidential elections in early 2012: Soini (with 9.4 percent) was eliminated in the first round. In October’s municipal elections, the party won 12.3 percent of the vote, a result that may understate its real level of support but was nevertheless a disappointment when measured against the glory days of 2011.
The Finns party may have done its work too well. The two established parties most vulnerable to Soini’s appeal to rural and working-class voters have taken a markedly euroskeptic turn, not least the Social Democrats, from whose ranks the country’s finance minister is drawn. As a result, Finland has become an increasingly awkward member of the eurozone’s glum rescue party. The country insisted that its contribution to the second Greek bailout finalized in early 2012 be backed by collateral. And so (partially) it was, somewhat secretively and somewhat complicatedly, but good enough to allow the Finnish government to offer some reassurance to its restless electorate, a feat it essentially repeated for July’s Spanish bank bailout. Soini clearly remains skeptical about how valuable some of this collateral might eventually prove to be, joking that it really consisted of “stuffed penguins.” But whatever the role that Antarctic wildfowl may play in the efforts to protect the country’s finances, there is no doubt that, where it can, Finland is acting as a brake of sorts on the pace of largesse.
Yet still the ratchet turns. The aggressive actions of the European Central Bank have relieved some of the pressure on the eurozone for now, and Greece has just weathered its latest storm, but the crisis—not over by far—will continue to fuel demands for the cash and closer integration that the euro’s survival may require. That’ll be bad news for Finland’s finances and a disaster for its democracy, but when it comes down to the wire, the track record of its government—which includes just about everybody other than the PS—would suggest that it will be unlikely to say no.
The reasons for that might be respectable—unwillingness to risk the cost and the chaos that a euro collapse might involve—and they might be based on a genuinely idealistic, if misguided, belief in the virtues of deeper European integration, or perhaps even on humility: Is it really for little Finland to put an end to such a grand dream? Then again, less attractive reasoning could come into play. The groupthink of Brussels has a curiously powerful allure, as does the siren whistle of its generous gravy train, and the pleasures, as Soini, puts it, of the (ministerial) Audi.
Soini, who spent time in the belly of the beast as a member of the European parliament and didn’t like what he saw (he tells me a few tales of expense accounts), is not optimistic that Finland will bring this long farce to a close. On the other hand, this is the same Soini who, channeling Churchill, delighted the crowd at UKIP’s 2012 conference with his declaration that “we will never surrender.” Somehow I don’t think that he will.
Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.