Membership of the European Union has greatly changed Finland
Every country that joins the European Union does so with different historical experiences and different motivations. Finland joined in 1995, along with Sweden, but despite both being advanced Nordic welfare states with not dissimilar economies, the two countries have had somewhat different approaches to the European project. For Finland, EU membership has always had a strong security-political purpose.
In the more than 20 years since its accession, Finland has become an active and engaged member of the Union. EU membership has become a central reference point across state policies and very important to how Finland conducts its relations with the world beyond the EU’s borders. The Finnish private sector also sees EU membership as vital to its current and future competitiveness.
As a self-defined “small state” within the Union, Finland has generally supported strong EU institutions and the so-called “community method” in the belief that this will protect the interests of all members, not allowing larger states to hold too much sway over the EU’s direction. Finland adopted the euro from the new currency’s birth, and has become an active player in the politics and economics of the eurozone, unlike its Nordic EU neighbours, Sweden and Denmark, who remained outside the euro experiment. Similarly, Finland has seen strong value in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and has been willing to deepen this cooperation further.
Finland’s Rapid Change of Policy
The Finnish switch from its Cold War policy of neutrality to full membership of the EU was fast, with a change of policy taking place within most political parties in 1991. Opinion polls have shown that security concerns, together with expectations on the economy and identity, were among the most important arguments in favour of EU membership. The great majority of the Finnish political elite was in favour of accession, with farmers being the only group opposing membership en bloc. In addition to the challenges of adjusting to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), there were concerns about how EU membership would affect the Nordic welfare state, including the role of women in society. Finland’s ability to safeguard its own national interests through the CFSP was another concern that surfaced in the political debate preceding the referendum on EU membership.
Along with its two decades as an EU member, Finland has become fully Europeanized through integration into the EU’s institutional system and policies. According to economic assessments, Finland has benefitted from its membership of the single market and the common currency. The EU currently provides an important conduit for Finland to the global economy, and a balancing factor with respect to sustainable development goals. Finland’s accession to the currency union—it was among the very first members to join in 1999—went smoothly, with public support for the euro staying high ever since. Not even the economic and financial crisis of 2008–11, and the highly polarising effect it had on Finland’s EU debate, succeeded in challenging this support in any significant way. In fact, it seems that after the crisis support for the euro is higher than ever, with three-quarters of the population expressing a positive or neutral attitude towards it.
Adjusting to the CAP has been painful, in particular for small farmers, but on the other hand the system of subsidies has softened the change. According to current opinion polls, farmers are now as pleased with EU membership as the population in general.
The approach of EU membership also accelerated some significant constitutional changes in the 1990s. The first dealt with a modern system of civil and human rights, which was incorporated into the Finnish constitution in 1995. The second dealt with the parliamentisation of the Finnish political system, with the powers of the president being considerably reduced. Decisions taken in the context of EU accession, which were later confirmed as part of the comprehensive amendment of the Finnish constitution in 2000, made the Finnish government under the leadership of the prime minister the true leader of EU policy. The parliament was guaranteed a strong position in the scrutiny of government policy, with the former grand committee taking on the role of a special committee for EU affairs.
Finland in the EU’s External Policies
The concerns about Finland’s ability to safeguard its national interests in the CFSP faded during the early years of EU membership. A conception emerged that it was in Finland’s primary interest that the EU achieved a joint policy in the main areas of its external relations. This aspiration is particularly strong over the Union’s relations with Russia, where Finland has systematically called for a strong common policy.
A smooth adjustment to the EU’s common policies applied to the CFSP in general, as possible supranational elements and majority decision-making were initially cast in a negative light. However, this attitude soon changed and since the late 1990s Finland has promoted both majority decisions and a stronger role for the Commission and the European Parliament in the CFSP. Adjusting to the CFSP has been facilitated by the fact that the EU’s role in this area has enjoyed strong public support throughout the period of Finnish membership.
In general, EU accession is understood to have broadened the scope of Finnish foreign policy to previously less familiar areas. Even if Finland’s profile is that of a northern small member, it has been equally engaged in the Union’s Mediterranean policy and in its role in the Balkans, for instance. Together with the other Nordic EU members and the UK, Finland has become known as a keen supporter of enlargement. Turkey’s candidate status was approved at the Helsinki European Council during the first Finnish EU presidency in 1999, and Finland long remained an active promoter of Turkish membership.
Finland’s firm engagement in the CFSP has led to a number of changes in the earlier cornerstones of Finnish security policy. First, due to the demands of approaching EU accession, Finland decided to renounce its Cold War policy of neutrality, which was considered incompatible with membership. The policy was renamed “military non-alignment”, which involved a lot of flexibility with respect to international defence cooperation. Later, an ever-narrower formulation was adopted stating simply that Finland is not a member of any military alliance.
Along with Finland’s deepening partnership with NATO, participation in the EU’s CSDP is the main forum for Finland’s multilateral defence cooperation. During its EU membership Finland has tried to develop the common EU policy to respond to concrete political-security needs. At first, emphasis was on international crisis management, but following the increased tension in relations between the EU and Russia, Finland has been willing to extend the focus of EU policy closer to the common borders and territory of the Union, including an improved capacity to respond to hybrid threats. This changing focus also implies a more concrete role for the EU’s mutual assistance clause (Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty) in the Union’s defence planning and capability-building.
Adjustment to the common EU policy also led to Finland amending the key principles of its international peacekeeping policy in order to enable full participation in the EU’s crisis management missions. This gradual legislative project of extending the international mandate of Finnish defence forces culminated in 2017 in a legal change enabling Finland to assist another state with combat forces. This amendment, which also specifies the decision-making rules for such a situation, is not limited to the implementation of the EU’s mutual assistance clause, even if this was one of the main issues behind it.
Most of the concerns Finland had about EU membership disappeared after accession. Still, the economic, fiscal and refugee crises caused new problems and public opinion has never before been so polarised about the EU. The political consensus on the benefits of EU membership broke down at least for several years, and Finland has followed the majority of member states in having its first really significant EU-sceptic political party. Under the long-standing leadership of Timo Soini, the Finns Party opposed the EU’s rescue packages and its emerging common immigration policy, but did not demand Finland’s withdrawal from the EU or the eurozone. The party, which had reached 39 seats in the Finnish parliament and had five ministers in the governmental coalition established in 2015, recently split, and its future is now uncertain.
For the time being, the main political divisions in Finnish society are related to domestic issues, and debate on the EU’s reform agenda takes place in a consensual atmosphere. An overwhelming majority of Finns support EU membership, and a still larger majority would like to see a true common foreign and security policy emerge.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.