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An EP-campaign of low profile in Finland

08 May 2019 - 16:10
Finland votes in between parliamentary elections and EU Presidency

The 2019 EP elections will take place in the immediate aftermath of the Finnish national parliamentary elections, which took place on April 14. These elections led to a modest victory for the Social Democrat Party, with a margin of less than one percentage point over the far-right Finns party and the centre-right National Coalition Party. As a result, the campaigns for EP elections have to a large extent been overshadowed by simultaneous efforts to build a new multi-party coalition under a social democrat leadership.

"The campaigns for the Finnish parliamentary elections were characterized by a blatant lack of topics related to foreign or European policies."

The campaigns for the Finnish parliamentary elections were characterized by a blatant lack of topics related to foreign or European policies. This is an indication of a re-emerging partisan consensus on the EU after the economic and financial crises, which shook the party landscape and brought the Finns Party to power. When it joined the centre-right coalition of Juha Sipilä in 2015, the Finns Party had to make concessions on its EU-sceptic politics. Since the split of the party in the summer 2017, its focus has been mainly on immigration, with a critical view on climate policy emerging as another key stance prior to parliamentary elections.

There are also other factors behind the consensual atmosphere on EU issues prior to the EP elections. After its governmental responsibility ended in summer 2017, the political profile of the Finns Party has been affected by the shift of Finnish public opinion towards being increasingly supportive of the EU. The party leadership does not call openly for Finland’s withdrawal from the Eurozone, nor for a referendum on EU membership, even though both are included in the party’s programme for the EP elections. In its campaign for the EP elections the Finns Party thus promotes a reduction of the EU’s tasks and competences – and a turn away from an alleged federalist course of integration – rather than a Finnish withdrawal.

Even with such moderate criticism of the EU the Finns Party stands alone, as all the other Finnish parties are strongly in favor of European integration, supporting also its deepening in policy fields such as security and defence, single market and, with certain reservations, economic and monetary union. Another factor constraining a normal pre-electoral rivalry among the mainstream parties - apart from the on-going coalition-building - is the upcoming Finnish Presidency of the Council starting in July. Due to strong parliamentary scrutiny of EU affairs, all the main parties have been involved in the preparation of the programme for the Presidency, which means that hardly any major differences in their key goals or profiles can be expected. The main parties thus firmly agree on the topics that can be anticipated to dominate the Finnish presidency, such as Brexit, the multiannual financial framework, the EU’s role in international climate policy, the rule of law procedures against Poland and Hungary, or the future steps in the EU’s security and defence policy. Safeguarding the EU’s functioning and unity is thus more important for everyone than leaving national fingerprints via the presidency agenda.

"All the mainstream parties thus stress the Union’s importance in a changing international environment and its role in protecting the rules-based international order."

The key dividing lines in the Finnish EP elections thus seem to be more forward-looking, as one of the dominant topics clearly deals with the pro-European parties’ concern about the possible shake-up in the EP’s composition resulting from a pan-European victory of EU-sceptic parties and the impact that such a change would have on the EU’s functioning. All the mainstream parties thus stress the Union’s importance in a changing international environment and its role in protecting the rules-based international order. In this context, the EU’s leadership of international climate policy forms a clear divide as the Finns Party consider the efforts too far-reaching and too large of a burden for the Finnish economy.

Another related challenge for the mainstream parties is the usually very low turnout in EP elections, which is seen to work in the Finns Party’s favour. In a country with electoral turnouts around 70 %, the EP elections have never seen more than 40 % turnout. With the attention of political parties captured by the on-going coalition-building, the general visibility of the EP elections threatens to be even lower this time. Being the most likely party to remain outside the coalition, the Finns might thus use the boost gained from the parliamentary elections to emerge as one of the winners.

When it comes to the other three main parties - the Social Democrat Party, the National Coalition Party and the rural Centre Party - pointing out real differences in their approaches to the EU is not easy. In accordance with their ideological roots, the social democrats tend to underline the EU’s social pillar more than the two other parties; however, there are clear limitations for how far one is ready to go. In any case, the Social Democrat Party was the leading Finnish party to demand a collateral for loans provided to Southern European countries in the context of the economic and financial crises. Representing the interests of the Finnish farmers, the Centre Party again has been more status quo-oriented than other Finnish parties when it comes to a renewal of the EU’s expenditures. While all the main parties are in favor of deepening integration of the EU’s security and defence policy, their different approaches to defence issues might come to the fore concerning the details. The National Coalition Party is the only one of the large Finnish Parties taking a positive stand to Finland’s accession to NATO, whilst the Centre Party together with the Finns Party put the focus on credible national defence. The social democrats again share a strong pacifist tradition, which means that they would rather focus on the civilian than the military dimensions of security policy at the EU level.

In conclusion, the Finnish political field clearly displays some European trends prior to the EP elections, of which the growth and ideological direction of the right-wing Finns Party is the uppermost sign: The party now indicates a greater willingness for stronger EU-level coalition-building than ever before. The rest of the party field, again, is characterized by a traditional Finnish consensus on the EU issue, with differences between parties being almost non-existent. The risk is that for these parties both the on-going coalition-building in Finland and the incoming EU Presidency are stronger priorities than the EP elections, which might play into the hands of the Finns Party irrespective of an increasingly EU positive political atmosphere.