Model country of social harmony
By Erkki Pennanen
An impressive array of top figures in Finnish and Swedish business convened at the Hanasaari Cultural Centre in Espoo on Monday (Nov. 29th) to talk about experiences they had of economic cooperation and challenges.
Naturally, the value of these kinds of meetings is mainly symbolic. For journalists looking on the sidelines it is quite an experience to see how chummy the dialogue between the two countries can be even at the top echelons of business.
According to prevailing views, the Finnish and Swedish corporate cultures differ significantly from each other. The Finnish manager-centred culture is described in Sweden as the "management by perkele*" style.
Meanwhile, Finns like to make jokes about the high priority that Swedes place on discussing everything. It is as if the main purpose would be to make sure that everyone in the company is happy with the decisions that are made, and above all, with the decision-making process.
In this light, the gap between the Finnish and Swedish corporate cultures seems to be immense. Corporate managers in both countries seem to feel that both descriptions are seriously exaggerated, and that they are promoted primarily by the media. Events, such as the changes in the management at the top of Nordea and TeliaSonera, are seen - mainly in Finland - excessively in terms of a national competition.
The cultural differences between Finland and Sweden are much more apparent in the political than in the corporate cultures of the two countries. At the same time that the top business figures of both countries were exchanging ideas in Hanasaari, the central labour market organisations in Finland again reached agreement over a broad incomes contract.
Swedish commentators saw that as a new indication of how Finland manages again and again to achieve broad national understanding of matters that are seen as important from the point of view of the overall interest of the country.
In Sweden, such cooperation cannot even be dreamed of. Sweden’s political culture is so different from that of Finland. From a Finnish perspective, the Swedes do engage in an enviable, versatile democratic debate, but the debate often splinters endlessly, without leading to anything.
It is not considered appropriate in Sweden for political decision-makers to express their views prematurely, as space must be given for public debate. When that happens, it is difficult for decision-makers to guide the debate in the direction of the final result that they want.
The final result of the EMU debate was a model example of how Prime Minister Göran Persson first hesitated for a long time before giving his own views. He finally decided to back joining EMU, and he defended his views powerfully in advance of the referendum, but a vast majority of the public said No.
So far, Sweden has done quite well on the outside, and there is no evidence that the people made the wrong choice. Nevertheless, the result of the referendum clipped the wings of the Europe policies of Persson’s government, which has been quite lost since then.
In energy policy the Swedish government is still a prisoner of the referendum on nuclear energy dating back to 1980, even though giving up nuclear power has become something of a long-term goal, which a majority of the people no longer really expect. Next year the second of 12 reactors is to be shut down. No agreement has been reached on what is to come next, but the construction of more nuclear power is out of the question.
Swedish business leaders look at Finland with envy. Here the nuclear power debate was guided to a final solution that the business community wanted, even though at one point Parliament did reject the further construction of nuclear power. A new stand was taken by a new Parliament. In opinion polls, the proportion of opponents of nuclear energy has significantly declined, and a debate is emerging on a sixth reactor.
Political and ideological divisions have virtually disappeared. Finland can be seen as a model country of political harmony and social cohesion, where the two most popular individuals are the President and the Prime Minister.
The two consecutive rainbow coalition governments of Paavo Lipponen were political oddities by European standards. The same government contained the whole left wing, the liberals (in the form of the Swedish People’s Party), the conservative National Coalition Party, and the Greens, for nearly two electoral terms.
When the opposition Centre Party won the elections, it had no problems forming a government with the Social Democrats, who had previously been the party of the Prime Minister. In Sweden the parties of the centre and the right have not even been able to consider working together in the same government with the Social Democrats since the 1950s.
Finland’s incomes agreements are not unique in the world as individual decisions. However, three consecutive incomes contracts including measures taken by the government are a convincing indication of the ability of Finnish society to work together.
The achievement is especially noteworthy, as there was not the kind of urgent societal need for such an agreement as there was before. The pressure came mainly from the trade union wing, where it was seen that the other side has a completely new kind of employer, as Lauri Ihalainen, leader of the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions, explained to his people.
Considering the short amount of time, the negotiations proceeded quite flexibly, and the final result was a longer agreement than anyone could have imagined - past the Parliamentary elections, stretching into the autumn of 2007.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 2.12.2004
*Perkele is a quintessentially Finnish swear-word denoting the devil, and typically pronounced with an exaggerated rolling of the "r" for added emphasis. It is often one of the first words in the Finnish language that foreigners visiting this country pick up. "Management by perkele" naturally involves a certain amount of shouting.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Sampo CEO Wahlroos opposes union representatives on corporate boards (30.11.2004)
ERKKI PENNANEN / Helsingin Sanomat