EVA - strong arm of Finnish business community - rides again
Risto E.J. Penttilä
By Teemu Luukka and Saska Snellman
EVA - the Finnish Business and Policy Forum - is back. After a few years of relative silence, the organisation’s office is again busy churning out its reports, organising its seminars, and publishing its statements.
This autumn alone EVA has visualised new policies on the EU, on municipal finances, and, in a controversial report by magazine editor Tapani Ruokanen, on Finland’s entire welfare model.
The pace does not seem to be slowing down at all. In the past week, top civil servant Sixten Korkman was named Director-General of both EVA and the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (ETLA).
No matter what EVA does, it seems to provoke debate. There are claims that the EVA wants to influence the next Presidential elections, to make the country more right-wing, and to push Finland into NATO. Not bad for an organisation whose office employs just eight people.
EVA’s reputation is largely based on old evidence. The organisation was set up in 1974 to defend the market economy against a leftist onslaught.
In the eyes of 1970s radicals, EVA rapidly became a combat unit of the far right, where Director-General Max Jakobson hatched his secret plots. Nor were the leftists completely wrong; a study published this year reveals that EVA really did provide secret funding for right-of-centre education policy material in the 1970s.
In 1984, after the wave of leftist radicalism eased somewhat, and after Jakobson was replaced by Kauko Sipponen, EVA’s profile waned considerably. The focus shifted towards extensive surveys of public attitudes, with which EVA set the tone from the prevailing consensus thinking to greater individualism.
EVA’s second major battle began in the late 1980s, when the weakening of the Soviet Union helped open the door a crack to Finnish membership in the European Union. Support for Finnish EU membership emerged in EVA already in 1989, but the view was not made public until 1992. Adding weight to EVA’s point of view in the debate was the choice of Jaakko Iloniemi, a veteran figure of Finnish foreign policy, as director of the organisation in 1990.
When the Soviet Union fell, when Finland joined both the EU and Economic and Monetary Union, and when Nokia embarked on its conquest of the world, it looked as if EVA’s work might be done.
When Iloniemi retired in 2000, nobody was named to replace him. Instead, Pekka Vartiainen, head of ETLA, was also given responsibility for EVA, like a orphaned girl might be given to a relative.
But the world was not yet complete.
In 2002 Risto E.J. Penttilä was named the new director of EVA. Penttilä is an expert in security policy, and the former chairman of the Young Finns party, with impeccable credentials in rocking the boat of public debate. Penttilä’s appointment was a sign that EVA was being dusted off and taken out of ETLA’s cupboard.
"I believe that there were three factors that affected the new activism of EVA: the Nice Summit of the EU, the terror attacks in the United States, and the increasing concern among Finnish companies over how Finland can succeed in globalisation", Penttilä says.
When the new challenges were first discussed, Finnish attitudes proved to be an obstacle. EVA’s own studies showed that the recession of the 1990s had made Finns turn inward. The people defended the welfare state, and military neutrality, while anything hinting at change or internationalism was soundly rejected.
"Surveys showed that the spirit of the age had changed in a direction that was not conducive to Finland’s long-term success. In the elections of 2003 the people got what they asked for", Penttilä says.
In Penttilä’s view, in the 1990s politicians, civil servants, and business figures still directed Finland’s policy line, and especially its EU policy. Then the government changed, and a few key civil servants left; people with an understanding for the needs of the business community were hard to find.
"Those in power became more cautious, and more nationally-minded. Internationalism switched to rhetoric of neutrality, and competitiveness turned to defence of the welfare state."
For those in the business community it is important for power to have a telephone number where it can be reached. Corporate managers had confidence in Prime Minister Esko Aho, President Martti Ahtisaari, and Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, but Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja and President Tarja Halonen provoked a loathing that the top figures in Finnish business found difficult to conceal.
The feeling was mutual, especially with Tuomioja, who has been locked in a 30 years’ war with EVA. Not even the years, or the changes that have taken place in the meantime, have put a dent in that hostility.
Last spring Tuomioja suggested that the new activism in EVA was simply part of the campaign to get Finland to join NATO. In his view, the organisation, and Risto Penttilä, really had no other function.
In the autumn Tuomioja again lashed out at EVA in a television interview: "I really cannot abide such elitism and contempt for democracy that the statements put out by EVA represent."
Penttilä feels that EVA has become an obsession for the Foreign Minister.
"Tuomioja has a rather unchanged view of the world, which includes EVA as one centre of evil. EVA certainly owes Tuomioja much gratitude for the publicity that he has brought it."
For Tuomioja, EVA is a "good enemy"; by lashing out against it, he is able to emphasise his own leftist credentials, in the context of the contest for the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, for instance.
The SDP’s choice of leaders is not a matter of indifference to EVA, considering that ever since the 1970s the organisation has grown used to maintaining contact with the Social Democratic leadership.
In his book Uhan alta unioniin ("From Under the Threat, Into the Union"), Dr. Jukka Tarkka wrote: "The prerequisite for working interaction is that the sides of the dialogue see each other as interesting partners with respect to their level of influence and intellect. This is the kind of relationship that existed between the main leading figures of EVA and the SDP".
In the view of many business leaders, the old relationship of trust is now in jeopardy. One possible explanation for the tone of recent comments could be that corporate leaders miss Paavo Lipponen so much.
"The Social Democrats have clearly moved into a post-Lipponen era. There is hardly any discussion of how Lipponen’s policy line might be continued; instead, the focus is on how it could be changed. In general there has been a certain lack of continuity in relations between politics and business", notes Penttilä.
President Halonen has tried to avoid open conflict. In the summer, she was actually the guest of honour when EVA celebrated its 30th anniversary.
However, the jabs aimed at the management of foreign policy are clearly getting on the President’s nerves - which could be the intention. Perhaps the thinking among some in the back rooms of EVA is that Halonen might decide not to seek a second term if arguments and unpleasant decisions are all that await her.
The dispute that arose between the President and Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen on the nature of globalisation goes to the very core of the issue: Halonen has emphasised the problems posed by globalisation and Vanhanen has focused on the opportunities it offers.
With the speech held in connection with the publication of the report by the globalisation working group led by Anne Brunila, Vanhanen redeemed some of the expectations that had been placed on him by key business figures.
Could the Prime Minister, who is seen as a very cautious man, prove to be worthy of the trust of the business community after all?
On the other hand, a president who has been deprived of many of the previous powers held by the office is not a very important figure from the point of view of the business leaders. Nevertheless, presidents can lead trade delegations to Asia and persuade the country to take a more favourable stand toward NATO, but in other respects, Finnish presidential politics is of little interest to the world of business.
The President might never have drifted onto such a collision course if Halonen had not decided to make globalisation a major theme of her presidency. Corporate leaders saw this as a challenge.
It proved to be that the President and the corporate leaders looked at globalisation from opposite perspectives. The business community wanted to talk about Finnish competitiveness, while the President was concerned about poverty in Africa.
EVA chairman Georg Ehrnrooth feels that Finnish foreign policy nowadays lacks a healthy selfishness.
"It is a small country’s right, and in fact, its only window of opportunity, to be selfish, and to always act in the national interest. If one does not act in Finland’s interest, it is better to stay silent and not act like an alarm clock for the whole world."
Georg Ehrnrooth feels that Finland is going in the same direction as Sweden when Prime Minister Olof Palme set himself up to be a conscience for the world, and lashed out at the foreign policy of the United States.
"Relations between Sweden and the United States deteriorated very much, and I do not believe that Palme actually managed to change the world. However, Sweden suffered. There is a widespread view in business that not all statements by the foreign policy leadership have been in Finland’s best interest."
Ehrnrooth specifically refers to Halonen’s speech at the UN, where she said that the US attack on Iraq was illegal.
Corporate managers feel that things were going well during the Ahtisaari presidency. The President toured the world, telling about how Finland had left the grey area between East and West and become a member of the EU.
"At that time Finland had the clear goal of boosting our international prestige. Ahtisaari’s modus operandi helped the business community. He did not negotiate deals, but he created an atmosphere in which it was easier for those who did to go to the countries in question to be appreciated", Ehrnrooth believes.
From EVA’s point of view, the present trade policy is more a symptom than a disease. Corporate managers feel that today’s politicians lack the courage to go against poll figures. If the people denounce the United States, the politicians join the choir, regardless of whether or not this is in the best interests of Finland.
The core of EVA’s message remains the same: Finland’s competitiveness.
EVA opposed socialism because corporate managers felt that it was a sure way to drive the country into bankruptcy. EVA advocated EU membership, because it was good for business.
Now the corporate managers feel that a good political leader is one who would bring down taxes, slim down the public sector, shorten the time that students study, and privatise municipal services - in other words, do everything that has been proposed for the past ten years in all of the reports on Finland’s future.
To EVA’s chagrin, such reports are read by researchers, civil servants, and editorial writers, but not by ordinary people. For that reason, all surveys reveal a gap that has opened up between the elite and the people, whether or not the question involves immigration or NATO.
The frosty reception received by Ruokanen’s report, which was based on interviews of corporate managers, proved that in the present political climate, demands by business are easily written off as greed or blackmail. Ehrnrooth does not even attempt to conceal his displeasure.
"In a global world, the interests of Finland and those of large companies are not necessarily the same. If Finland offers companies opportunities for success, market forces will keep production here. Large global companies will do well, but the same is not necessarily true for Finland."
"I think that all corporate managers are more or less patriotic - if such a word is permitted - and hope that Finland would prosper."
According to Jukka Tarkka, the policy line of EVA has not changed since the 1970s: to promote Finland’s interests under changing conditions. Tarkka concludes his book with a reference to two cold realists - former President J.K. Paasikivi and Niccolò Machiavelli.
Halonen or Ehrnrooth, Palme or Machiavelli? At least it can no longer be said that there is no debate in this country.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 28.11.2004
Previously in HS International Edition:
EVA wants Finland in EU vanguard (10.11.2004)
TEEMU LUUKKA AND SASKA SAARIKOSKI / Helsingin Sanomat