Finns increasingly critical of EU, NATO, USA, and immigration
By Tanja Aitamurto
I cannot recall a time when the world would have loved Finland while Finns hated the world as much as now.
Alluring Finnish phenomena include at least HIM, Lordi, the world's most educated children, and a president who looks like Conan O'Brien. The most recent evidence of the appeal of Finland came when the world-famous travel guide, Lonely Planet, put Finland on its list of 30 rising destinations for 2007.
However, the Finns are not reciprocating. The EU Presidency was held for six months by Europe's most anti-EU nation. The Finns also tend to take a very negative view of the NATO alliance, the United States, and immigration.
It almost sounds as if Finland would never have become westernised.
A public debate is beginning at the Metso library in Tampere on immigration, and cooperation among police forces in different parts of the EU. Perhaps this discussion might provide an answer to the anti-EU attitudes in Finland!
The people who stream into the library's lecture hall on a weekday evening do not appear to be negative at heart. Instead, they seem to be adaptable and humble. Most of the people sit far away from each other, leaving gaps of empty chairs between neighbours.
The first to sit down next to me is a pensioner, Tampere resident Eeva Tammi, who is wearing very practical clothing. She understands the anti-EU attitudes that many Finns have.
"Finns are opposed to everything that lets money flow out. The thinking is that membership in the Union is a liability, and does not help us", Tammi says.
So who cares about others, as long as we are doing all right ourselves. How embarrassing!
Tammi's comments call to mind what the German-French Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit said when he visited Finland. In his view, Finns want to avoid the common problems of the EU. Negative attitudes toward the EU are specifically attitudes that the rich have toward the poor.
"The phenomenon in Finland is the same as in Italy. The rich north of Italy does not want to pay money to the poor south of the country", Cohn-Bendit thundered.
But surely, it is difficult to understand up here in the cold city of Tampere why the issue of refugees landing on the Canary Islands, for instance, should be a problem for us; we have our own problems, such as queues for dental care and structural unemployment.
"You don't mind coming to Southern Europe to soak in the sun. You just don't want to take responsibility", Cohn-Bendit said.
Well, perhaps Cohn-Bendit is just a foreign EU enthusiast, a former hard-line leftist who may be envious of Finland's success. Perhaps a Finnish EU expert might understand this country better.
Laura Kolbe, a professor of European history, does not offer absolution to the Finns. "The Finns are perhaps a bit arrogantly self-sufficient. We are accustomed to making it on our own, and we do not want to need anyone even now", Kolbe said.
According to a fresh Eurobarometer survey, 39 per cent of Finns feel that the EU is a good thing. In the whole EU, pro-EU sentiment is significantly higher - 53 per cent.
Finns set themselves apart from other small EU members: majorities in both Ireland and Luxembourg have a positive view of the EU.
"The image of Finland involves a David vs. Goliath setup, in which Finland, a small country, fights against a large enemy. Sweden let us down, the Western powers let us down. The best strength that Finland has is in the steadfast skill of the Finnish soldier. Finns have always built their own success story", Kolbe analyses.
Laura Kolbe appears to have found an explanation to both Finnish anti-EU sentiment, as well as the country's xenophobia. Instead of selfishness, could it be rooted in the high priority placed on self-sufficiency?
No answer is forthcoming at the library in Tampere. Speakers there talk in appropriately distant tones about refugees seeking to enter the EU: more tolerance is needed, and xenophobia needs to be reduced, says the information officer of the Refugee Advice Centre.
Best to call Karmela Liebkind, a professor social psychology, to ask about Finnish attitudes toward foreigners. Liebkind also feels that getting by on one's own is so important for Finns, that the nation is actually bogged down in its role as a small nation that defends itself.
"People are incapable of taking on another role when they need to think about the relation between the majority of Finns and the country's minorities", Liebkind says. She feels that Finns need to take on two different roles: out in the world, Finland needs to be a feisty terrier. However, compared with the small minority groups in the country, the majority population is gigantic, and needs to take care not to overrun the minorities.
Prejudices also arise from the fact that Finns are not accustomed to interacting with outsiders. The proportion of foreign residents vs. native-born Finns is among the smallest in Western Europe.
"So when ten Somalis are standing at Helsinki's railway station, we feel threatened", Liebkind points out.
At the library in Tampere, Social Democratic MP Johannes Koskinen says that those who are promoting greater integration in the EU have been talking about a common criminal code for the EU. This is too much for Eeva Tammi.
"The Union has expanded too quickly, and too far. Finns are wondering what this will lead to. We want to be careful", she says.
"Now Finnish boys are to be sent to fight wars in different places. It is frightening. New things are always frightening", adds Tammi's friend, who does not want to reveal her name.
So are we Finns actually fainthearted? Can our reticent attitudes toward the EU, NATO, the United States, and foreigners be the result of fear, rather than selfishness?
To get an answer to this, we need to hear from an expert who observes Finland from a distance.
"Mistrust, fear, and caution are understandable for a small nation", says Jussi Hanhimäki, a researcher into international relations, speaking by telephone from Switzerland. He has lived outside of Finland for about 20 years.
Staying outside alliances, and going it alone have been success stories for Finland, Hanhimäki says. The eastern neighbour is a former great power that might have crushed Finland. The western neighbour once also wanted to control Finland. During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from disputes, and that is when NATO was established.
"It is a political setup which does not fit into the tradition of Finnish neutrality", Hanhimäki explains.
So neutrality is rooted in us?
"Yes, and quite deeply", says Professor Tarja Väyrynen of the Tampere Peace Research Institute of the University of Tampere, next door to the Metso library. As Väyrynen sees it, not being part of a military alliance is so deeply rooted in the Finns that if Finland were to ally itself militarily, part of the Finns' self-image would be shattered.
So NATO is incompatible with our views of our neutrality, but why do Finns also shun the United States? After all, NATO is not the same as the USA!
A young man sitting in the back row at the library auditorium has an answer.
"It is the policies of the United States - how it behaves in the world. Constantly being at war breeds resistance", says Simo Salmela, a 26-year-old student.
One expert agrees with him. Finns look askance the role of United States as a world policeman, says researcher Hanna Ojanen of the Finnish Institute for International Affairs.
"Nor are Finns enamoured with a country that has a truly great amount of power. The same is applicable if some large company is in a monopoly position. People easily oppose that as well", Ojanen says. In her view, Finnish opposition to NATO is partly attributable to the fact that the alliance is led by the United States.
Anti-NATO sentiment is understandable in a way, because by opposing NATO it is possible to oppose becoming allied. But we are already a part of the EU! Isn't it silly to oppose something that we are already part of?
"No. On the contrary, it can show courage", says Risto Alapuro, Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki.
He feels that anti-EU sentiment can be a part of a change in the political culture, in which Finns dare differ from their political leaders. Following the lead of political leaders is no longer self-evident, as it was during the time of President Urho Kekkonen.
So it turns out that we are neither arrogant nor cowardly - we're courageous and independent!
The audience in Tampere is getting tired. Eeva Tammi starts to nod off.
"They say that the people of Häme are slow, but the EU is even slower! They just mull over things, and nothing moves ahead", she whispers.
"They promised us much more. They said that the EU would be a utopia. Now people are disappointed", Tammi's friend sniffs.
Researcher Hanna Ojanen would understand the two friends. One possible reason for the Finnish attitudes could simply be that realism toward the EU has increased. More and more EU regulations now affect our lives.
But do Finns really have any reason to be disappointed with the EU? The economy is growing, unemployment is decreasing, and more children are being born than before... We no longer need to convince anyone that we are part of the West.
But Finns are not raptured by material well-being. Mika Mannermaa, a researcher on future studies at the Turku School of Economics, notes that Finns still have fresh memories of the recession of the 1990s.
"Finns fear losing their jobs, and look with suspicion at everything that is new. When people are afraid, they curl up into themselves", he says.
So the Finnish reluctance is neither greedy selfishness or individualistic courage, but rather an understandable concern about the future - a fear that jobs will be exported to India, or given to immigrants, that a new recession could come, and people might again find themselves trapped between two homes - a new one bought with borrowed money, and the old one which is suddenly hard to sell.
Since we are in Tampere, let's give Tammi and her friend the final word.
"Finns tend to isolate themselves. We don't even like our neighbours. And we are also resistant to change", the friend says.
Eeva Tammi does not want to exaggerate. Finns will accept simple and practical change - as long as it does not spark ideological passions.
"The information society has made rapid progress. And the euro was also accepted", Tammi says. Perhaps part of our charm is in this: Finns do not feel a special need to please anyone else. We are willing to be different - "complex and idiosyncratic", which is how the fresh edition of Lonely Planet describes this irresistible country.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.1.2007
TANJA AITAMURTO / Helsingin Sanomat