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Ex-prime ministers Aho and Lipponen say EU strengthened Finland's position
Finland's Speaker of Parliament Paavo Lipponen (SDP), who served as Prime Minister during eight of the ten years that Finland has been a member of the European Union, feels that the period of Finnish EU membership has been a success for Finland.
Former Prime Minister Esko Aho (Centre), the President of the Finnish National Fund for Research and Development (SITRA), who headed the government that brought Finland into the EU, feels that the main benefit of Finnish EU membership is that it brought about a change in attitudes in Finland. "We began to examine things from the point of view of a different reference group."
As Lipponen sees it, Finland is at the top of the EU in all key areas: competitiveness, the implementation of the Lisbon Strategy, and in sustainable development. He notes that Finland also has a top-notch educational system and a very efficient health care system.
Lipponen admits that many of the items on the list, including education and health care, are the result of Finland's own decisions. He emphasises, however, that the EU has been very helpful in improving competitiveness and the employment situation.
Lipponen has often emphasised that Finland needs to be in the core of events in order to make sure that its interests are better taken into consideration. He is also clearly upset at the criticism aimed at this policy line.
"We have behaved like a grown-up member should, and we have not crept along walls, which is a Finnish characteristic", he says, lashing out at his critics.
Lipponen emphasises that Finland has taken the initiative in many key aspects of EU policy.
One example of this is closer cooperation in crisis management, whose basic lines were agreed at the Amsterdam summit at the initiative of Finland and Sweden. He also mentions the Lisbon Strategy, aimed at improving EU competitiveness, which was prepared during the Finnish EU Presidency, as well as the Northern Dimension policy and the programmes aimed at closer cooperation in security, police, and legal affairs, which were agreed upon at the Tampere summit in 1999.
Lipponen says that if Finland had not made the decision in 1994 to join the EU, membership might have been delayed for a long time.
During the referendum debate, supporters of EU membership emphasised that joining the EU would give Finland security guarantees of sorts. Technically, there were no such guarantees at that point, but the argument was very persuasive in a country bordering on Russia.
"Now our relationship with Russia is just right. We can act in a constructive manner both bilaterally and within the European Union, without having to constantly define our own position and worry about it", Lipponen says.
Paavo Lipponen also admits to moments of frustration. He points to attempts by France at the Nice summit in December 2000 to arrange issues of EU voting rights in what he felt was an arbitrary manner.
He notes that France's behaviour woke up the rest of the EU to see the necessity of making changes.
Lipponen points out that France made a significant concession when it agreed to the idea that seats in the European Parliament should be distributed according to the populations of the member states.
"And the initiative for organising a convention aimed at the development of the EU came from us, and now we have an agreement on a constitution", he adds.
When Aho guided Finland into the EU the decision was by no means a foregone conclusion.
Ten years ago Finland was a very different country. The Soviet Union had just disintegrated, and Aho was the leader of the Centre Party, which, of all of Finland's large political parties, had the most sceptical view of European integration. The greatest concern was over the position of agriculture.
Aho downplays the party-political calculations behind the decision; the recession of the early 1990s left deep scars on Finnish society.
"We could not afford to worry about support figures for the political parties. At that time it was all we could do to keep Finland in line somehow."
Prime Minister Aho remained in office only a few months after Finland joined the EU. In the spring of 1995 Paavo Lipponen took over the office for eight years. Aho feels that Finland's policy line changed during that time.
"The early part of Finnish membership was followed by a little giant phase, where we believed that we were more than what we really were. Now we have come back to the planet Earth, and are simply a member among others", Esko Aho says.
Aho hopes that the passage of this little giant phase would mean that Finland will better see opportunities that present themselves nearby.
"We had very close and confidential cooperation with Sweden when we discussed membership. I hope that it could work again."
Although Aho feels that EU membership has been good for Finland, he is critical of the Union's propensity to dabble in small matters, such as the preservation of Finland's flying squirrels.
He also feels that Economic and Monetary Union has not necessarily been a blessing for Europe, although he admits that things have gone more smoothly than he expected.