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"Rich, happy and good at austerity" - Financial Times casts its eye over Finland
Subjects covered range from nukes to Nokia and Angry Birds to ageing population
We are supposed, of course, to be so grown-up these days that we don't spend all our time wondering anxiously what the world thinks of us, but when a serious and influential newspaper like the Financial Times turns the spotlight on Finland, it is hard not to take a look.
Wednesday's FT carried a lengthy Special Report on Finland under the headline "Rich, happy and good at austerity".
With some reservations, the tone was generally positive.
"Like Greece, Portugal and Ireland, Finland is on the geographical periphery of the eurozone, but it has little else in common with these three, which have all received international bailouts in the past two years. Richer, happier and better educated than the OECD rich nations’ club average, Finland is also one of only a few countries that all the main credit agencies still judge as triple A-rated."
The paper examines the main points of Finland's relative success story, and a few of its curiosities, looking at the forest industry and Nokia, at attempts to keep people in the workplace longer as the population ages, at such things as sauna and the Finnish passion for tango, and it also casts an eye over the Angry Birds phenomenon, wondering if it could become a new growth cluster.
Finland's export challenges - once again the problems facing an ailing Nokia and the pulp & paper branch - are self-evident, but the economy has been kept afloat in readiness for better days by "surprisingly robust
"Consumer confidence has bucked the European trend and risen this year, helping the country maintain GDP growth.
Strong government finances, a healthy banking sector, and lack of exposure to the southern European economies where the debt crisis looms largest, have led to a feeling of being insulated from the worst global problems", writes the FT.
The paper also notes the rise of the populist and eurosceptic Finns Party as "an obvious political
manifestation of public disapproval" for what are seen as "profligate" eurozone colleagues.
On the subject of the rapidly ageing population, the paper finds positives in that "few countries are grappling with the problem so openly, making it an interesting test bed for the rest of Europe".
The vexed issue of municipal reform is also touched on, with the paper observing that the reforms are intended to "lessen the financial burden on very large regions with small numbers of people".
The six-party "rainbow coalition" government, taking in National Coalition Party conservatives, Social Democrats, Greens and even a traditional party of the left in the Left Alliance, is doing alright, even though the lack of any "ideological glue" makes things challenging at times for Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, who is interviewed for the piece.
Katainen says the country broadly supports the government's tight fiscal line, pointing to a recent poll that shows an 18%-point growth in approval for EU membership. "“Three per cent moves in this country are a landslide,” says Katainen.
The fate of the Fukushima nuclear plant in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami has not noticeably cooled attitudes towards nuclear power among the "pragmatic" Finns, who back nukes on environmental grounds and as a means of reducing the dependence on foreign energy, particularly from Russia.
The report even touches on the arts and on the recent decision not to welcome a Guggenheim museum in Helsinki. "We have become suspicious and cautious. Opposition to Guggenheim is linked with this psychological
change”, writes the paper, quoting the International Edition's English version of an editorial carried by Helsingin Sanomat at the time the Helsinki City Board rejected the museum plan.
All the same, "with or without the Guggenheim, Helsinki is not doing badly", says the FT, noting that the city regularly heads rankings as one of the world’s most livable cities, even if it is overshadowed by the likes of Copenhagen and Stockholm in the tourism department.
The paper gets its feet wet on a couple of Finnish cultural phenomena - possibly in order to forewarn and forearm its readers if they should come here - and almost inevitably these are sauna and tango, with the former explored in a kind of "Dummies' Guide".
"Next you have to consider whether to sit on the top shelf - the hottest part where all the real sauna aficionados are - or in the relative cool below. Bear in mind that to sit own a rung will mark you out as a tourist and a bit of a weakling".
Maybe we're blind to it, but this all seems rather '70s and Kekkonen-era. Most Finns are a bit less rigidist about sauna these days.
Still, we should be grateful, perhaps, that the journalists did not explore Finland's wacky summer sports of wife-carrying or mosquito-swatting, or indeed the country's alarming domestic violence problems.
The print edition of the Financial Times has a smaller circulation than Helsingin Sanomat - rather more than 300,000 - but the paper's online version is read by millions of financial decision-makers all over the world, so the publicity could have an impact on those who don't know much about the place beforehand.
Now at least they will know, if they did not know beforehand, that the annoyingly addictive app on their smartphone where the psychotic birds kill the green pigs was made in these latitudes.
Without the newspaper telling them, they would have only found out at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, where Angry Birds merchandise is already rivalling aftershave and perfumes on the shopping concourse.