During this spring, Finnish people have two direct opportunities to influence the direction of Europe. We already had parliamentary elections on 14 March. In the coming weeks, the results of this election will culminate in a new government, which will form and advance our national policy on Europe. At the end of May, we will vote in the European Parliament elections, just ahead of the Finnish presidency of EU, which starts on 1 July.
This intense spring can be seen as a triple jump, with the national elections as the takeoff mark, European elections as the first jump, new government as the second and finally, the presidency as the third jump. Where we land remains to be seen, but Finnish people will certainly have their fair share of European affairs.
Parliamentary elections driven by change – but not on Europe
Europe or international affairs were not a key issue in the Finnish parliamentary election. This is somewhat surprising, given that we have Brexit on the European agenda, other international uncertainty and the rapid rise of the euro-skeptic Finns party in the national sphere.
So, even though the presidency of the EU looms ahead, European issues were mostly absent from the election agenda. Brexit is so unfinished that it was clearly hard to comment on. Many “shared themes” from climate change to equality or jobs and growth resonate better on a national level. And international relations, particularly those concerning security, are consensus-driven topics.
More Finns voted than in the previous parliamentary election, which signals healthy democracy. The election generated a more strongly divided Finland when it comes to opinions and values. Instead of the traditional division between two bigger parties and several smaller ones, Finland now has many middle-sized parties. At the same time, the diversity of ideas has increased.
Leftist and green parties won and the traditional center-right lost. The new parliament has more women than ever, as well as many young representatives. All in all, 83 out of 200 are new representatives and 94 are women. It is fair to say that this really was an election of change.
Two topics can be said to reflect the deeper and wider division of opinions: the position on immigration and, on the other hand, that on climate change. This recipe was also the key to the strong result of the populist Finns party. It was the only party to stay out of the shared commitment on climate change made by all parties represented in the parliament. On the other hand, the Green Party, Left Alliance and Social democrats, who all had a strong focus on preventing climate change, also increased their seats in the parliament.
EU elections shadowed by the government forming
After the parliamentary election, the focus in Finland is now heavily on the government platform negotiations and the forming of the government. It is estimated that the composition of the new government will be established just after the European Parliament elections.
This will furthermore cloud the national debate on Europe. The starting EU presidency is on track after the parties have already declared a program consisting of shared goals, which are currently being specified. It will be published in June.
A report preparing the program emphasized, for example, citizen empowerment in the context of education and social Europe, climate change in e.g. bio-economy and circular economy, and EU as a strong global power creating security in e.g. arctic policy and trade and development.
It is widely interpreted that the new government, as well as its platform, will be decided after the EU election. This is to ensure that the hard decisions taken in the government platform do not influence the election result. The most likely outcome of the government platform negotiations is red-blue a coalition bringing together the center-left and center-right, with greens and perhaps a couple of other parties.
This government would continue the Finnish tradition of multi-party and cross-the-aisle cooperation, which in the past has been used to tackle the previous populist parties by giving them power and responsibility, resulting in shrinking popularity for these parties.
Still rather doctors than judges
At least in the national debate on Europe, Finland is often described as the “model student”. The country seems to follow this tradition and continue to avoid big surprises. Despite the quite divisive parliamentary election, which lead to the current difficult negotiations on the next government, the national policy on Europe or international cooperation is not changing.
EU elections have not succeeded in activating Finns to vote, and it is very likely that due to the full spring, the situation will be the same this time around. With the narrow gap of only five weeks between the parliamentary election and the EU election, the agendas will converge and national topics will dominate the debate.
The EU presidency wraps this all up. There has to be a new government in place to take leadership – and, preferably, a period of getting a good grasp of the agenda before the beginning of the presidency. As said, Europe does not have to fear Finnish surprises. Even though the last few election periods have been tumultuous, the bubbling in the national sphere has not reflected significantly in the country’s policy or profile in Europe.
There is an old Finnish saying, that, when it comes to international relations, the country will always rather be a doctor than a judge. This tradition of cooperation, efficiency and neutrality can be expected to continue.