Blond beauties, fine yachts, and long summer days almost make us understand rising Finnish nationalism. But low levels of solidarity, segregational tendencies, and endless winter nights dampen that enthusiasm.
It’s noon, but the sun lures still low in the sky as our ferry glides towards Helsinki harbour. The light blue Eastern Sea is dotted with small inhabited islands. Fisher boats and sailing yachts gently bop up and down in the water. On deck, we search our respective memories for insights about Finland. But as the speakers crackle the captains’s farewell, we haven’t gotten far beyond reindeers, impervious language, and amazing PISA results. Once again, it’s time to revert to mass intelligence. Finland’s biggest neighbour, interim-ruler and most important trading partner is Russia. But having been part of the Swedish Empire for centuries, Finns feel more closely connected to the Scandinavian culture. Even if there is only a small Swedish minority of about 6% left, Swedish is the second national language (Finnish sign language is the third) and is compulsory in every high school. Finland is about the size of Germany and with a remarkable number of 5 million inhabitants it has the smallest population density in Europe. During summer, the sun doesn’t dawn. And during winter, it hardly rises.
Imagine a rich Berlin
When strolling along the harbour promenade to our first interview, we are impressed. Where Tallinn presented medieval charme and maybe some Sovjet landmarks, Helsinki confidently shows off with a rich hanseatic waterfront and state of the art design everywhere: Be it buildings, showcases, or people. There is no doubt, we have arrived in the prosperous north now. The downside: When buying our first coffee, we feel like Bulgarians in Germany. Everything is double the price! What will such a prosperous and well-functioning country think about their stumbling union partners, who are so desperately in need of everyone’s support? Does solidarity extend from the cold north to the chaotic south? Teija Tiilikainen, head of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs isn’t so sure about that: “We don’t share the catholic roots of the European culture. We are a very Lutheran, state-centred people.” (Max Weber at his best!) And that apparently affects relations with the EU. During the cold war Finland only evaded being absorbed by the USSR due to its president’s vow of neutrality. “But that paradigm was born out of necessity. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, joining the EU offered security and growth. For that we were willing to give up our impartial stance. Some might think that opportunistic – I call it pragmatism.” We wonder how long Finns will judge it pragmatic to shoulder shares of the Greek burden… Tiilikainen thinks that Finns are generally pro-European, but mentions some negative touch points as well: “Actually, the Natura Directive and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) put some people off. And Finns abstractly don’t really like the idea of a federal Europe, even if they are fine with cooperating where beneficial.”
Interviewing for a roof
After some words on the PISA-results (“I’m surprised myself. It’s probably the tough formation and high reputation of our teachers!”) we shake hands and set off towards the city centre to dive into the daundering masses. We hear that it is one of the first warm and sunny days in Helsinki, which is why the city seems lively and welcoming. Best conditions for our two objectives for today: 1. Collect opinions and 2. find a place for our sleeping bags. The first runs smoothly: “I don’t really know why we should support the Greeks. I don’t think they would support us, if we were down.” and “Everything runs so smoothly here. A friend of mine was in Spain for his Erasmus. He said that administration there was awful!” Like many others, young Finns aren’t really into European problems. It just doesn’t touch them. The last person we pick out of the crowd is Jasmin, who lived in Dubai for a while. She explains that it was always easier for her to connect to Europeans. And, as if to underline that statement, she warmheartedly offers us a room in her shared flat!
True Finns and false immigrants
The next morning we meet Simon Elo, youth speaker for the (True) Finns. A right wing populist and Eurosceptic party, the Finns had a raging success in the 2011 elections. Jumping from 1% in 1999 to nearly 20% about a decade later, they form a prime example of the crescending populism across Europe. And Simon Elo is one of our generation, who seems more than happy about it: “I have been interviewed by journalists from numerous countries last year.” Simon joined the Finns because he felt unrepresented by traditional parties and likes the idea that he can still shape the political agenda of this party. They haven’t committed themselves on too much yet… “Yes, we are populistic! We clearly state what the people feel.” At first glance, his statements sound sensible to us: “We want people to think through the nation state, which does not mean that we dislike Greece. We actually respect their independence as a nation. But the way things are handled at the moment, the Greek people is not free to govern itself. The situation reminds me of the Weimar Republic and I personally just don’t trust the EU officials to solve the issue.” He furthermore complains about the democratic deficit of the European Commission and how a common defence policy takes away the freedom to stay neutral in international conflicts. Simon has strong convictions, but they seem valid and based on some thought.
But some of his comments also make us wonder. First: “Controversy make things interesting”. Is he trying to say that his Eurosceptic party is rendering the EU more exciting? Second: “We give the people a voice who without it would maybe fall back to violent protest”. Hmm. Campaigning for anti-immigration policies appears more like building up a dangerous opinion than channeling people’s anger into peaceful dialogue. This impression increases exponentially when we talk to one of the people working for the party’s PR. He hints at having experienced bad personal experiences with immigrants. But when we ask about details, he firmly refuses to give us an insight… When we close the door of the true Finns brand new office in downtown Helsinki, we somehow can’t shake of the feeling that populism is what it always was: Emotional arguments and easy answers impeding rational dialogue in order to gain influence and money. And: A signal, warning those who are responsible that there is grounds for populists to build on. Be it a democratic deficit, lacking communication, or economic hardship.