Finland

1. The Eastern Neighbours and Russia

Russia as a difficult, but indispensable partner

As Finland’s direct neighbour, third-biggest export market and main energy importer, Russia occupies a central position in Finnish external policy. As far as the future of the relations with Russia is concerned, the dominant view in Finland can be described as a mixture of pessimism and pragmatism; Russia is seen as an increasingly difficult country to work with, but cooperation is considered a necessity.

The Finnish perspective on Russia is exemplified by the results of a survey conducted by the Finnish Business and Policy Forum EVA in January 2015.11M. Apunen, I. Haavisto, J. Sipola and S. Toivonen, Ken on maassa jämäkin? EVAn Arvo- ja asennetutkimus 2015 (Helsinki: Taloustieto Oy, 2015), pp. 76-77. 83 percent of the survey’s respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Russia is an unstable and unpredictable country, 50 percent described Russia as a considerable military threat. However, 87 percent of the respondents also considered Russia as an important trading partner for Finland.

Pessimism and pragmatism guide official Finnish policies vis-à-vis Russia as well. Finnish politicians across the political spectrum agree that Russia’s actions in Ukraine challenge the European security order and thus negatively affect Finland’s security. Accordingly, Finland has strictly condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine and subscribed to the EU’s sanctions regime. Moreover, as a reaction to Russia’s increasing military activity in the Baltic region, Finland has hiked up its national defence spending, deepened its defence cooperation with Sweden, strengthened its partnership with NATO and called for a stronger EU security and defence policy.

These steps notwithstanding, Finland’s medium-term objective is to restore good working relations with Russia. This is clearly expressed in the government programme of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s newly-elected centre-right coalition, which argues that better relations with Russia would benefit Europe both economically and in terms of security.22Prime Minister’s Office, Finland, a Land of Solutions – Strategic Programme of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s Government (29 May 2015). p. 37. According to the government, the relationship must, however, be based on respect for international law and agreements.

Finnish pragmatism towards Russia is particularly visible on the economic front. A highly controversial example is Finland’s plan to build its sixth nuclear power plant in close cooperation with the Rosatom group, a Russian state-owned energy company. The project, approved by the Finnish government in September 2014, sharply contrasts with the EU’s aim to decrease Europe’s energy dependency from Russia. It also prompted the Green League to leave the government coalition, which it accused of subservience to Russia.

Finally, there has been some debate in Finland about how to handle its relations with Russia, with individual political figures suggesting that Finland should put a stronger emphasis on bilateral relations as opposed to adhering to the EU’s collective Russia policy. However, the new government has stressed that Finland complies with the EU’s common positions on Russia, while simultaneously maintaining diverse bilateral relations with the country.33Prime Minister’s Office (2015), p. 37.

Limited attention to the Eastern Partnership countries

Successive Finnish governments have been in principal supportive of the Eastern Partnership44See e. g. Ulkoasiainministeriö, Suomen EU:n itäisiä kumppaneita sekä Keski-Aasia koskeva politiikkalinjaus (Helsinki: Ulkoasiainministeriö, 2015)., but in practice EU relations with the Eastern Partnership countries are not a political priority for Finland. The events in Ukraine have not fundamentally altered the Finnish position despite receiving considerable attention in the Finnish media.

With the exception of Ukraine, most of the Eastern Partnership states still remain rather unknown to the Finnish public. Both the Finnish electorate and the political elite are traditionally more interested in the relationship between the EU and Russia that forms one of the focal points of Finnish EU policy. Accordingly, there is a tendency in Finland to look at the Eastern Partnership largely through the prism of EU-Russia relations.

As a consequence of the Russian actions in Ukraine, Finland has reaffirmed its conviction that Ukraine and the other Eastern Partnership countries must be free to choose their own institutional affiliations. However, at the same time Finland is wary of raising ungrounded expectations in the Eastern Partnership states and does not want the EU to grant these states a membership perspective at this point. Instead, Finland has highlighted the existing and potential arrangements that are available to the Eastern neighbours in the context of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

The government programme of Prime Minister Sipilä’s coalition mentions the Eastern Neighbourhood only in passing, stating somewhat ambiguously that the development of the Eastern Partnership is important for Europe’s stability.55Prime Minister’s Office, Finland, a Land of Solutions – Strategic Programme of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s Government (29 May 2015). p. 35. Finland is likely to remain principally supportive of the EU’s activities in the Eastern neighbourhood, but the region and the Eastern Partnership will not feature among Finland’s core foreign policy priorities.

Modest goals and meagre results in Riga

The Finnish government’s goals for the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga are illustrative of Finland’s general views on the Eastern Neighbourhood. Finland’s primary objective for the summit was to express the EU’s continuing support for the Eastern Partnership countries without raising false hopes. Accordingly, the government wanted the summit to concentrate on ‘realistically attainable goals’ such as enhancing the mobility of the partner countries’ citizens, strengthening the partner countries’ civil societies and implementing previously agreed reforms. In addition, the government highlighted the character of the Eastern Partnership as separate from EU enlargement and stressed the need for stronger differentiation between the partner countries according to their individual ambitions and capacity to implement reforms.66Ulkoasiainministeriö, Itäisen kumppanuuden huippukokous Riiassa 21.-22.5.2015. Tavoitemuistio (18 May 2015).

The joint declaration of the Riga summit reflects many of these positions, as it omits references to EU enlargement, underlines the importance of implementing the Association Agreements and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas and recognises the need for differentiating between the partner countries.77Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit (Riga, 21-22 May 2015). In addition, the declaration reaffirms the possibility of visa-free travel for Ukrainians and Georgians without defining a concrete timetable. The results of the summit were thus largely in line with the Finnish government’s objectives.

The Finnish media, however, were rather critical in their assessments of the summit’s achievements. Although it was pointed out that the Riga summit was symbolically important, its results were described as meagre, with the EU refusing to commit itself to doing anything concrete.88See e.g. Virve Kähkönen, ’EU pitää etäisyyttä Luhanskin mummoon’, Helsingin Sanomat, 23 May 2015; Annu Marjanen and Hanna Anttila, ’EU:n itäkumppaneille lämmintä kättä’, Suomenmaa, 22 May 2015. The unspectacular outcome was attributed to the member states, most of which – Finland included – were simply not willing to make any significant commitments. Russia was generally identified as the main reason for the cautious attitudes of many member states and some partner countries alike.

A welcome debate, an unrealistic idea

As a result of the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s increasing military activity in the Baltic region, there has been much debate in Finland about the country’s defence capacity and defence policy. Much of this debate has revolved around Finland’s relationship with NATO and the country’s deepening defence cooperation with Sweden. However, the EU’s role as a security policy actor has also been a topic in this debate. Consequently, when Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker suggested in March 2015 that the EU should form its own army, the idea received a considerable amount of media attention in Finland.

The reactions of key foreign policy figures varied from support to scepticism. The first and most widely-cited commentator was President Sauli Niinistö, who openly endorsed Juncker’s proposal. Carl Haglund, then Minister of Defence, also said Finland should be open to the idea. Alexander Stubb, then Prime Minister and a keen advocate of Finnish NATO membership, and Erkki Tuomioja, then Minister for Foreign Affairs and a long-standing opponent of Finnish NATO membership, were both more cautious in their assessments. While both welcomed the debate and the idea of a stronger EU security and defence policy, they also pointed out that most member states would be opposed to the idea. Finally, leading figures of the Eurosceptic Finns Party said there was neither a need nor the will in Europe for building a common EU army.99‘Politicians, govt divided over EU joint army proposal’, Finland Times, 11 March 2015; Yle, ‘Finnish politicos divided over proposed joint EU army‘, Yle Uutiset, 9 March 2015.

Although most Finnish politicians and experts considered the idea of an EU army unrealistic in the short term, their comments demonstrated Finland’s high level of support for the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy and the country’s strong interest in developing it further. This goal is also explicitly mentioned in the government programme of Prime Minister Sipilä.1010Prime Minister’s Office, Finland, a Land of Solutions – Strategic Programme of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s Government (29 May 2015). p. 35.

2. EU Enlargement

The Eastern Partnership does not equal EU enlargement

When it comes to the institutional affiliations of the Eastern Partnership countries, the Finnish governments have opted for a two-track approach. In light of the events in Ukraine, Finland, along with most EU member states, has underlined that Ukraine and the other Eastern Partnership countries must be free to choose their own path. On the other hand, Finland is not willing to grant the Eastern neighbours a membership perspective at this point. Instead, Finland stresses that the Eastern Partnership and EU enlargement remain separate processes and must be more clearly developed as such. The main goal of the Eastern Partnership, according to Finland, remains a close political and economic association with the EU, not membership in the Union.

While Finland did not advocate EU enlargement to the Eastern Neighbourhood prior to the Ukraine crisis, the events in Ukraine and the confrontation with Russia have further strengthened the view in Finland that an EU accession for these countries should not be the objective of the Eastern Partnership. This view is seldom challenged in Finland. However, after the Riga summit, Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s most influential daily, published an editorial in which it criticised the summit for failing to provide any incentives for the most reform-minded Eastern Partnership countries that currently operate under heavy Russian pressure.1111’EU:n pitää jättää ovi auki uusille jäsenmaille idästä’, Helsingin Sanomat, 23 May 2015. According to the editorial, the EU member states should at least have reminded the Eastern Partnership countries that according to the Treaty on the European Union any European country is entitled to apply for EU membership as long as it respects the EU’s values. Indeed, such an approach would be more in line with Finland’s general policy line on EU enlargement, which is based on the view that the fulfilment of the accession criteria, not political considerations, should ultimately decide whether a country can or cannot join the EU.

It’s all about the accession criteria

Finland has traditionally been principally supportive of EU enlargement, arguing that the accession process itself already acts as a strong driver for reforms. Both the Western Balkans and Turkey have in the past been mentioned by the Finnish government as places where the accession process has helped to trigger necessary reforms.

However, alongside its principal openness towards further EU enlargement, Finland has in recent years put a much stronger focus on the fulfilment of the accession criteria. According to the Finnish government’s 2013 report on EU policy, it is the accession criteria that should ultimately define the limits of EU enlargement: only states that are able to fulfil the accession criteria can and should become members.1212Prime Minister’s Office, Government Report on EU Policy 2013, (Helsinki: Prime Minister’s Office Publications, 2013), p. 57. In the same vein, the report stressed that speeding up the accession process due to political considerations is not acceptable. The same logic guides the thinking of the new centre-right coalition of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä; the only time EU enlargement is mentioned in its government programme is in a sentence that underlines the importance of strict compliance with the accession criteria.1313Prime Minister’s Office, Finland, a Land of Solutions – Strategic Programme of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s Government (29 May 2015). p. 35.

The Finnish position is rooted in a widely-shared view that the EU was not strict enough with Bulgaria and Romania, allowing them to join before they were ready to do so. The emphasis on the accession criteria is also in line with Finland’s recent emphasis on the EU as a rule-based entity, expressed most clearly in the debates about the euro crisis, which Finland sees as the result of a general disregard for the commonly accepted rules within the Eurozone. In addition, the Finnish position reflects the rather cautious attitude of the Finnish electorate towards EU enlargement. According to the Eurobarometer of autumn 2014, 58 percent of the Finns were against further EU enlargement, with only 33 percent being in favour.1414Euroopan komissio, Standard Eurobarometri 82, Kansalaismielipide Euroopan unionissa, Syksy 2014, Kansallinen raportti – Suomi, (Brussels: European Commission, 2014), p. 10.

Finally, the progress and merits of the individual EU membership candidates are seldom assessed in the Finnish media, although Turkey’s recent regression has been taken note of in Finland as well.

    Footnotes

  • 1M. Apunen, I. Haavisto, J. Sipola and S. Toivonen, Ken on maassa jämäkin? EVAn Arvo- ja asennetutkimus 2015 (Helsinki: Taloustieto Oy, 2015), pp. 76-77.
  • 2Prime Minister’s Office, Finland, a Land of Solutions – Strategic Programme of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s Government (29 May 2015). p. 37.
  • 3Prime Minister’s Office (2015), p. 37.
  • 4See e. g. Ulkoasiainministeriö, Suomen EU:n itäisiä kumppaneita sekä Keski-Aasia koskeva politiikkalinjaus (Helsinki: Ulkoasiainministeriö, 2015).
  • 5Prime Minister’s Office, Finland, a Land of Solutions – Strategic Programme of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s Government (29 May 2015). p. 35.
  • 6Ulkoasiainministeriö, Itäisen kumppanuuden huippukokous Riiassa 21.-22.5.2015. Tavoitemuistio (18 May 2015).
  • 7Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit (Riga, 21-22 May 2015).
  • 8See e.g. Virve Kähkönen, ’EU pitää etäisyyttä Luhanskin mummoon’, Helsingin Sanomat, 23 May 2015; Annu Marjanen and Hanna Anttila, ’EU:n itäkumppaneille lämmintä kättä’, Suomenmaa, 22 May 2015.
  • 9‘Politicians, govt divided over EU joint army proposal’, Finland Times, 11 March 2015; Yle, ‘Finnish politicos divided over proposed joint EU army‘, Yle Uutiset, 9 March 2015.
  • 10Prime Minister’s Office, Finland, a Land of Solutions – Strategic Programme of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s Government (29 May 2015). p. 35.
  • 11’EU:n pitää jättää ovi auki uusille jäsenmaille idästä’, Helsingin Sanomat, 23 May 2015.
  • 12Prime Minister’s Office, Government Report on EU Policy 2013, (Helsinki: Prime Minister’s Office Publications, 2013), p. 57.
  • 13Prime Minister’s Office, Finland, a Land of Solutions – Strategic Programme of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s Government (29 May 2015). p. 35.
  • 14Euroopan komissio, Standard Eurobarometri 82, Kansalaismielipide Euroopan unionissa, Syksy 2014, Kansallinen raportti – Suomi, (Brussels: European Commission, 2014), p. 10.

This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘Eastern Neighbours and Russia: Close links with EU citizens’ (ENURC) in collaboration with TEPSA (Trans European Policy Studies Association). The project focuses on developing EU citizens’ understanding of the topic of the Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia and aims at encouraging their interest and involvement in this policy which has an impact on their daily lives.

The EU-28 Watch project is mapping out the discourses on these issues in European policies all over Europe. Research institutes from all 28 member states are invited to give overviews on the discourses in their respective countries.

This survey was conducted on the basis of a questionnaire that has been elaborated in March 2015. Most of the reports were delivered in June 2015. This issue and all previous issues are available on the recently relaunched EU-28 Watch website: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives significant funding from the Otto Wolff-Foundation, Cologne, in the framework of the ‘Dialog Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and financial support from the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.