Finland's parliamentary elections will barely rock its EU presidency

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Teija Tiilikainen
Teija Tiilikainen

Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Teija Tiilikainen is the Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and Editor-in-Chief of Ulkopolitiikka, Finland’s leading international relations journal.

Starting this July, Finland will be at the helm of the European Union for the third time since it gained membership. Its Council presidency will inevitably be influenced by the post-election re-organisation of the EU institutions and the key nomination procedures this entails. The agenda will be dominated by issues relating to the EU’s multiannual financial framework, migration and border management policy, the ongoing rule of law processes with Poland and Hungary and, of course, Brexit. Finland will also launch the implementation of a longer-term strategic agenda that will be adopted by the European Council over the course of its meeting in June.

It will be the second time the Finnish EU Presidency takes place in the immediate aftermath of national parliamentary elections. This year, the campaigns took an unexpected turn as the ruling centre-right coalition of Juha Sipilä resigned just one month prior to the elections, scheduled to take place on 14 April. The decision was affected by a steep decline in the popularity of the three coalition parties, reflecting the political and constitutional difficulties that arose as they attempted to tackle one of the most salient issues – social and health reform.

The government’s lack of consensus over this reform only served to strengthen the political opposition led by the Social Democrats and the right-wing Finns Party. By discarding the divisive and unpopular proposal they had initially advocated, the coalition parties hoped to revamp their image and regain the popularity that they had lost.

A cross-party consensus on European integration has now returned to Finnish politics

With regards to the ‘Europe question’, which was at the heart of heated disagreements during the economic crisis, a cross-party consensus on European integration has now returned to Finnish politics. Most of the leading Finnish parties share the same positive approach to European integration. Even the traditionally Eurosceptic Finns Party, has opted to focus on immigration, rather than on Europe. This is most likely due to the overwhelmingly positive public opinion on the issue. Nevertheless, it is still unclear whether the Finns Party would be guaranteed entry into any of the coalition groups emerging from the elections.

If the Social Democrats were to lead the coalition, they would be granted leadership of Finland’s EU policy for the first time in 16 years, since the pivotal premiership of Paavo Lipponen. The current party leader, Antti Rinne, still lacks Lipponen’s European profile and his party’s position on EMU-related matters have become less integrationist than during the Lipponen years (1995-2003).

At an EU-level, it would make little difference whether the Social Democrats choose to form a coalition with the rural Centre Party or the conservative National Coalition Party. The latter would be slightly more palatable to an EU audience, given that its constituencies are more unified behind EU issues as opposed to the Centre Party, whose mandate is still influenced by farmers’ initial Euroscepticism. Meanwhile, the possible smaller coalition parties, such as the Greens and the liberal Swedish People’s Party, are almost federalist in tone.

Ultimately, the Finnish Presidency is unlikely to be affected by a change in the parliament’s political complexion

While the domestic consensus on Europe will help with a smooth launch of the Finnish EU Presidency, it is important to factor in the deep-rooted parliamentary scrutiny of EU affairs. Parliamentary committees have the authority to assess the government’s mandate in dealing with EU issues. Through this mechanism, the input of opposition parties is also key. Ultimately, the Finnish Presidency is unlikely to be affected by a change in the parliament’s political complexion, given that most parties agree on the broad goals of Finnish EU policy and equally view the EU as an effective and valuable institution.

The main thing that will change will be the personal level of political leadership. Taking the leap from a position of political opposition to one of Council presidency leadership is by no means a small feat, even in a country with a long history of firm parliamentary involvement in EU affairs. Fortunately, actions undertaken by Finland at the start of its EU membership created an efficient system of national preparation and coordination of EU policy. This laid a foundation that will enable new leaders to navigate the EU with ease, regardless of the current challenges.

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