Gains of True Finn party point to 'Euroskeptic' surge in Finland

Major gains by the nationalistic and socially conservative True Finn party are reshaping Finland's political landscape – and bringing skepticism about European Union values to the fore.

Fred Weir/The Christian Science Monitor
True Finn's party secretary who coordinates its political activities, Ossi Sandvik, is pictured standing in the group's Helsinki office.

Some call it a political earthquake that, in a single election, reshaped the landscape of Finland and put the European Union on notice that its days may be numbered.

A country of 5.3 million people tucked into Europe's forested northeast corner, Finland has been thought of as a well-adjusted EU member. But leaders of the insurgent True Finn party, which rocketed out of obscurity to win third place in parliamentary polls last month, say 16 years of membership in the "United States of Europe" has allowed Brussels bureaucrats to usurp Finnish sovereignty.

"Finns have been tolerant for too long, and now they've had enough," says True Finn party secretary Ossi Sandvik. "Finns don't go into the streets; they express their frustrations at the ballot box. Now the people have spoken, and changes must follow."

The True Finns blend nationalism and social conservatism with a left-wing populism that defies easy categorization. Tea party­ers might nod approvingly at some items in the True Finn charter, which identifies Christianity as a hallmark of Fin­nish­ness and rails against free immigration, easy abortion, same-sex marriage, and the "Islamization" of Europe.

One in 5 Finnish voters backed the True Finns and their charismatic leader, Timo Soini, reacting mainly against the rising cost of bailing out crisis-hit eurozone members like Greece and Portugal. But other resentments also emerged, including some Finns' anger over the influx of outsiders under the EU's open-border system and the consequent erosion of what True Finn leaders call "Finnish values." At the very least, the True Finns, which opted to go into opposition after other major parties backed the Portugal bailout, have brought "euroskepticism" roaring into the political mainstream.

Since Finland is the only EU country that requires parliamentary approval for participation in bailouts, and any such EU decision must be unanimous, the sudden surge of the True Finns is giving EU boosters a major headache and may have thrown Finland's support for future rescue packages into doubt.

"Greece and Port­ugal have been wasteful and dishonest, and Finns resent these demands to give them more money," says Simon Elo, head of the True Finns youth movement, which has been inundated with applications to join since the election success.

He says the party, which made opposition to the Portugal bailout the centerpiece of its campaign, expects to be proved right in the long run. "We don't want people to say, 'Finland was to blame for bringing down the euro....' Anyway, we believe the [eurozone] system will collapse by itself, and our duty is to prepare Finland for life after the euro. Eventually, we want to take Finland out of the European Union."

Finland, once one of Europe's poorest countries, has fared well since the collapse of the USSR 20 years ago freed it from the tough strictures imposed on it by Moscow after World War II. After joining the EU in 1995, Finland's exports of electronics, forest products, and high tech took off. But the global economic crisis hit hard, punishing many small industrial towns and leaving lingering unemployment that's still more than 8 percent.

"The eurozone crisis came like a wake-up call for the populist movement," says Tapani Makinen, editor of the pro-European Helsinki newsweekly Nykypaiva. "We have an export-based economy, and the euro has provided stability. But our economy is small, and it's extremely vulnerable to shocks. Many structural changes are happening as a result of the crisis; people feel that normal life is threatened, that danger is just around the corner."

While US conservatives might find common cause with the True Finns, they would recoil at demands for a stronger social safety net and government regulation to equalize incomes of rich and poor.

"People have been divided into haves and have-nots, and we are the party of the have-nots," says Mr. Sandvik. "The right to a socially just life, determined by good values, belongs to every Finn."

The recipe combining left and right agendas is shared by a few other Nordic populist movements, including the Danish People's Party, which won nearly 14 percent of the vote in 2007 elections by tapping into an anti-immigrant backlash while backing the country's generous welfare system.

But across most of the Continent, rising euroskeptic parties generally combine a xenophobic message with contempt for the welfare state. There's Geert Wilders's Party of Freedom in The Netherlands, France's surging National Front led by Marine Le Pen, and Italy's regionalist Northern League.

The True Finns say they have little interest in the wider picture, only in restoring Finland's independence. "After all, empires always end badly, as did Rome and the USSR," says Mr. Elo. "That will happen to the EU as well, because it's a misguided piece of history."

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