Tuesday 3 November 2009

Finland vs Britain: Pride and Prejudice?

Take a look at Finland, a small Nordic country with a population of 5.3 million, a member of the European Union only since 1 January 1995.

Most Finns are tickled by the fact that enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn (centre party, European liberals) has been mentioned in international media as one of the candidates to become the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and that media speculation about the president of the European Council has included former prime minister Paavo Lipponen, former president Martti Ahtisaari and current president Tarja Halonen.

The social democrats, the main opposition party, criticises the government for not doing enough to trumpet the virtues of the potential presidents (all social democrats; S&D at EP level).

The centre and centre-right government tries to play down expectations. Even if the individual candidates have real merits, Finland is but one small part of the European Union, and there are fewer offices than candidates...

In the unlikely event that a Finn would be (s)elected to one of the EU’s top jobs, most people in Finland would take some pride in their country being able to offer able candidates for international posts and for their contribution to the common good.


I imagine that the situation is fairly similar in most countries. There is a natural patriotism at work, not only in sports, but in other areas as well. The political class is conscious of both status and influence gained through international posts. Popular feeling and rational conduct converge, giving cause to national pride.



The United Kingdom has the third largest population among the EU member states (60 million), and it joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973.

Still last week, former prime minister Tony Blair, the Labour government’s candidate for the presidency of the European Council, was widely seen as a favourite, until his candidacy hit a wall. If the high representative is to be picked among European socialists and social democrats, these have rolled out the red carpet for UK foreign secretary David Miliband (but the signals from Downing Street 10 are highly contradictory, with regard to this potentially more important job).

Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, in the shape of shadow foreign secretary William Hague, has proclaimed to the EU member states that the (s)election of the Briton Blair would be a hostile act towards the conservatives (Britain). (Miliband was not in the headlines as a candidate at the time, but I have seen no supportive statements from the conservatives later.)

Practically nobody is accusing the Tories of betraying the interests of the country. On the contrary, with voting intentions at 42 per cent, the Conservative Party has a 17 point lead over Labour.

There is little popular support for a British candidate, either. According to a fresh opinion poll, 53 per cent of respondents are against the nomination of Blair and 48 per cent oppose the (s)election of Miliband (The Telegraph, 31 October 2009).


Pride and Prejudice?

I have repeatedly said that I understand those who oppose Tony Blair as a failed European, with a legacy of “red lines” and opt-outs. Neither did I appreciate the effort to subvert the Lisbon Treaty, by turning the chairman-president of the European Council into the illusion of a traffic-stopping “President of Europe”, despite the obvious lack of executive powers to fill such a role.

But, in questions of national importance and interest such as these, I am mystified by the lack of understanding across party lines from the probable next government party, and I am confounded by the lack of “natural patriotism” among Britons for British candidates and influence in European affairs.

Cheerfully abandoning your national interests and feelings must spring from deep motives, hard to fathom for an outsider.

Can anyone explain the wellsprings of pride and prejudice?

Ralf Grahn


  1. You shouldn't be mystified, you half answer the question yourself. The UK is 60 million people, split between at least 5 national identities (but arguably more), and is ethnically, socially, politically and even linguistically diverse. There is no "natural patriotism" anywhere - but attempts at UK patriotism are particularly artificial. We don't have a single football team, a single cricket team, we have a different national anthems. We have different TV and radio channels. We come together for the Olympics and that's about it.

    Would you expect say a socialist Catalan to line up behind a Conservative candidate from Madrid because there is a "natural Spanish patriotism"? I wouldn't.

    You can reverse the argument, that actually the Finnish coming together behind a candidate purely on the basis of the happenstance of where he or she was born is the odd stance. It is arguably the less European stance: to put your presumed and ill-defined "national interest" ahead of the interests of Europe. Why should a international businessman from say Espoo voting for Kookomus and wanting free trade in a common market be impressed to have a Finnish commissioner from a party with the central aim of maintaining agricultural subsidies for its rural constituency? You need a cosy (and perhaps as we have seen this summer rather incestuous and dysfunctional) national political class to ignore such fundamental questions. I feel over the years Finns have been flogged all sorts of crap on the basis of "it's Finnish, so it must be good". A bit more critical analysis wouldn't go amiss.

    If it was William Hague being put forward for a high profile role in the EU, I - as a Brit - would be against him as I think it would be bad for Europe and indeed bad for the UK. I'm not a Tory so I think they're wrong, but I understand their position.

  2. Toby,

    Even if you eliminate the other constituent parts of the UK, leaving only England, I still find the discussion equally fascinating as confounding.

    In a democratic European Union, more would move along party political lines, but the EU is still primarily a club of member states, and party political differences tend to recede into the background in questions perceived to be of national importance.

    Paradoxically, the new top jobs are carved out to strengthen intergovernmental cooperation within the EU, something the Tories are supposed to prefer.

  3. I still think that Finland might be more of the exception here, although perhaps not in the EU if this is a small versus large state thing. I agree that if it was just the 50 odd million people of England, you would still get splits on party grounds, but that isn't something particularly English. Look at the US, plenty of Republicans didn't want Chicago to get the Olympics because Obama had gone to bid for it and it would be a win to him. Same phenomenon.

    Any decent IR course these days will get to 'deconstructing' the idea of the "national interest" in the first term. The term might actually still make some sense in Finland, but that's more to do with social democratic (small 's' and 'd'!) hegemony, where across the parties there is actually relatively little difference on domestic policy - Kokoomus are more 'nu-Labour' than they are Thatcherite.

    The Finnish body politic has moved on since the Finlandisation times, but Kekkonen's ghost still haunts these kind of discussion. Coalition governments further amplifies the idea of the enforced consensus and not stepping out of line (but there is political hay to be made by those who do - as Soini and his gang have shown). You could probably even argue that Finland's consensus politics comes out the of horror of the red/white division up until WWII. The UK has no comparable experiences - we have never agreed with ourselves over anything!

    Labour and the Conservatives do not agree what is the national interest, therefore they are not going to agree on who would be best at asserting those interests.

  4. Toby,

    Well, the US you mention as an example is also a country with a toxic political atmosphere, when you look at the systematic Republican campaigns against the Obama administration.

    On the other hand, I am sure that political relations are horrible in a number of smaller countries, too.

    I broadly agree with what you say about the national interest; it is most often government propaganda and protection of special interest; not one of my favourite expressions.

    On the other hand, this blog post came closer to the world of sports than others I write, and I do think that compatriots tend to forget petty divisions on wider arenas.

    Suffocating consensus is still part of the Finnish political culture, you're right, but biting the nose to spite the face may not be the best way forward.


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