Finland mulls over its eurozone future

Finnish capital city Helsinki Finland has taken a tough line on euro bailouts

"The Euro or Not?" That was the question posed by the front page of a recent edition of Finland's leading news magazine, Suomen Kuvalehti.

It continued: "Finland's return to the markka [the national currency before the Euro] is not impossible."

Finland, it must be said, is not the obvious candidate to head for the exit.

There is certainly no external pressure on Finland to quit. Why would there be?

By some measures its government finances are stronger than Germany's. Finland is a small but important contributor to the resources the eurozone has set aside for bailouts of struggling countries.

The pressure on Finland's commitment to the euro is from domestic politics.

'Fat cats'

The figurehead for the country's Eurosceptics is Timo Soini, the leader of a party known in English as the Finns.

(The literal rendition of the party name - Perussuomalaiset - is Basic Finns, but it works better in Finnish than in translation.)

The party has been around since the mid-1990s, but it made big gains at last year's parliamentary election.

Leader of the Finns Party, Timo Soin Leader of the Finns Party Timo Soin

It came third, with 19% of the vote, trailing the Social Democrats by the narrowest of margins.

That success owed a lot to the party's key policy on the euro - "no" to the bailouts of countries such as Greece and Spain.

I met Timo Soini in a cafe in Espoo, west of Helsinki, where he has his home and his constituency.

In addition to telling me about his fondness for Millwall Football Club (English football is popular here, though Millwall, it must be said, is an unusual choice) he said: "It is not for the Finnish tax payer to pay for the mistakes of the fat cats of the banks and politicians from the south."

When I asked him if he would rather Finland were outside the euro, there was a pause and then he said: "This kind of eurozone cannot function."

He sees three possible ways forward. Some of the southern countries could leave, or Finland and others such as the Netherlands could go.

The third option is a Federal Europe with joint debt and Eurobonds. That, he says, "is absolutely what I don't want".

Committed

There is some support for quitting the euro from within the political mainstream.

It comes from a former foreign minister, Paavo Vayrynen. who is an elder statesman of one Finland's most established political forces, the Centre Party.

But it is a divided party. It is also the political home of the man who is arguably the most pro-euro Finn on the planet - Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner in charge of Brussels' response to the crisis.

So just how seriously should we take this discontent in the eurozone's most northern member?

The bulk of the country's political establishment is committed to the euro.

European Commissioner Olli Rehn Olli Rehn is determined to hold the eurozone together

Last month Finance Minister Jutta Urpilainen was reported to have suggested that Finland could consider leaving. Vigorous denials followed.

I spoke to a senior member of parliament from the same party, the Social Democrats, who reinforced the denial.

Miapetra Kumpula-Natri chairs the Parliamentary Grand Committee on European Affairs. She says the finance minister was misinterpreted. Finland is fully committed to the euro, she says, adding that it has been good for the country.

The mainstream of Finnish business is pretty keen too.

Jussi Mustonen, head of Economic Policy at the Confederation of Finnish Industries, told me his members welcomed the low and stable interest rates and inflation, and the ease of doing business in a single currency.

He says there would be many dangers in leaving, notably that a Finnish currency would probably rise and harm the country's competitiveness.

He says he has heard nothing to suggest the organisation's members think it an attractive option. "It's almost totally out of the picture," he says.

'Growing importance'

But Teija Tiilikainen, director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, says the rise of Timo Soini's Finns party has affected the government 's position on responses to the crisis.

Finland has taken a tough line on the bailouts by, for example, demanding collateral and resisting intervention in the bond market by the bailout agencies.

She told me that "to some extent the tougher policy line reflects the growing importance of the Finns".

She also thinks Finland will find it very difficult to support solutions that involve more European integration.

Nonetheless she does not see Finland giving up the Euro. Europe more widely is an important part of Finland's post-cold war identity.

After being in a difficult position between East and West, she says "the whole political self-understanding of Finland and the Finns has been strongly based on our membership of the EU".

This all underlies the point that dealing with the crisis is as much, or even more a political challenge than an economic or financial one.

On Finland specifically, I'll stick my neck out on one point.

If the euro does fragment, I don't think Finland will be the first heading for the door. But Finnish concerns will make it harder to do what could, for good or ill, keep the eurozone in one piece.

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