Timo Soini, 48, is standing in front of “Hesburger,” a fast food restaurant in the western part of Helsinki. It is shortly before 10 a.m., and he is waiting patiently for the restaurant to finally open its doors. Soini, the chairman of the right-wing populist Perussuomalaiset, or “True Finns” party, has been giving interviews for almost three hours. There are more than 250 new text messages on his mobile phone. Now he’s hungry.
It is the morning after an election that brought what the papers have called a “revolution” to Finland. Almost one in five voters voted for Soini’s party on Sunday, April 17, and now it looks like it is about to become part of the new government. A political earthquake is happening in Helsinki, one that could have reverberations throughout Europe.
Until now, the small country in the far northeastern corner of the continent was seen as a model member of the European Union. It was known for its successful export-oriented companies, liberal social policies and the best-performing school students in the Western industrialized world. It is ironic that it is here in Finland–a part of Europe that always seemed eminently European–that a movement is now coming to power that inveighs against immigrants and abortions, considers Brussels to be the “heart of darkness” and rejects all financial assistance for what it calls “wasteful countries,” like Greece, Ireland and Portugal. “We were too soft on Europe,” says Soini, adding that Finland should not be made to “pay for the mistakes of others.”
The election result from Europe’s far north has alarmed the political establishment in Brussels. If Soini’s party becomes part of the new government, there will be more at stake than Helsinki’s traditional pro-European stance. The entire program to rescue the euro could be in jeopardy, because it has to be approved unanimously by the entire European Union. That includes both the anticipated aid for Portugal, the additional billions for the euro bailout fund and the planned reform of the fund. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt calls the Finnish election results a “reason for concern,” while Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former head of Germany’s pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and former German foreign minister, warns: “The outcome of the elections is a warning sign.”
Gaining Ground Across the EU
As a wave of skepticism about Europe sweeps across the continent, the political elites in the continent’s capitals are reacting precipitously and inconsistently. To neutralize the populist movements and score political points at home, European leaders are seeking conflict with one another, arguing about such issues as accepting North African refugees or participation in the Libya mission. Markus Ferber, a member of the European Parliament for Germany’s conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), warns that solidarity among European countries is waning, a situation he calls “extremely dangerous.”
The successes of right-wing populists could indeed exacerbate the smoldering euro crisis. Tensions between the wealthy countries in the north, who are contributing most to the bailouts, and the ailing debtor nations in the periphery already threaten to destroy the monetary union. If a European version of the American Tea Party movement develops, it could very well become the kiss of death for the euro.
The risk is substantial, as euroskeptics gain ground across the EU. In Denmark, the xenophobic Danish People’s Party has supported a center-right minority government for almost 10 years. In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte is dependent on the goodwill of right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders, who, with his tirades against Islam and the EU, captured 15.5 percent of the vote in the country’s last parliamentary election. In Sweden, the nationalist, anti-European Sweden Democrats crossed the 4-percent threshold to gain seats in the parliament, the Riksdag, and in Italy Umberto Bossi’s xenophobic Lega Nord, or Northern League, is even part of the government. Although the party is primarily active in the north of Italy, it is the third-strongest party on the national level.
Only in the core European countries of Germany and France has opposition to the EU long been restricted to marginal groups. In both Berlin and Paris, a strong commitment to Europe has traditionally been considered part of the national interest and was something that transcended party lines.
Appeal for Ordinary People
But that too could change, especially now that the True Finns have demonstrated in Helsinki how to achieve double-digit election results with nationalistic posturing. In Germany, the euroskeptics are trying to take over the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), and in France the nationalist right is eyeing the country’s highest office.
Marine Le Pen, daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, is in the process of putting the fear of God into the country’s traditional parties. She wants to shed the image of a racist, extreme party established by her father. As a politician, she appeals to middle-class and blue-collar workers, because she is young and wears jeans, and seems less aloof than the traditional elites that dominate politics in France.
Le Pen wants a strong social welfare state and fewer immigrants from Islamic countries, and she is adamantly against the European Union. She argues that France should withdraw from the euro and reintroduce the franc because the euro, as she says, is already on its way out. If Le Pen had her way, Europe would soon have trade barriers again and a “moderate protectionism” to secure jobs.
Her party’s showing in regional elections last March speaks for itself. The National Front achieved 15 percent in the first round of voting, even though it was not even on the ballot in the entire country. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, only managed to capture two percentage points more than the National Front.
According to opinion polls, Le Pen could even beat Sarkozy in next year’s presidential election, which would result in a runoff between her and the expected Socialist candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In addition to being an embarrassment for the French political establishment, it would be a warning sign for the EU, which is becoming more and more unpopular among its citizens.
German Movement Against Euro Rescue
Enthusiasm for the EU has also declined in Germany. An anti-Brussels movement called “Liberal Awakening” has developed within the FDP, once a strong advocate of European unity. Its leader is Frank Schäffler, a boyish-looking former insurance agent who is a member of the German parliament. “We see ourselves as a grassroots movement,” he says. “We are infiltrating the FDP from below.”
There was already criticism of the euro in Germany, mainly from the political right, before the European single currency replaced the deutschmark in citizens’ pocketbooks. But Schäffler wants nothing to do with that line of argument. His criticism of the euro and the government’s crisis management stems from classic liberal convictions about the constitutional state and democracy. He wants the German parliament, the Bundestag, to be making decisions about government finances, and he cites the European treaties that forbid an EU member from taking on the debts of other countries.
But the first year of overcoming the euro crisis has produced precisely the opposite outcome, Schäffler complains. “We have pledged two-thirds of the federal government’s tax revenues to cover the national debts of other countries–without the Bundestag being required to approve the issuance of loan guarantees and without a firm basis in the European treaties.”
Schäffler was long viewed as a maverick that the party leadership could easily dismiss as a troublemaker. But now his support is growing. Traffic to his website has quadrupled recently, and gone are the days of his being marginalized in the Bundestag.
FDP Rebels Could Cause Problems for Merkel
Like Schäffler, fellow FDP member Wolfgang Gerhardt, a former party chairman who supports a unified Europe, has also come to believe that it is “simply outrageous that the German government’s representatives in Brussels make commitments without so much as consulting the members of the German parliament.”
Schäffler plans to make his move at an upcoming FDP convention in the northern city of Rostock. He and 11 other Bundestag members have drafted a motion that contradicts government policy in almost every respect. Schäffler and his fellow combatants are demanding that banks and other private-sector lenders be involved in the euro rescue program, and that member states that do not satisfy the monetary union’s stability requirements be given the option to withdraw. Schäffler also wants the German government to pressure the European Central Bank to stop buying up the bonds of debt-stricken countries in the future.
Schäffler’s foray could create problems for Chancellor Angela Merkel. If members of her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, join the FDP renegades, the CDU/CSU and the FDP (who together make up Merkel’s coalition government) will lack the necessary majority in the Bundestag to approve the new euro crisis fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). One CDU member of parliament, the budget policy expert Klaus-Peter Willsch, has already joined the ranks of the FDP rebels.
Schäffler already feels strong enough to demand changes from FDP leaders. “It isn’t enough just to replace the party leadership,” says Schäffler. “The FDP also has to score points in the cabinet with new appointments. If we want to implement liberal objectives in tax policy or in the euro rescue program, we have to appoint the finance minister.”
Helping to Shape Policy
Although it is not very likely that anti-euro politicians like Schäffler or Le Pen will soon be shaping government policy in their countries, they have already changed the political climate in Europe.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, is reacting to his political competition on the right when he pursues certain populist policies, such as deporting Roma to Romania or having a train carrying Tunisian refugees stopped at the Italian border.
The German chancellor has also proved to be open to views critical of the euro. Partly because of resistance from the FDP, Merkel had the European bailout funds amended several times, and additional corrections are in the works. To curb discontent within the coalition partners’ respective parliamentary groups, the German government wants to demand more of a say for national parliaments at the upcoming negotiations over the ESM.
From Helsinki to Rome to The Hague, the anti-Brussels parties can make the dubious claim of already helping shape policy on the continent today. Out of fear of right-wing populists, European leaders are behaving like right-wing populists themselves–and driving Europe further and further apart as a result.
Split over Europe
This could also happen in Helsinki, where the three parties that are trying to form a government have different positions when it comes to Europe. While Euro rebel Soini wants to change the conditions of aid for Portugal and the euro rescue fund, the leader of the conservative National Coalition Party, Jyrki Katainen, supports the European agreements. “The changes cannot be very significant,” says the designated prime minister. The aid package for Portugal, says Katainen, is in Finland’s interest and is “essential” for economic stability. “The Finnish government’s position must be to solve problems and not create new ones.”
What remains unclear, however, is the extent to which Katainen can rely on the Social Democrats, which, as the second-largest party, will also be part of the new government. Former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, a Social Democrat, helped make Finland the model European country it is today.
His successor as party chairman, Jutta Urpilainen, has a different agenda, which could still become a serious threat to all of Europe. Urpilainen seems determined to take a leaf out of the right-wing populists’ book, especially following the recent election result.
When it comes to the conditions for the euro rescue, she says, the Social Democrats are “more closely aligned with the True Finns than with the conservatives.”