Among the peoples of Europe, the Finns have often been burdened with a reputation for dourness and pessimism. A sunny early-summer morning in Helsinki suggests that the image is curdling into anachronism. The country's victories in ice-hockey or the Eurovision Song Contest may be ephemeral, but they are also part of a wider political and economic success-story.
At least, that is how it can seem from the perspective of Helsinki's foreign-ministry buildings, housed in yellow, 19th-century Russian naval barracks with a dramatic view of the ice-breaker ships moored for the season in the city's harbour. The country as a whole is in good shape: the 5 million Finns have adjusted well to a post-cold-war world where its distinct position as a neutral state on the borders of the Soviet Union has been succeeded by confident partnership within the European Union; the pain and nationalist concern about the eastern Karelian territories lost to Russia in the border war of 1940 have faded; the economic uncertainty and mass unemployment of the 1990s, associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been overcome (and Russia is now Finland's second trading partner); the country's constitution has been successfully revised to transfer some powers from the once all-powerful presidency to the prime minister.
The entry into the European Union on 1 January 1995 was a historic turning-point towards an era of accommodation and openness in Finland's development. There is a widespread consensus on the issue, from President Tarja Halonen (re-elected in the January 2006 presidential elections) downwards. True, a recent poll found that 51% of Finns said they had negative feelings about the EU, and some in the political arena argue against membership; they include the populist rightwing Eurosceptic, Timo Soini, whose Perussuomalaiset (True Finns Party) won 3.4% of the vote in the elections. Soini is a self-proclaimed hairikko ("hellraiser") who represents an enduring current of nationalist and populist sentiment, but there is no significant body of opinion that challenges Finland's membership.
Finland's strong economy (including participation in the eurozone) means that the country will be able to concentrate largely on political matters when it assumes the six-month presidency of the European Union in July 2006 (after Austria, and before France). Much of this focus will be on the union's "external relations", including defence. This is true even though Finland unlike most of the east-central European states that acceded to the union in May 2004 has not joined Nato. A section of the foreign-policy and business elite favours joining Nato (and the conversion of the alliance into a global military force) but this prospect remains a step too far for a majority of the population.
Fred Halliday is Professor of International Relations at the LSE, and Visiting Professor at CIDOB, Barcelona. His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East
Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:
"America and Arabia after Saddam"
"Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects"
"An encounter with Mr X" (March 2005)
"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (July 2005)
"Political killing in the cold war" (August 2005)
"Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a 'marginal man'"
"A transnational umma: myth or reality? " (October 2005)
"The 'Barcelona process': ten years on" (November 2005)
"The United Nations vs the United States" (January 2006)
"Blasphemy and power" (February 2006)
"Iran vs the United States again" (February 2006)
"Terrorism and delusion" (April 2006)
"The forward march of women halted?"
"Letter from Ground Zero" (May 2006)
A European country
Finland's performance during its EU presidency will require care and tact in addressing the range of problems now besetting the union from the crisis of the constitutional process, divisions over the accession of Turkey, economic sclerosis in several key states, and disarray over Iraq and United Nations reform.
The rotating EU presidency is alchemy as well as science. Ireland was fortunate that its presidency ended in June 2004 with a major enlargement that expanded membership from fifteen to twenty-five states. By contrast, the British presidency of July-December 2005 was miserable: the aftermath of the failed referenda in France and the Netherlands dampened enthusiasm, Tony Blair's promises of "engagement" came to little, the prime minister's office played a key role in sabotaging the key tenth anniversary conference of the "Barcelona process" (which organises major dialogue between Europe and the middle east and the Arab world) in November.
At this juncture, the Finns appear calm and well-organised. Their EU priorities are twofold: stabilisation and improvement of economic relations with Russia, through an extension of the "participation-cooperation agreements" already in train. The hope is that these can be a vehicle to smooth relations made difficult by tensions over energy security and prospective Nato expansion into Ukraine.
The Finns are more able to speak openly about Russia than in cold-war times, but their very proximity to Russia and their foreign-policy elite's wide knowledge of Russia's language and domestic politics make them even more concerned about developments inside the country (as well as in the new EU states). The antagonism towards Russia (and Germany) of Poland's rightwing government is a particular worry. A major legal challenge would ensue if the Poles as they have threatened reintroduce the death penalty.
Finland is also intent on using the EU presidency to promote more active dialogue with the Muslim world and with the middle east. The country's long association with UN peace-keeping and diplomacy in conflict-zones is an asset here. Martti Ahtisaari is only the most prominent current figure in this regard; the former Finnish president (1994-2000) has applied experience gained in Namibia and Kosovo to his Crisis Management Initiative, which specialises in conflict-prevention, state-building and human-security projects.
The Finns are worried by the tensions between Europe and the Muslim world over Iraq and Iran, which (as with the Danish cartoon crisis) have a "domestic" as well as foreign-policy dimension: the presence of large migrant communities across western Europe means that even countries of the Baltic region are no longer insulated from the shockwaves of conflict in or relating to the middle east.
An astute Helsinki foreign-ministry expert provided a list of places where a serious crisis might erupt to which the EU presidency would have to respond: Cyprus, Kosovo, Congo, and Iran. Finland shares the concern of many other observers about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where Finland has a small contingent and where a revived Taliban is targeting western forces and foreign-aid workers with increasing efficiency.
A national legacy
Helsinki's new international responsibilities, and the opening of debate associated with the end of the cold war, have also encouraged the Finns to reflection on their own national past and inheritance. A century ago Finland, then part of the Russian empire, was the scene of a major democratic and nationalist upsurge, embodied in the achievement of a parliament and universal suffrage for women as well as men. The country has a long tradition of Scandinavian social-democratic decency, on issues of social equality, gender relations, and commitment to international institutions.
There is also a darker side to this story. After the first world war and the failure of plans to become independent under a monarch imported from Germany, Finland plunged into a civil war, eventually won by the anti-communist forces of General Gustaf Mannerheim (who later, 1944-46, served as president).
Mannerheim remains Finland's supreme national-popular hero of choice. But this very prominence causes unease among others; as does, from a different perspective, the memory of the close relations maintained during the cold-war era by President Urho Kekkonen (1956-1982) with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Finland is, indeed, one of four current members of the European Union that experienced civil wars in the 20th century (Ireland, Spain and Greece are the others). All have emerged from those wars with functioning democratic systems, but it is striking how long in each case it took for the scars to recede and (in so far as they have been even now) heal. Spain and Greece are both still to a degree affected by the bitter legacy of their violent pasts, and Ireland remains dominated to a considerable degree by the legacy of its even older war of the early 1920s.
Here, perhaps unexpectedly, a marked difference can be glimpsed with the record of several countries in the global south. In contrast to the long nursing of grievance, hatred and repression in Europe, some such countries have overcome their civil wars more rapidly and successfully. Nigeria, despite regional tensions and multiple other problems, is not riven by the legacy of the Biafra war of the late 1960s; Nicaragua and El Salvador are at peace; Oman and Yemen had left-right civil wars in the 1960s and 1970s but, with the application of some money and some political good sense, both reintegrated the losing (leftwing) sides into the national community.
There is no need to romanticise the non-European states to see that in this regard at least, democratic Europe might learn something from its non-European interlocutors. Perhaps this topic should be an item on a future European-middle east dialogue. The Irish, the Spanish, the Greeks and even the Finns could learn a thing or two.