As austerity cuts enrage a mild-mannered nation, the political ground becomes even more receptive to extremism

Though Finland is geographically at the periphery of Europe, over the past few years it has sought to stake a more central political role.  There has been closer engagement with NATO, but Finland will be remembered most for the hardline position it took on the Euro crisis in Greece, matched only by former communist EU members, in demanding draconian austerity to reign in the Peloponnese.  Ironically, as Finland’s economy continues to hit the skids, the government in Helsinki struggles to impose public sector cuts on its own people.

The effective demise of former telecommunications colossus Nokia and sanctions and counter-sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine lacerating trade with Finland’s large neighbour, has led to an economic bind which successive governments have been unable to solve.  The current centre-right coalition administration, fragile after several years of political instability as lawmakers, struggled in the adverse economic climate and finally took the bold step of overriding traditional collective bargaining between unions and employers by unilaterally imposing cuts to workers’ overtime pay (such as Sunday shifts), holidays and sickness benefits.

The ideology of austerity still holds strong in Europe, where a country’s finances are still erroneously compared with that of a domestic household making cutbacks to manage.  The USA, admittedly with the help of the mighty dollar, took the opposite approach to refloat the economy, with governmental spending and guarantees, thereby returning to growth a lot faster.  That, however, is anathema to many politicians in northern Europe who grew up allergic to debt.

Finland has been in worse straits before, not least after World War Two, when it made enormous efforts to fund the reparations to the USSR, which were subsequently revised upwards by Moscow, all without the help of Marshall Aid to avoid annoying the Soviets.  Yet to the Kremlin’s frustration and bemusement, Finland paid with everything on schedule, negating a pretext for intervention.  But the problems facing Finland today are more nebulous and less easy to define than by merely citing its former overlord.

Even in a country as mild-mannered as Finland, the unions were not going to surrender simply to the government’s diktats and flexed their muscles on the 18th of September. A rally outside Helsinki’s Central Railway Station was held, drawing 30,000 and a nationwide strike of 300,000 people (just under 10 per cent of the total Finnish labour force) accompanied it, closing railways, harbours and paper mills, and disrupting schools and airports.  The rain did not deter the protesters in the nation’s capital, who were typically orderly.  Opposition leader, Antti Rinne of the Social Democrats, warmed the crowd with rousing words: ‘The economy has not been well, but it will not recover by force, it requires cooperation’.  The Confederation of Finnish Industries estimated that the one-day strike cost the economy €100m.

In strained circumstances, protests can be darker and more disturbing.  A former British Ambassador, Matthew Kirk, said in 2003 that because Finland was so monocultural, it was not racist because it did not understand what it was to be so.  With the controversial Tintin in Africa widely available and a brand of teacakes labelled ‘N*****’s Kiss’, these were examples of alleged naivety rather than malice.  The recent migrant/refugee crisis combined with economic stagnation has allowed extremists to come to the fore.

On the 25th of September, outside a reception centre in the southern town of Lahti, between 30 and 40 demonstrators, one wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit, waved the Finnish flag and hurled abuse, stones and even fireworks at a bus carrying asylum seekers.  At a reception building in another southern town, Kouvola, a petrol bomb was lobbed straight at it.  No-one was injured and the government was quick to condemn the racist protests but it exposed a virulent and unpleasant strain, out of character with the stereotypical Finnish placid nature.

The Prime Minister, Juha Sipilä, offered to take in refugees at his home, drawing a sharp reaction from the anti-immigrant Finns Party, the second largest political party in the Finnish Parliament, claiming it would encourage more people to come to Finland who would fall into the clutches of human traffickers.

Finland is the only European Union country to abstain on relocation of refugees and will take 2 per cent of the total 130,000 identified by the EU.  So far in 2015, the number of asylum seekers is more than triple that for all of 2014, with about 500 refugees per day crossing Finland’s Arctic Circle land border with Sweden.  The town of Tornio in the far north saw protestors forming a ‘human wall’ at a reception building and calling for the border with Sweden to be closed (under Schengen, there are no border checks).

Irked by seeing several protestors at Tornio and in other demonstrations wearing the national ice hockey kit, the national team was moved to tweet officially: ‘Attention fans: Can we agree that hockey shirts belong in the stands and not at demonstrations’.  Whatever anti-immigration activists wear, these protests will not be ending anytime soon, even as the harsh winter draws in.