Helsinki at the helm: How Finland could lead reform in Europe

Finland’s presidency of the EU this year may turn out to be more reformist than many expect – including even Finland itself

The hotseat beckons once more for Finland this July as it takes over the presidency of the European Council for the third time. The government here in Helsinki, however, has been relatively cautious about what it is preparing. Big branding efforts for the big six months are nowhere to be seen. This is partly down to Finland’s status now as an ‘old’ member state; a sense of routine has set in and the country feels no need to make a splash like first-timers might.

Behind the rather middle-of-the-road priorities generated so far, two big ideas lurk

One reason for this is the parliamentary election this month, whose results could well lead to long drawn-out coalition negotiations. And these talks may in fact take place only after the European Parliament poll at the end of May, bleeding right into the presidency itself. Steady as she goes is the dominant feeling: there is to be no Brexit-style political chaos radiating out into European Union affairs.

Some of this is newly native-born: despite its political stability, what is now different from the last time Finland took the helm is the domestic consensus on Europe. Now, different voices, including nationalist ones, make the music: populist tunes lead political parties to stress the national interest and what is in it for Finland, rather than speaking about the future of Europe. For this reason we are unlikely to hear much about deeper integration – and certainly not about greater spending.

To ensure a smooth transition, a parliamentary working group last year proposed three priorities for the presidency. These were: “Citizens at the centre”, “Getting to grips with climate policy”, and “A stronger Europe, a safer world” – things which pretty much any governing constellation could sign up to. Indeed, what the presidency eventually settles on could well be a clutch of priorities that sound positive, agreeable to most, and which lack strict timeframes in which to achieve them. If Finland’s is a technocratic presidency rather than one seeking to convey a ‘vision’, this may not be a bad outcome, at least for Finland. Sparkling ideas and innovative programmes are not always its forte. Finnish administrations respond well to tasks set them; though they are often rather good at them too.

Still, Finland may yet surprise everyone. Behind the rather middle-of-the-road priorities generated so far, two big ideas lurk that may mean the presidency makes an significant impact. One is a retro kind of touch – a bid for more “openness and transparency” in how the EU operates; which sounds rather 1990s, back when Finland and Sweden joined the EU. The other idea is for the EU to wield its budget power to bring member states into line on issues contravening fundamental values.

On the first, the Prime Minister’s Office has already said that Finland aims to: increase openness and transparency in the activities of the Council of the EU; strengthen the implementation of better regulation principles; and promote the use of new technologies.

More concretely, Finland is aiming to increase how public the Council’s legislative documents are. At the Council meetings during the Finnish presidency, “the discussions between ministers will, as far as possible, be public”, the Prime Minister’s Office states. Moreover, information on the meetings of the heads of Finland’s Permanent Representation to the EU will be made public. And, in the spirit of the European Transparency Initiative, the heads of the Permanent Representation will only meet representatives of organisations included in the transparency register. Before the start of the presidency Finland will consider whether similar practices could be applied to ministers when serving in the capacity of Council chairs.

The second idea concerns strengthening the EU’s power over its own members. This would come in the form of using financial tools to bring member states into compliance on particular matters. In a speech to the European Parliament on 31 January the Finnish prime minister noted that Finland warmly welcomed the Commission’s Multiannual Financial Framework Rule of Law proposal and was looking to establish a mechanism to this end. This is a proposal for a regulation from 2018 about “protecting the Union's budget in case of generalised deficiencies as regards the rule of law in member states”. These deficiencies could include: endangering the independence of the judiciary; failing to prevent, correct, and sanction arbitrary or unlawful decisions by public authorities; and limiting the availability and effectiveness of legal remedies. The Commission could, if it finds such generalised deficiencies, resort to the suspension or reduction of payments from the EU budget to member states. It could also prohibit member states from entering into new legal commitments.

All this could amount to significant changes in how the EU operates and how its constituent parts relate to each other. They would underline the inner cohesion of the union and the importance of respect for its most important principles and values. And, as far as Finland itself goes, despite early reticence, what started out as a quiet build-up to an old familiar ritual may yet turn into something that makes it a leader in the post-Brexit era for Europe. Integration and spending matters may find themselves less out of scope than even the Finns initially thought and, in fact, at the heart of the reforms they steer.

Hanna Ojanen is member of the ECFR Council and Adjunct Professor (Docent) at the University of Helsinki. For more on power relations between the organisations, see Hanna Ojanen, The EU’s Power in Inter-Organisational Relations (Palgrave 2018).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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