Why Finland never joined the frugal four

Recent signs that Finland has joined the “frugal four” are overstated, but one member of the group may well be its closest coalition partner.  


Photos of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin at the special European Council meeting in July were studied carefully in Finland. With whom was she sitting? With the “frugal four”. What was happening? Was it a sign of a policy shift?

Had Finland parted company with Germany and aligned itself with Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark – known as the frugal four due to their relative lack of generosity in the European Union’s response to the covid-19 crisis – this would indeed have signalled a major change. From the very start of its EU membership, Finland has sought to remain close to the steady German position. But was the recent relaxation in German views about EU finances too much for Finland?

The question matters because Finns do not take coalitions lightly. On the contrary, it is an old habit for them to quickly dismiss rumours that Finland is joining a fixed bloc. Reference groups matter, but what worries Finns most is the possibility that outsiders will perceive Finland as part of the “wrong” reference group. This is why Finland made an effort to downplay its close links with other Nordic countries when it joined the European Union, and was careful not to be seen as one of the Baltic countries when they applied for NATO membership.

Thus, it came as no surprise that the prime minister needed to explain her choice of seating. While the frugal four were already welcoming Finland’s support, Marin joined other meetings too. During these discussions, she denied having joined the frugals. She said that Finland was not part of any established group, but forged partnerships with different countries on different issues (as reported in Helsingin Sanomat on 20 July).

This is how Finnish leaders usually explain Finland’s approach to coalitions or cooperation with other EU members. And the new edition of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ EU Coalition Explorer seems to confirm this.

The Coalition Explorer contains a fascinating panorama of contacts and like-mindedness between EU member states. It seems to confirm Finland’s flexibility in forging coalitions on various issues.

Finland engages with coalitions in a wide range of policy areas. Yet, while it has numerous and quite balanced links with other member states on fiscal policy, only a few countries see Finland as a partner on foreign policy.
(Change policy area by clicking on the drop-down menu on the top left corner.)

The Coalition Explorer confirms that Germany, as Finland’s biggest trading partner and a leader in the EU, continues to be central to Finnish policy.

But Finland’s closest partner might be nearer to home. Finland not only contacts Sweden as often as Germany, but also sees Sweden as being among its foremost partners in almost all policy areas. There is a particularly striking level of reciprocity in Finnish-Swedish perceptions and contacts, clearly exceeding that between Finland and Germany.

Finland not only contacts Sweden as often as Germany, but also sees Sweden as being among its foremost partners in almost all policy areas.

This is the case even though there are significant overall policy differences between Finland and Sweden:  Finland stands out as more supportive of deeper EU integration than Sweden. Both, however, place climate change, the rule of law, and the common market in their top five issues. The two countries appear to maintain close contact with each other across the board – in what is perhaps an example of a “coordination reflex” (as the EU foreign policy literature calls it).

Overall, the Coalition Explorer paints a surprisingly positive picture of Finland as a potential coalition partner. The country’s high level of responsiveness to other member states is particularly noticeable. Indeed, Finland ranks as the fifth most responsive country in the EU – and as the seventh most influential too. The concept of responsiveness may be somewhat open to interpretation, but a country with this trait is one that takes initiatives seriously and studies proposals in a constructive way. These are, no doubt, useful elements of a well-functioning, multi-directional coalition policy.

Different policy domains call for different partners and coalitions. The Coalition Explorer accounts for this by showing which countries often look to Finland but are rarely perceived as its coalition partners, such as Ireland and Latvia. Could it be that the potential of these two countries was somewhat hidden behind the United Kingdom and Estonia respectively in the Coalition Explorer’s depiction of Finnish relationships?

Finland stands out in its prioritisation of the rule of law. This area – whose importance has grown rapidly, helped by the Finnish presidency of the European Council in the latter half of 2019 – has become a central part of Finnish EU policy, albeit in a somewhat unnoticed manner. The shift seems to have particularly annoyed Hungary, which ranks Finland among the countries it views as most “disappointing”. If an emphasis on the rule of law becomes part of Finland’s policies and goals for the EU in the long term, this may call for the country to join new coalitions. The foremost candidates for such a coalition are the other EU countries that place the rule of law among their top priorities: Luxemburg, Malta, the Netherlands, Spain, and – of course – Finland’s neighbour, Sweden.

Hanna Ojanen is an ECFR Council Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and an Adjunct Professor at the Finnish National Defence University.

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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