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Viewpoint – Europe: Debate Over the True Nature of the ‘True Finns’

Submitted by on May 20, 2011 – 2:36 pmNo Comment

Timo Soini leader of the 'True Finns' party.

Finland’s growing nationalist party, the True Finns, have been put in the spotlight by their bid to block the European Union’s €78bn bailout of Portugal. While they were unsuccessful in stopping their country from backing the rescue package, they did succeed in grabbing the headlines all around Europe, many of which were concerned about their far right policies.

The ‘True Finns’ charismatic leader, Timo Soini, is broadly against Europe and seems opposed to immigration. Their manifesto at the last election carried a broadly anti-immigration tone, saying that “basic Finnish immigration policy should be based on the fact that the Finns should always be able to decide for themselves the conditions under which a foreigner can come to or reside in our country.” This has lead to allegations of xenophobia against Soini.

Although most European commentators seem to agree that Soini and his party support far right policies, the reality is far from clear. Despite Soini’s stance on immigration, he has not publicly joined other right-wing groups in attacking homosexuality and Islam. And in Finnish parliament, in which the party picked up 39 seats in the general election with 19 per cent of the vote, ‘True Finns’ actually sit in the centre-left under their seating plan.

There is now a debate over their true nature. Asked whether the ‘True Finns’ are on the far right, one party member Pekka Sinisalo, 42 a teacher and an assistant to a ‘True Finn’ member of the European Parliament, said: “No, not at all. We are like a Labour Party, but without socialism.” Samuli Virtanen, another ‘True Finns’ member was quite surprised at allegations that the ‘True Finns’ are on the extreme right. “If I look at the party’s agenda, I can’t find any reasons for those allegations. For me, it is actually too close to the centre and quite left wing, even.”

So how do they explain, for example, the party’s anti-immigration stance? Mr Virtanen says that the Finnish immigration policy is currently “the most generous in the world towards newcomers” and that “people have been exploiting the Finnish benefit system”. Mr Sinisalo says that the True Finns are not against foreigners, but “immigrants profit from the benefits our country offers without earning them and that is not fair.”

A Finnish civil servant who works in the European Parliament, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she would not be too concerned if the ‘True Finns’ came to power, even though she does not agree with the way they see things “from such a narrow angle”. She said: “Although they have negative views on immigration, for example, they are not the same kind of right-wing parties as in other countries. They are not as radical and right-wing as you would expect.”

Mr Virtanen believes the party’s growth in support is directly related to the fact that “Finnish people are fed up with the current political elite”. He said that this has been brought on by allegations of corruption against the main parties, the Centre Party and the Social Democrats. “People don’t trust politicians anymore, they want to see some change in the Parliament”, Mr Virtanen added.

He also argues that the Finnish government has been very pro-European for years and that, now that the EU is in financial crisis, Finland needs “a more critical point of view towards it”. “I wouldn’t say the ‘True Finns’ are against the EU, and we have to acknowledge that, in some cases, it’s doing a marvellous job. The direction towards a federal Europe is what bothers us.”

Another one of the core party messages is nationalism, with the party wanting to abolish compulsory Swedish in schools, for example. Mr Virtanen says that “Finnish nationalism is very modest and quite low profile compared to other EU countries” and that the party’s goal is merely to stop Finnish people from being “ashamed of their identity”. Mr Sinisalo goes further by saying that more nationalism is “a good thing for Finland”. He adds: “We are not too nationalist, like Nazi Germany, we are just proud of our culture.”

Talking about the reasons behind the ‘True Finns’ opposition to bailing out Portugal, their leader Timo Soini wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “At the risk of being accused of populism, we’ll begin with the obvious: it is not the little guy who benefits. He is being milked and lied to in order to keep the insolvent system running.”

Mr Virtanen stands by the party’s point of view: “I don’t think we are helping Portugal with that bailout; instead, we are helping banks, investors and share holders in the bigger member states, such as Germany, France and even the UK. A bailout just buys more time, it does not actually solve the problem.”

As for the future, only time will tell whether the ‘True Finns’ quadrupling of  its vote in the last election signals its arrival as a permanent political force in the country and in the EU. The Finnish EU civil servant said the party’s popularity should not be overestimated. “They have benefited from the circumstances during the political and economic turmoil we are going through, but people will calm down.”

Even party member Mr Virtanen believes that the “True Finns’ need time to get used to political everyday life. But he also says that Finland inevitably needs change: “The main big parties are not able to do the work anymore. We should give the ‘True Finns’ a chance and not judge them before they show us what they can do.”

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