Finland’s close vote on the EU recovery fund should serve as a warning

"Prime Minister Sanna Marin" by FinnishGovernment is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Next week, the Finnish Parliament is going to vote to ratify the legislation required to get the EU recovery fund going, as the governing coalition is struggling to avoid a collapse over domestic spending. It promises to become a close vote, now that the “National Coalition Party” or “Kokoomus” (EPP), which is in opposition, has pledged to abstain, instead to support the legislation.

In the end, the whole thing may get passed, after some drama, but it’s important to see how close votes like this have become, certainly knowing that Kokoomus is strongly pro-EU.

If only a few Kokoomus MPs would vote against, the required two thirds majority may fail to materialise.

The trouble is that a two thirds majority of those MPs either voting for or against the package is required.

If out of 200 Finnish MPs, for example 35 Kokoomus MPs would abstain – which would mean a few of them would vote against, that means a two thirds majority of the remaining 165 MPs is required, or 110 MPs.

The Finnish leftwing government coalition can calculate on the support of 117 MPs. However, some may not be able to turn up to vote, a few will apparently deviate from the way the government wants them to vote, the Parliament’s Speaker won’t vote and perhaps more Kokoomus MPs will come out and vote against.

Eurocrats are concerned. According to Finnish public broadcaster Yle, an EU official has warned Finnish PM Sanna Marin (picture) that Finland would suffer “unprecedented damage to its reputation” if it doesn’t ratify the EU decision to borrow €750bn to finance the EU “recovery fund”, as this would mean that the whole structure would collapse, while also affecting the EU’s multiannual budget.

Finnish business leaders are now urging politicians to support the package.

According to Finland’s parliamentary finance committee, which advises on ratification, Finland’s “political credibility” may at stake, as not going along with the EU flow would endanger its chances to receive support if it would need any and may reduce goodwill if it needs support from other member states whenever things are decided with qualified majority.

With respect for the esteemed members of the finance committee, but that is not how things happen at the EU level. Almost ten years ago, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy infamously obtained a bailout for Spanish banks after threatening with financial havoc, while Greece has been playing the same game three times, running away with billions of euros – even if somehow many experts considered this to be a great loss for the country, given the strings attached. Last year, Hungary and Poland played hardball on the rule of law mechanism, managing to kick it into the long grass. Last but not least, as an example of how going along with the EU flow is not very EU-like, France has never even pretended to pursue anything other than what it considers to be the French national interest, blatantly ignoring EU budget deficit rules for years. For those in doubt, former EU Commission chief Juncker once confirmed the European Commission gave France leeway on this “because it is France.”

Of course, it is true that it is in Finland’s national interest to maintain cordial relations with other EU member states and that the open trade framework of the European Union does bring great benefits to the Finnish economy.

That does not mean Finland should just accept anything cooked up by eurocrats.

Why should Finland – as a “net payer” to the new “EU recovery fund” scheme – have to accept all kinds of policy instructions in return?

Should past experience with EU transfers not raise major concerns on whether this money will be spent well, whether it will support organized crime and cronyism, and whether it will actually deliver economic benefits?

How wise it is to force divergent EU democracies together through jointly issued debt, instead of through trade, which was the original way in which the EU attempted to bring Europeans together?

Those are all legitimate questions and “no” to this new spending and borrowing scheme may be a legitimate answer that Brussels would simply need to accept.

Of course, a fudge may be around the corner. Kokoomus has already suggested it may change its stance on abstaining, depending on the precise content of the report of the Finnish Parliamentary Committee, perhaps because of the caveat the Committee today issued that “Finland must not commit itself to measures that change the EU in the direction of an income transfer union.” Such an embarrassing u-turn would however confirm opponents of the scheme about their fears of loss to national democratic control. In the past, ignoring democratic disgruntlement has come to haunt the EU in growing Euroscepticism, most notably ending in Brexit.

Last month, former Finnish Eija-Riitta Korhola MEP, who has served several terms as an MEP for EPP-partner Kokoomus, is a genuine supporter of the EU project and a Brussels insider, declared she no longer wants to run for the party, because of its permissive stance on the EU recovery fund. She is strongly opposed to the fund and calls it “the most significant change in EU policy to date”, also alleging that the NGEU scheme “violates” the EU Treaty. She calls Kokoomus’ decision to abstain “an evasion of responsibility.”  

It’s important for people in EU policy circles to reflect on this. When votes are so close and moderate proponents of EU integration are turning against these blatant steps towards a full-blown EU transfer union, it’s a sign things have gone too far.

Apart from the Finnish Parliament, the whole “New Generation EU” borrowing and spending scheme may still be torpedoed by the Dutch Senate, at the end of this month, while more lawsuits are forthcoming at  the German Constitutional. The opposition is there, and it will not relent. It will probably fail to stop this scheme, but it will fuel popular opposition. 

Perhaps, if Finnish MPs would do the dirty work for the whole of Europe, and opt to reject the whole thing, the European Commission should come out and simply thank them for steering the EU back on the right path, after it had been diverted, due to the Corona panic. But let’s not hold our breath for that.