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Finland: wearing two hats

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This article originally appeared in The Circle, WWF’s quarterly Arctic journal, issue 01.16. See all articles here. Previous issues of The Circle can be downloaded here.

Finland is a member of both the EU and the Arctic Council. It is an active participant in the European integration project – the process of industrial, political, legal, economic, social and cultural integration of states through the European Union. TIMO KOIVUROVA says although Finland is a “small actor” in the EU, he writes that this country has – with some success – played its “northern card” to pursue its own interests and policy goals while encouraging the EU to pay more attention to Arctic issues. Koivurova is a director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland, Finland. His expertise includes Arctic legal & governance questions, environmental law & Indigenous rights.

The Northern Lights above Saariselka, Northern Finland. © Global Warming Images / WWF-CanonThe Northern Lights above Saariselka, Northern Finland. © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon

FINLAND JOINED the EU in 1995 after a referendum which saw nearly 57% of Finns supporting membership for mainly commercial and political reasons. Most of Finland’s trading partners were located in EU member states. Finland was recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Nordic banking crisis in the early 1990s, and EU membership can be seen as a natural evolution of Finland’s foreign policy. Since the 1950s, foreign policy decisions have been cautiously – due to the delicate relationship with the Soviet Union – but consistently establishing ties with Western intergovernmental institutions, culminating with EU membership. It was also significant that Finland, Norway and Sweden decided to pursue EU membership at the same time. Finland had strong international co-operation with the Nordic states prior to EU membership with especially good economic and social ties with Sweden.

Finland has been generally supportive towards deepening the role of the EU as an economic and political union. Compared with other Nordic states, Finland has clearly been the most EU-minded. It is the only Nordic country that joined the monetary union, adopting the Euro as its currency while Sweden and Denmark remained outside of the Eurozone.

Norway and Iceland have ties with the EU through the European Economic Area Agreement, but Norway has twice rejected EU membership while Iceland has ended its membership negotiations, which commenced after the island nation was struck by the banking crisis.

In the last two decades, major political parties in Finland have favoured EU membership, with the exception of the populist Finns party, which is currently in government. The Finnish people have also been fairly supportive of EU membership although those critical are often unhappy with the extensive range of EU legislation regulating many aspects of Finnish economic and social life.

What, then, is the influence of a small Nordic country on this pan-European regulatory framework, now crucial for Finland? A member state’s influence in the EU is, to a great extent, based on how the country actually pursues its policy goals and interests in the Union. Finland is considered to be fairly active. Finns emphasize efficiency and openness of decision-making and they have a reputation of implementing EU legislation in an effective manner.

Finland also has a strong track record as an active participant in Arctic cooperation. Finland proposed and led the initiative to launch the 1991 Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) between the eight Arctic states. This strategy was later adopted by the current Arctic Council. However, while Finland has significantly contributed to the work of the Council, it is not a major player in Arctic politics compared with Arctic Ocean coastal states and especially major Arctic powers such as Russia, Canada and the United States.

Finland attempted to merge these South-Western and Northern policy directions through the successful proposal of the Northern Dimension policy for the EU. Since 2006, the Northern Dimension has been resuscitated as a joint policy between the EU, Iceland, Norway and Russia.

Finland has also been very supportive of making the EU an Observer at the Arctic Council. The EU’s increased presence and funding could support Finnish policies and socio-economic needs, including research, maritime governance, the development of Europe’s northernmost regions and Finnish stances on Arctic climate change and environmental conservation.

There are no real tensions or contradictions arising from Finland being a member of both the EU and the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council’s influences largely comprise scientific assessments and guidelines and the co-operation does not entail any legally binding obligations. However the Arctic Council has recently catalysed two legally binding agreements between the eight Arctic states on search and rescue and oil spill response. More are likely for the future.

Therefore, the EU institutions need to make sure that any legal obligations are in accordance with what Finland and other EU members have committed themselves to in EU law. So far, no problems are apparent given that both new legally binding agreements are based on existing global treaties that are already part of EU law.

However, if the Arctic Council were to transform from an intergovernmental forum into a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with legal decisionmaking power – a scenario Finland proposed in its 2013 Arctic strategy for the Arctic states to seriously consider – there would need to be clearer understanding of possible member states’ duties to co-ordinate their Arctic policies within the Arctic Council and to pay attention to the duties set out by the EU’s legal system.

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