Putting values at the heart of the EU presidency

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Members of Finland's new ruling coalition on their way to a press conference announcing the new Finnish government, Helsinki, 3 June 2019. [Photo: EPA-EFE/KIMMO BRANDT]

The goals of the new Finnish EU Presidency include a socially, ecologically and economically sustainable EU, the same priorities as its domestic agenda, writes Kaisa Penny.

Kaisa Penny is the director of the Kalevi Sorsa Foundation, a Finnish think tank and democracy support organisation.

The Finnish EU Presidency offers a chance to peak into the changed political landscape of the Nordic EU member states. Within a year, in Sweden, Finland and Denmark, social democratic parties have won parliamentary elections and formed governments.

It is a significant change in Nordic politics and the shift is also visible in the recently adopted priorities and goals for the Finnish EU Presidency.

The Presidency pretty much starts the mandate of a new government that was only formed in early June.

The elections in April highlighted similar dividing lines in society as many other recent elections across Europe. It wasn’t just a choice between ‘left’ and ‘right’, but also a question of conservative or progressive values and most of all a question of choosing populism and far-right or not.

The voters took multiple decisions on a single vote. The campaigns of the ‘traditional’ parties were fought over political programmes of stronger ideological stands, hence wider differences in economic and social policy than in a long time.

Social democrats were calling for a major shift in thinking on the economy, moving away from austerity to social investment and a stronger state.

At the same time the election was also a choice between the populist right – The Finns party – and their policies of conservative values, anti-immigration and limits to human rights; and liberal, Nordic policies of openness, human rights and progressive gender policies presented by the social democrats and, to some extent, by most of the other parliamentary parties.

The result was historically tight. Never before in Finland have the elections been won with less than 20% of the vote. But despite that, the government negotiations were surprisingly smooth.

It could be argued, that as the policy positions were so clearly and extensively debated during the campaign, there were not many surprises during the negotiations and hence the parties could concentrate on the most difficult issues efficiently.

The five-party government that was formed, together with the opposition of three parties, form fairly clear ideological blocs, even if bloc politics has not been the norm in Finland. The government is more value liberal, economically left and pro-climate change prevention.

Whereas the opposition of the two EPP members (National Coalition and Christian Democrats) and the populist Finns, are all economically right, conservative in values and more sceptical towards climate change or at least on the level of the action needed to combat it.

The change in government can be seen very clearly in the priorities and agenda for the EU Presidency. The government programme is built on the sustainable development goals, and they are also central to the Presidency priorities.

The moment is opportune, as the Union is starting the new parliamentary and Commission mandates, and a new work programme is to be adopted. Now is the time to influence the direction of the coming years. Yet, at the same time, the Union faces serious challenges on many fronts.

The rise of populism and the far-right, disrespect for the EU’s common values as well as rule of law from within, as well as climate change and its consequences, threats of cybersecurity as well as the rise of unilateralism and great power competition from outside, all put the European project at risk.

The Finnish Presidency programme starts from the idea that only by acting together and in defence of our common values we can protect the peace, security, stability, democracy, welfare and prosperity that Europe should be about.

If the elections in the Nordic countries can teach us something, it is that to protect democracy and inclusive, equal societies and to tackle populism, we need clear and ambitious policies.

Too often and for too long we have been thinking that if we either imitate the populists or say as little as possible to annoy as few voters as possible, populism will just fade away.

Instead, politics need to be bolder. We need an outspoken defence of the human rights and rule of law. We need concrete policy proposals for the citizens to choose from. And we need politics that can deliver. That takes vision and courage.

The Prime Minister Antti Rinne, when presenting the Presidency programme for the Finnish parliament, emphasised the need to start taking climate change seriously, not only in speeches but in concrete policies.

There is no time for “yes, but” politics, he said. That summarises what the Nordics are now trying to achieve more widely. It seems like the new governments are keen on bringing politics back to politics. And that would be a welcome change in the European political landscape as well.

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