In the ever-evolving atmosphere that is post-Brexit Europe, any changes in leadership of major parties across EU Member States could have knock on effects for Brexit negotiations. On Sunday it was reported in Helsingin Sanomat – the major national newspaper in Finland – that Timo Soini, Leader of the Finns Party and Foreign Minister of Finland, would not seek re-election as party leader at the next party conference in June in Jyväskylä. Soini made this announcement on his personal blog and will be stepping down after 20 years as party leader. The reason this domestic development in Finnish politics may be of interest in the context of the Brexit negotiations is the potential for it to change the composition of the government altogether, or at the very least bring a more vocally Eurosceptic and anti-immigration voice back into government and the foreign ministry.
On the morning after the EU Referendum vote I was surprised to go on Finnish news outlets and see Timo Soini, a man who’s tagline used to be “wherever the EU is, that is where the problem is” talk about the need for the EU to come together and cooperate to make the best out of the decision the British public had made, as well as emphasising that punishing Britain would be a “no-go” and a lose-lose for all. This statement itself is not particularly interesting or new: it is the tagline heard from governments all over Member States towing the line of EU unity in the face of change. However, it is significant to hear it from the leader of a prominent Eurosceptic party who most may have expected to celebrate Brexit as the opening of a new path to seek a Finnish referendum on EU membership.
In light of declining polls for the Finns Party, there may be incentive for the new leader to depart from Soini’s more conciliatory and EU friendly tone and adopt a more Eurosceptic and anti-immigration stance in the hope of recovering support prior to the next General Election. This could even go as far as walking out of the current coalition government and triggering an early General Election. Support for the Finns Party in the polls has plummeted since they joined the government in 2015. In the latest Helsingin Sanomat poll from February, support for the Finns Party was at 9.1 %, down from 19.1% in 2011 and 17.7 % in 2015, the last two General Elections. The new party leader is likely to signify a departure from Soini’s vision of a party of the working class and instead see the rise to power of the even more Eurosceptic wing of the party, with Sampo Terho, Chairman of the Parliamentary Party Group, announcing his candidacy yesterday morning.
The Turkulainen newspaper reported Terho has already announced that as party leader he would seek to introduce the possibility of a referendum on Finland’s EU membership in the next party manifesto and take a tough line on immigration. Anti-immigration candidate Jussi Halla-aho MEP has also formally announced he will enter the contest and will be Terho’s main challenger. Halla-aho is known for criticising Finnish and EU immigration policy and has stirred controversy with statements made in his blog: in 2012, he was sentenced by the Finnish Supreme Court and given a 400-euro fine for breaching the sanctity of religious worship and inciting ethnic or racial hatred in a blog post he wrote in 2008. As with many of the elections across Europe in 2016, the Finns Party’s leadership contest sees a similar dynamic between a candidate preferred and chosen by the party elites in Terho, and a candidate popular with the party membership in Halla-aho.
A country that was touted as an early ally for the UK after David Davis’ meeting with Soini in February, Finland could in fact quickly turn into a much more challenging companion. Regardless of who wins the Finns Party leadership contest, the likelihood of the party being in the next coalition government is low in light of current polling. However, were the new leader of the party to walk out of the current government and trigger an early election, this could see the Social Democrat Party rise to power and they certainly won’t take Soini’s attitude of not seeing a “contradiction in providing the British with full access to the Single Market even if you don’t want freedom of movement.” On the other hand, if the new leader does decide to stay in coalition with the two centre right parties it currently governs with; it may seek to take Finland down a more Eurosceptic path where the Party’s interests of restricting immigration may coincide with British aims more and deliver the promised alliance.
The change in the Finns Party leadership and the effect this will have on the political landscape in Finland serves to highlight how fragile the alliances the UK manages to strike before negotiations begin can be. If there was to be an early General Election, the Finnish government could change its direction and the groundwork Davis has laid with Soini fall into irrelevance. With a constant game of musical chairs taking place on the opposite side of the negotiating table, the UK negotiating team has its work cut out.