Deal and no deal with nurses' unions

I present to you the likely number one political issue in the country for the next several weeks:

The Union of Health and Social Care Professionals (Tehy) rejected an offered labour contract with Finnish municipalities on Saturday, paving the way for a possible strike. On Thursday the other main nurses' union, SuPer, approved the deal.

The PM is not amused:
Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen called the Tehy nursing union's rejection of the local authorities' final contract offer "regrettable" but reiterated that the government would not offer any more money to raise municipal wages.

He said that tax cuts planned over the next few years would have to be cancelled if all wage agreements are as high as those reached so far.

My non-expert feeling is that Tehy's strike will flame out without any significant improvement in the offer. The deal they've been offered is relatively good, they reportedly don't have the money to withstand a long strike, and many of their fellow nurses who are represented by SuPer will keep working. On the flip side, they have the public opinion on their corner, at least on the outset, and the political pressure on the government will quickly become high.

The National Coalition Party might be wishing right about now that they'd never have emphasized the issue of nurses' pay during the election campaign like they did, because it threatens to come back to bite them and the government in a spectacular way. They didn't promise the infamous 500 euros, but it's still entirely reasonable to blame them for doing their part to set nurses' expectations unrealistically high. The opposition, meanwhile, will be doing what they can to support those expectations.

In conclusion, there's plenty of room here for both the government and Tehy to suffer some injuries.


Democracy on test

As a part of the Finnish Parliament's centennial celebration, it published a 12-part book series on the history of the Parliament. I've been reading what to me seemed like the most interesting part of the series, Kansanvalta koetuksella ("Democracy on Test"). The book is divided into three sections: Vesa Vares deals with the years 1907-1919, from the birth of the unicameral parliament to birth of the republican constitution, encompassing the second period of Russification and the Civil War. Mikko Uola writes about the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on political extremism from the left and the right. Mikko Majander writes about the so-called "Long Parliament" of the war years and the first post-wars election. It would have been nice to include another chapter on the post-wars years that would have assessed the impact of Soviet influence and addressed all the Kekkonen-centric wrangling.

I recommend the book if you're interested in the topic and can read the language. The authors are fair and informative and despite the Parliament-commissioned nature of the publication, they don't shy away from controversial topics. I also appreciated the numerous large historical photographs and other illustrations. For example, the reproduction of a 1919 drawing of Mannerheim in full military regalia riding the lion from the coat of arms (page 133) is pretty wonderful. Note carefully the lion's happy expression. The National Coalition Party's and Patriotic People's Movement's joint election poster from 1930 on page 225 is also some kind of a classic. ("Remember: Socialism is communism's brother.") I'm also partial to the 1920 photograph on page 157 in which Kullervo Manner, Yrjö Sirola, the Rahja brothers, and a few other Finnish communists in Moscow are studying a big map of Finland.


Centre sour on EU sugar decision

Yesterday in Parliament, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen criticized the EU commission in unusually harsh terms:

[Vanhanen] strongly criticised the European commission for what he said was an unfair reform of sugar production in the EU.

Mr Vanhanen said during question time in the Finnish Parliament that the commission had failed to be impartial and to take into account Europe's diversity.

He added this would no doubt affect Finland's opinion of the commission.

Startlingly, the prime minister did not even attempt to dress the issue as some sort of defensive victory, saying point-blank that Finland had lost in the negotiations.

Vanhanen needed to show his displeasure with the decision just for the sake of party morale. Agricultural subsidies are a huge issue for the rural Centre Party rank-and-file.

Although I don't like the Centre's pro-subsidies position, on this particular question Vanhanen and Agricultural Minister Sirkka-Liisa Anttila (Centre), who was also very critical of the decision, have a point about fairness. Finnish farmers already cut sugar production by 40 percent during the previous phase of reform. Now farmers in other countries which didn't do what they were supposed to do are being rewarded with higher incentives to stop production.


World chart domination

I don't mind a bit of boosterism, but YLE got carried away when it titled its article on the new albums by Nightwish and HIM as "Finnish Metal Bands Poised for World Chart Domination". Evidence of this poise:

The new album by Finnish rock band HIM has entered the US album chart at number 12 [...]

In Europe's largest market, Germany, HIM's album Venus Doom rose to number three in its first week on the chart. [...]

Last week, the two metal bands made Finnish rock history by scoring the top spots on the British rock singles chart.

Not the main singles chart, mind you. The rock one. By YLE's standards, SaiPa is poised to dominate Finnish hockey.

Note to foreign readers: SaiPa is not poised to dominate Finnish hockey.


CIA, friend of Finnish social democracy

Mikko Majander has the goods:

The US Central Intelligence Agency began to fund Finland's Social Democratic party in the latter half of the 1940s, according to a book launched Tuesday by Mikko Majander, a Finnish historian. [...]

According to Dr Majander, 1949 was a key important watershed in the official US approach to Finnish politics as it marked the time when the Americans became convinced, thanks to the suppression of a Communist-led strike movement, that Finland had not turned into a Soviet satellite. The US viewed the SDP as the only significant force capable of keeping communism in check in Finland.

That the KGB funded the Communist Party is well-known and it stands to reason that the other side didn't stand pat. Still, it's good to have proper research on the subject.

The choice of parties is interesting. I'm fairly certain that the National Coalition Party also received funding, but the Social Democrats seem to have been the CIA's favorites, perhaps due to their battle with the Communists for the control of the labor unions.

I wonder, does this mean we can credit the CIA for the welfare state?


Tanks for the memories even if they weren't so great

When a Hummer just isn't big enough, the Finnish military has you covered:

The Finnish Defence Forces attracted buyers from across the world when it auctioned about 20 decommissioned armoured vehicles at a depot in Ruovesi.

[...] All three Sturmgeschätz vehicles fetched more than 100,000 euros.

[...] Most of the tanks sold on Tuesday were British-made Charioteers and Comets, most of which were bought by Finland in the 1950s.

Olli Toivonen from the Finnish capital region got his hands on a Charioteer for 8,200 euros.

In possibly related news, the Ministry of Finance is working on car tax reform:
Currently most car owners pay a vehicle tax of 130 euros a year. Under the planned model, the owner of a small car with low emissions would pay 50 euros.

The fee for cars with a 1.6 litre engine would be 100 euros, for a two-litre diesel engine it would be 85 euros; an urban SUV would be somewhat more expensive. The owner of a four-wheel drive SUV with a large petrol engine would be hit with an annual 325 euro car tax.

I assume a tank would fall in a similar tax bracket.

aLwNGL gets results

Back in May I wrote about the animated political satire Itse valtiaat, advising the producers to get rid of one "Loka" Laitinen as a scriptwriter. Today I read in the paper that when the show continues after a summer break with a new episode next weekend, it'll have a new Loka-less team of writers. Clearly this is a coup on par with getting Dan Rather fired. Blog power!


Money for nurses

I've been critical of the opposition's approach in the debate over government action to improve nurses' pay. It's worth noting, though, that whatever the merits of their case, what they're doing makes political sense:

Some 55 per cent of the Finns interviewed by market research company Taloustutkimus for Tampere-based daily Aamulehti said nurses deserved a bigger pay rise than other municipal workers, while 35 per cent of the respondents felt they did not.

[...] About two-thirds of the respondents were of the opinion that the nursing unions' wage demands were acceptable.

Many respondents were not impressed by the government's actions in the municipal wage affair, with an overall mark of 2.27 on a scale of one to five.

Those figures don't look too good for the government. One wonders if this issue is behind the recent drop in support for government parties.


Cronberg opposes joining NRF

Green League chair, Labor Minister Tarja Cronberg said (fi) at a party council meeting that it would be beneficial for Finland to stay out of the NATO Response Forces. She thinks joining the forces would probably increase the pressure to take part in operations that Finland hasn't chosen itself. It's a reasonable point and, I suspect, one that we'll be hearing more often once the NRF decision becomes timely. President Tarja Halonen has also pointed out (fi) that Finland wouldn't be involved in making the decision to start an operation. This makes the NRF different from e.g. the EU Rapid Reaction Forces.

Cronberg also pretty much accused of Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva and Defense Minister Jyri Häkämies of being on their hands and knees in front of Washington. Her comparison to the old days of Finlandization is a bit off-base. The United States just plain doesn't care about Finland enough to try to influence the country's foreign policy debate to the extent the Soviet Union used to do. Further, the domestic point scoring has gone both ways: against pro-NATO folks for having a bit too warm relations with the US and against anti-NATO folks for not being in Washington's good graces.

It will be interesting to see how the Greens react, should the government come down on the side of joining the NRF.


This month's party support polls

Helsingin Sanomat published the latest poll (fi) from Suomen Gallup. The two big government parties, the National Coalition Party (22.6%) and the Centre Party (22.5%), have lost a little support, resulting in the worst combined support for government parties since the election. They're still barely ahead of their election day support.

Earlier this month YLE published a poll (fi) from Taloustutkimus. It also showed the Coalition losing some support, but the Centre gained there. Support for the government parties as a group was flat.

CP   NCP  SDP  LA  GL   CD  SPP TF  gov  source
23.1 22.3 21.4 8.8 8.5 4.9 4.6 4.1 58.5 PE 3/18
23.0 24.1 20.7 8.2 9.4 4.5 4.4 4.5 60.9 TT 4/5
22.8 23.3 21.1 8.4 8.9 4.5 4.3 4.9 59.3 SG 5/20
23.4 23.3 20.8 9.0 9.6 5.0 4.1 4.4 60.4 RI 5/25
22.4 23.4 21.7 8.4 10.1 4.7 4.1 4.3 60.0 TT 6/9
23.0 23.2 21.5 8.3 9.0 4.3 4.2 5.0 59.4 SG 6/26
22.8 23.9 21.2 8.5 9.3 4.7 4.4 4.3 60.4 TT 7/2
22.3 23.6 21.2 8.5 9.4 4.6 4.5 4.7 59.8 TT 8/13
22.7 23.2 21.6 8.1 9.4 4.7 4.5 4.6 59.8 TT 9/9
22.5 22.6 21.5 8.4 9.0 4.6 4.6 5.0 58.7 SG 9/22

CP = Centre Party
NCP = National Coalition Party
SDP = Social Democratic Party
LA = Left Alliance
GL = Green League
CD = Christian Democrats
SPP = Swedish People's Party
TF = True Finns
gov = government parties
PE = parliamentary election
TT = Taloustutkimus / YLE
SG = Suomen Gallup (TNS-Gallup) / Helsingin Sanomat
RI = Research International Finland / MTV3

Non-allied Sweden

Occasionally Finnish NATO boosters warn of the consequences of Sweden joining NATO while Finland stays out. Our neighbors to the west are seriously thinking about it so we should too, is the general suggestion. Earlier in the week, apropos of Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt leaving out the word "non-allied" from the foreign policy section of a speech, Jacob Christensen had this to say on the topic:

Sweden hasn't been in any military alliance since - well - time immemorial and joining an alliance has been a complete no-no in Swedish politics since 1945. As a leading politician, you're not even supposed to declare that you are not considering joining NATO because just making such a statement would endanger Sweden's non-aligned status. On the other hand, according to critics and political opponents, failing to make the ritual confession to non-alliance amounts to endorsing some kind of military cooperation with - the horror, the horror - NATO.

[...] Sweden isn't a member of NATO and in the real world, NATO membership isn't even a non-issue on the political agenda.

Based on that description, it seems that Finnish politicians, at least on the right, more openly support NATO membership than their Swedish counterparts do. In Finland there are many leading politicians, including several ministers, whose NATO position is that they're personally in favor of membership, but consider joining to be politically unfeasible at this time. I wonder if such beasts exist within Sweden's centre-right government.


Super ministry to the rescue

The new Ministry of Employment and Industries - or Labor and Business, or whatever the final translation will be - will come into being (fi) next year. Trade and Industries Minister Mauri Pekkarinen (Centre Party) and Labor Minister Tarja Cronberg (Green League) held a little press conference to introduce the new ministry's organization (fi). In summary, quite a few people will be working there and a lot of money will go through the place.

As to the motivation for setting up the new ministry, Cronberg explained that currently unemployed people and work that needs to be done don't meet, but Mauri and she will change all that now that everything related to the process is under one roof. All that remains to be seen is whether they'll fix the problem by eliminating work or the unemployed.

From a party political standpoint, this is a bit of coup for the Centre. Pekkarinen, to be called the Minister for Industries or something like that, will be in charge of distributing a great deal of dough that's related to regional development. This is particularly desirable for the Centre as its support is quite regionalized. The project probably isn't entirely about patronage, but I'd be very surprised if that angle hasn't been considered at Centre party headquarters.

In other news, Pekkarinen revealed that he would have liked to have called it the Economy Ministry. He was puzzled why that name wasn't picked. (Because it's pompous, Mauri.)


Boring budget debate

The Parliament is debating the budget and YLE televised several hours worth of it yesterday. It wasn't pretty. The Finnish News Agency reports a small detail:

A fire alarm rang out in the middle of the preliminary budget debate. Paavo Arhinmäki (left) quipped that the alarm had been triggered because "so many election promises are being burned".

Good one, Paavo.

But really, there was extremely little that was newsworthy in the debate. Both sides are repeating things they've been saying ever since Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen presented the draft budget.

The opposition is still very invested in the idea that the National Coalition Party and party chair Katainen in particular have broken election promises, e.g. the one about improving nurses' pay. The problem with their case is that the government is in fact offering to give money to improve pay equality pretty much according to the scheme the Coalition outlined before the election.

Making the opposition's flailing all the more frustrating to watch is that the Coalition's scheme hasn't worked out well in practice. Alas, since the Social Democrats bought into it before the election, now they're apparently unwilling to offer a critique of the idea itself. (I'd elaborate, but I'm hoping to get another post out of the topic when the interpellation vote is held.)


Foreign policy non-leaders

There's a slight difference of opinion in the weekend's papers on the topic of who is (not) leading Finnish foreign policy. Ilta-Sanomat arrived at the conclusion - based on the word of anonymous politicians - that President Tarja Halonen (Social Democratic Party) is out of the loop. Meanwhile IS's more respectable older brother Helsingin Sanomat published a piece (fi) - based on the analysis of anonymous experts - that Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) is quiet and submissive toward Halonen.

That leaves the National Coalition Party, which provides Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva and Defense Minister Jyri Häkämies. The problem with that theory is that when there's disagreement, for some reason decisions keep going against the Coalition's wishes. Most notable of course is that Finland's not joining NATO any time soon, in contrast with the "personal opinions" of leading Coalitionists. Even setting a timetable for joining NATO Response Forces seems like a difficult endeavor. A minister repeating the word "Russia" three times doesn't magically give him the keys to the republic.

I think this is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. Back in the day when the Coalition was in the opposition, criticism of how there's no foreign policy debate was commonplace. Now that the party's in the government and its politicians say some of the same things they said during their opposition days, we suddenly have a foreign policy debate. That of course proves the people in charge aren't really in charge, because if they were, what accounts for all this debating going on?


Suicide is out

Despite the efforts of beautiful girls who only wanna do you dirt, the suicide rate in Finland has dropped by about 40 percent from the 1990s. Aapo wanted to see more coverage of causes for the drop. It took a while, but the AFP is on the case:

Nowadays around 18 out of 100,000 people commit suicide each year in Finland, about the same level as in France and Austria. In 1990, the number was 30 per 100,000.

The decline is attributed largely to better treatment for depression, but even experts cannot really explain why the drop has been so dramatic,

Okay then.

Possible reasons mentioned in the article include: depression is better recognised and treated, the amount of psychiatric help awailable has doubled, new antidepressant drugs have been introduced, and awareness campaigns in schools and the military have been carried out. As winters haven't become any less dark, that's out as an explanation.


Hot Häkämies chat on YLE

YLE's A-Talk (fi) is the leading Finnish political talk show - and just about the only political talk show around. The proceedings tend to be rather dry at most times, but yesterday's episode (fi) was more colorful than usual. The topic was Finnish foreign policy in general and Defense Minister Jyri Häkämies's (National Coalition Party) Washington speech in specific. The guests were Pertti Salolainen and Tuulikki Ukkola from the Coalition, Antti Kaikkonen from the Centre Party, and Kimmo Kiljunen from the Social Democratic Party.

That's an interesting party breakdown, what with three guests from government parties and only one from the opposition. I suspect the assumption was that Kaikkonen would take a critical view of Häkämies's speech. My impression was influenced by the seating arrangement which had Salolainen and Ukkola sitting one one side and Kiljunen and Kaikkonen on the other. As it happened, Kaikkonen mostly allowed the other three to bicker among themselves.

Kiljunen, whose rhetoric tends to rub me the wrong way even when I agree with him on an issue, clearly wanted Häkämies to resign, but couldn't bring himself to say it aloud. Instead he said that Häkämies should shoulder his "political responsibility", and kept repeating that phrase to comical effect when the Coalitionists pressed him on what he meant by it. He mentioned the possibility of an interpellation on foreign policy; the Coalitionists response amounted to "bring it on". When talking about EU forces, Kiljunen pointed out that they'd be like NATO forces, but without American troops. For some reason he considered this an argument for, not against EU forces.

I often have a tough time telling whether Ukkola knows much of anything about the topic she's discussing, although I'm never in doubt that she has strong opinions on it. This time she kept her comments brief as Salolainen did most of the talking. When Kiljunen kept asking what the government foreign policy line is in light of many Coalitionists' pro-NATO views, Salolainen argued that such views don't prevent Coalitionist MPs like himself from backing the commonly agreed upon government line. Neither Salolainen nor Ukkola expect the current government to apply for membership.

Salolainen made a pretty bizarre comment about how he'd like all EU members to belong to NATO so that European countries' weight inside the organization would increase, which he thinks would be needed because Americans have messed things up. Kiljunen made the obvious comment, wondering what the Americans would think about that assessment. Salolainen's response that they might like it probably didn't convince even himself.

The biggest disagreement between Kaikkonen and the Coalitionists came when the topic turned to the NATO Response Forces. Salolainen wanted Finland to make a decision next based on NATO's schedule. Kaikkonen said nothing definite, but gave the impression that he wouldn't be upset if the process took longer.


Next Bank of Finland board member

This time around the process seems more straightforward than when certain past openings were filled:

The parliamentary supervisory council on Thursday proposed Seppo Honkapohja to be named as the new member of the board of the Bank of Finland.

The decision was made unanimously.

Honkapohja is in pending President Tarja Halonen's (Social Democratic Party) approval. She has blocked applicants in the past, but the supervisory council's chairman Seppo Kääriäinen (Centre Party) said (fi) that Halonen feels positively about this choice.

The outgoing board member is Social Democratic former minister Matti Louekoski, so Honkapohja's nomination would add another expert to the board at the expense of a political appointment. In the long run that may be one of its most important aspects.


World Values Survey

I'm not sure why the World Values Survey is in the news at this time, but it contains lots of poll data, so I won't complain.

The study found that nearly two thirds of people identify themselves religious, just over one third as non-religious, and three percent as committed atheists.

Nearly half of Finns believe in one God, and nearly one third in some kind of spirit or life force. Only seven percent do not believe in the existence of any God, spirit, or life force.

Compared with rest of the 80 countries taking part in the World Values study, Finns rank below the average in their religiosity.

Those numbers sound awfully big to me, not that that's a reason to doubt them.

Looking at the 2000 figures - the website doesn't seem to have the 2005 results - one can find lots of fun figures. 45.7 percent of respondents believe in telepathy. 25.2 percent consult their horoscope at least once a week. 28.9 percent believe that homosexuality is never justifiable. I wonder how many do all three.

With regard to politics, using the crosstabs feature, we can tell that almost a third of respondents who go to church more than once a week would vote for the Christian Democrats. The Centre Party dominates among respondents who go to church once a week or once a month. The Social Democratic Party wins big among respondents who go to church less often than once a year. National Coalition Party supporters are more evenly divided between regular church-goers and normal people.


New hockey blog

As the SM-Liiga season is upon us, this is a good time to note that Egan from Football in Finland has started a new hockey blog, Hockey in Finland. I've also put in a brief appearance.

Häkämies reconsiders

Right after the brouhaha started, Defense Minister Jyri Häkämies (National Coalition Party) briefly defended his comment that Finland's top security challenges were "Russia, Russia, and Russia".

[Häkämies said] upon his return from a visit to the US on Sunday that he continued to be convinced that the speech he gave at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Thursday contained nothing outside the bounds of Finland's official foreign policy line.

He added that taken as a whole his speech had been balanced and moderate.

I was surprised he even tried, but it was never going to last:
[Häkämies] told the breakfast programme of commercial broadcaster MTV3 on Tuesday that he would reconsider the rhetoric of the security policy speech he had given in Washington last week if given the opportunity to deliver it again.

He still repeated the claim that the speech was in line with Finnish foreign policy. Ironically the strong reactions from other politicians and the amount of publicity lavished on Häkämies's comments support his point that Russia is Finland's top security challenge.

From a timely poll published in Helsingin Sanomat, we learn that:
One in five feel that the threat from Russia has increased in the past few years. However, about 70 per cent of Finns feel that the threat has not changed.

Now all we need to know is at what what level do the respondents feel the threat is, and then we're getting somewhere.

PS: Roughly 60 percent of respondents opposed NATO membership while about 25 percent were in favor. The number of undecided had risen.


What's in a party name

The Social Democratic Party held a seminar on the party's future on Sunday. Aside from such controversial suggestions as "let's be caring", one topic that popped up was the party name. Some Social Democrats - i.e. Lasse Lehtinen MEP - have suggested that the party should be called the the Democratic Party. Party chair Eero Heinäluoma reiterated that he was opposed to it.

It's obviously a terrible idea. When your opponents are arguing that they're more social than you, it's highly probable that being associated with the word "social" isn't dragging you down. Besides, party members are commonly known as Dems ("demarit") even now.

The odd thing is why the proposal keeps getting shot down even though aside from Lehtinen no one with any clout seems to support it. My personal theory is that it's something easy for the the party leadership to do that garners the full approval of the Social Democratic wing of the Social Democratic Party (to paraphrase Howard Dean).

Now, if they wanted to drop the archaic spelling "sosialidemokraattinen" in favor of the modern "sosiaalidemokraattinen", I could get behind that.


Islamic Party needs your signature

Here's a story I missed earlier in the week. Inshallah, Finland may soon have a new registered party:

An Islamic political party is being set up in Finland; organisers hope to gather the necessary 5,000 signatures for official registration, and to field candidates in next year's municipal elections. [...]

One of the goals of the party is to end the sale of alcoholic beverages at Finnish grocery stores and kiosks. Sales through the Alko stores would not be affected. The party also wants to make it possible for Muslim children to opt out of music classes and excursions to swimming pools, which Tammi says go against the Muslim faith.

Clearly these people have managed to identify the three main problems facing Muslims in today's Finland: beer on store shelfs, swimming pools full of school kids, and off-key singalongs of "Sininen and valkoinen". You may think that doesn't amount to much, but if you do, you've probably never heard an off-key singalong of "Sininen ja valkoinen".

To further excite Eurabia worrywarts, the wonderfully named party chair Abdullah Tammi had this to say:
Asked if the party wanted Sharia law to be implemented in Finland, Tammi said that such a move would be "fantastic". He noted that the purpose of the law is to prevent crime in advance.

There has to be some sort of a "The Minority Report" pun to be made here, but I can't get to it right now.
However, he was quick to add that the party is not seriously seeking a dominant position in Finnish politics or the building of an Islamic society here.

Indeed, from the story it sounded as if they plan to focus on local Helsinki politics.

Representatives from some other Muslim organizations were also interviewed and they expressed doubts over the new party being able to attract widespread support in the community. They made the sensible point that some Muslims are already involved in the existing parties.


Russia, Russia, Russia

Defense Minister Jyri Häkämies (National Coalition Party) caused some controversy with his speech (video) at the Centre for Strategic International Studies in Washington.

Mr Häkämies had said in the speech that while Finland was privileged to be located in one of the safest regions in the world, the country's three main security challenges were "Russia, Russia and Russia".

"It is clear that Russia is, supported by the huge revenues it is reaping from oil and gas, on its way of becoming a world player again. According to the Russian worldview, military force is a key element in how it conducts its international relations," Mr Häkämies had added.

Reactions came swiftly. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) has "different points of emphasis". Former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja (Social Democratic Party) thinks Häkämies's evaluation was one-sided and presented in the wrong forum, i.e. in the United States. President Tarja Halonen (Social Democratic Party) expressed her mild disapproval and said that she hadn't seen the speech. It had been given to her office for vetting, but apparently it never got to her.

There are two points here between which we should distinguish: First, what Häkämies said is true. Second, it wasn't a very smart thing to say. There was no reason not to talk softly, with regard to both diplomatic and domestic political considerations. In the case of the latter, Häkämies will now stand accused of turning up his rhetoric to impress the American audience, which will be tied to his party's pro-NATO leanings.


Mr Stubb goes to Strasbourg

Further enhancing Alex Stubb's (National Coalition Party) status as the media darling of the Finnish MEPs, he has been guest blogging over at the Economist's site. After a couple of amusing day-in-the-life-of-a-MEP type of entries - here and here - on Wednesday he let his europhile flag fly. Predictably a heated discussion ensued in the comments section. Yesterday he wrote about his opposition to the current rules on taking liquids on planes. The dude is going places and he wants to take his liquids with him.


Soininvaara: Time is better than money

As a part of the aforementioned Finland report, Financial Times published several articles by Finns. Professor Pekka Himanen, who I have a hard time taking seriously, wrote a fluffy piece on caring and creativity and things of that nature. Foreign Affairs Committee chair Pertti Salolainen (National Coalition Party) wrote about NATO, mostly. (His summary of how Finnish governments are formed contained a curious mistake. Contrary to what he wrote, the Prime Minister doesn't always need to come from the biggest party. The biggest party doesn't always need to be represented in the government at all.)

The best of the bunch by a wide margin was former Green League chair Osmo Soininvaara's column on the value of not working hard. Soininvaara is commonly held to be a clever fellow and I thought he made several clever points in this article.

A whole nation can become richer only by consuming things that can be produced more. Not everybody can get a house at the riverside in the middle of the city. If my income doubles, I can afford to eat better in a good restaurant and hire the chef for ten minutes, but not if the salary of the chef also doubles. The rich eat in restaurants more than the poor, but Finns have not increased eating in restaurants in the past 20 years despite a 50 per cent rise in income. In the past three years, the average real income of Finns has risen by 6.5 per cent. Most people have not noticed the difference. Had we accepted the consumption level of 2004, we could now have eight weeks vacation instead of five. Why not?

Yeah, why not?


Free market Katainen, welfare state Halonen

As a part of the Financial Times's Finland report, they published a complimentary interview with Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen and a slightly less positive interview with President Tarja Halonen. (My profile of Katainen is here.)

The notable difference in Coalitionist Katainen's and Social Democrat Halonen's messages is that where he wants to reform the Finnish welfare model, she wants to export it to the rest of the EU. Those aims aren't necessarily in conflict with each other, but I do think they say something about the difference in attitudes between the pair.

In other news, Halonen's roof leaks. I'm surprised the fact wasn't used as a metaphor for something or other.


Financial Times's Finland report

Today the Financial Times published a rather sizeable report on Finland. I criticize some aspects of it below, but in general I thought it was well-put together and interesting.

David Ibison writes:

The film Frozen Land by director Aku Louhimies begins optimistically enough with a thoughtful quote about the Finns by one of the country's most famous rock groups, Eppu Normaali: "Born pure into the future's hands in these cold and northern lands".

From this hopeful starting point the film descends into a gritty study of human weakness and the corruption of Nordic purity that embraces alcoholism, unemployment, a double murder, drug abuse, family violence and depression, all set in a darkened land of dirty, semi-frozen slush.

This is where being a foreigner lets Ibison down a little bit. The line is from "Tuhansien murheellisten laulujen maa" ("A Land of Thousands of Sorrowful Songs"), a semi-parodic take on traditional Finnish pathos of the sort with which Louhimies's film deals in a more serious fashion. The next line in the song introduces alcohol-fueled domestic abuse as a traditional pastime. The line isn't hopeful; it foreshadows (to Finnish viewers) that things are about to go badly wrong for the protagonists.

A wider point is that the film's themes are traditional, nigh-on timeless in Finnish art. It may be an unusually harsh representative of its genre, but it does have a lot of predecessors. Thus, it says something about one side of life in Finland, but it doesn't say much specifically about the times we live in. It's probably not the best way to illustrate Finnish zeitgeist (which Ibison attempts in greater length here).

After noting that economically things are going rather well, the FT does what it always does when writing about any country at any time - it recommends reforms. Finland's problem in need of solving is aging:
At the heart of the problem lies the fact that Finland has Europe's most rapidly ageing population. At the beginning of the 2010s, the structure of Finland's demographics will shift in an unprecedented way when the proportion of the total population of working age starts to decline for the first time.

Simultaneously, life expectancy is going up, meaning people will be spending more time in retirement. According to Statistics Finland, the government agency, the percentage of the population over the age of 64 will increase from 17 per cent in 2010 to 27 per cent in 2035.

If nothing is done, this will create a financing problem. The Ministry of Finance's 2006 Stability Programme paints a disturbing picture in which pensions- related expenditure rises from 11 per cent of GDP in 2010 to 14 per cent in 2030 and stays there until 2050. Public expenditure as a percentage of GDP will increase from 48 per cent in 2010 to 58 per cent in 2050.

I have to say, there are a heck of a lot of assumption in those paragraphs. If nothing is done, if growth forecasts going forward decades prove accurate, if demographic trends remain... How likely is that? If in 1964 you had assumed that demographic and economic forecasts pan out and nothing is done, what sort of a future would you have predicted in 43 years' time?

I'll comment on some of the other articles in the report later.


Brave new digital world

So far the biggest change of the digi era for me is that I can't see some channels I used to get. Subtv and BBC World are the two I occasionally watched. One of these months I'll get around to buying the necessary equipment to receive digital channels, but this probably won't be it. Needless to say, I approve of the decision to continue non-digital cable broadcasts till the end of the year.

In Helsingin Sanomat, The Communications Minister connected the change to the way the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) is financed:

The introduction of digital television is set to lead to a reappraisal of the position of TV licence inspectors. The expediency of maintaining a force of licence inspectors has been called into question now that nearly every device with a picture screen is capable of showing television images.

"The logic of television fees would not work in the same way, when there are so many channels of distribution. TV licence inspectors would certainly not function in this multi-channel distribution field", argues Minister of Communications Suvi Lindén (National Coalition Party).

Lindén has made noises about abolishing license fees in favor of taxation before, so this is an expedient argument for her.

HS also interviewed an expert who argued in favor of Canadian-style broadcasting policy:
In Canada, all TV broadcasters fulfil public service broadcasting tasks. They are required to regularly draw up precise reports and plans on how they are to promote Canadian culture and identity. Part of the public service in Canada is also financed through public funds.

Jääsaari feels that this kind of a model emphasising culture policy would also be appropriate for Finland. She argues that matters concerning YLE could be placed under the authority of the Ministry of Culture, and not the Ministry of Transport and Communications, as is the case now.

Based on that brief description it sounds terrible. The prospect of MTV3 drafting plans on how they're going to promote Finnish culture and identity simultaneously terrifies and amuses me. I'll admit, though, that I'm not familiar with the Canadian model; maybe it functions better in practice.


Peace in Iraq

...is currently a pipedream. But it's still nice that someone is doing something:

Representatives from feuding Sunni and Shiite groups met Friday at a secret location in Finland to discuss ways of ending the bloodshed in Iraq, officials said.

The Crisis Management Initiative, a conflict-prevention group headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, said it was hosting the seminar to examine how lessons learned from peace processes in South Africa and Northern Ireland could be applied to Iraq.

Seminar organizers would not say who was attending, except to confirm that both "Sunni and Shiite groups" had arrived. Finnish broadcaster YLE said representatives of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the leader of the largest Sunni Arab political group, Adnan al-Dulaimi, were at the gathering. Humam Hammoudi, the Shiite chairman of the Iraqi Parliament's foreign affairs committee, also was in Finland, YLE said.

The CMI had success with the Aceh talks, but there they had two clearly defined sides to bring together. Here we have some Shias and some Sunnis who almost certainly don't represent all the Iraqis killing other Iraqis. Then there are the foreign occupiers. Any peace deal absolutely needs the involvement of the United States.

Still, you got to try and the CMI should be commanded for doing so. As the CMI's Kalle Liesinen said, "It's not a question of peace talks but an attempt at directing people's thoughts to the future."