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Will Finland’s rightward shift mark a new start in UK-EU relations?

Likely new PM Petteri Orpo could help forge a stronger relationship built on defence

National Coalition Party chair Petteri Orpo speaks to members of the media at Pikkuparlamentti following his apparent election win (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been an eventful week for Finland. Sunday’s election marked the end of the internationally recognised Sanna Marin premiership and the start of Petteri Orpo’s attempts to replace her as prime minister by building a new coalition. Marin leaves office with her head held high after steering Finland through the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent NATO membership bid, all whilst defying expectations of the profile of a national leader.

Coalition negotiations will be trying, with the possibility of a Sweden-style right leaning coalition or a more liberal and anti-populist bloc. What’s clear is that it will be led by Orpo’s National Coalition Party (NCP), who took their highest share of votes and seats in 16 years.

Whilst many fundamentals will stay the same, Finland can expect a more pro-business government, focused on reducing the national debt, collaboration with the EU, and NATO membership.

NATO membership is of course the second big shift for Finland this week, with accession on 4th April, marking the end of 75 years of military neutrality.

The change in public perception since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is striking. Support for membership surged 53% in February last year to 62% in March and 76% in May (Yle, 2022). Prior to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a majority of Finns had long opposed membership.  

So what could these two significant events mean for the future of UK-EU relations? 

A comparatively moderate GDP but now a more significant player geopolitically, Finland and the wider Nordic nations maintain strong links with the UK, underpinned by a like-minded outlook on free trade and open markets.

Like the wider Nordics, Finland will continue to be cooperative in its relationship with the EU and the NCP may find scope to work more closely with the UK, such as on ensuring an aligned Emissions Trading Scheme, advancing digital trade, defending the international rules-based system at the WTO and championing a liberal approach to trade.

The UK should utilise this, considering the need to make friends and build alliances ahead of the 2025 review of the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed by Boris Johnson in December 2020. There is a real opportunity for meaningful reform and closer alignment and this will need member-state support.

Orpo has often spoken of his willingness to engage with the UK, noting that “Finland and the UK are close allies and defenders of a rules-based world order.”

The NCP are very much a pro-European Party and have had a pro-NATO stance since 2006. This victory is in many ways an expression of trust in the long-term strategy they represent and a priority for the new government which the UK can benefit from, working towards a subsequently better EU relationship and improved TCA. 

Rejoining Horizon, liberalising mobility and further alignment on standards are some examples of what can be achieved in a spirit of collaboration, openness and shared values. Finland and the wider Nordics will be crucial allies in this effort.

So how does NATO fit into this?

Defence will be a uniquely strong point in an improved UK-EU relationship and the UK should seize the moment.

Having arrived in Finland in 2020 amidst the pandemic to work as a diplomat, I found the relationship was frosty. The UK was viewed as a difficult partner, with Brexit adding to the EU’s headaches of managing a fractious US relationship, tariff wars and growing Chinese influence. The UK’s political turmoil and unhelpful rhetoric did not go down well and it made what should be non-contentious areas of diplomacy difficult.

Suddenly that changed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine placed the UK’s military clout in the spotlight. Our commitment to the Joint Expeditionary Force, followed by Boris Johnson’s visit to Finland and subsequent signing of the mutual security pact went a huge way in repairing some of the damage.

Not only were UK efforts appreciated but this presented a new opportunity for an improved political relationship.

With Finland now in NATO (and with luck Sweden will join too), the UK and Finland are legally and strategically closer and this should be built on. Beyond the TCA review there is a need for a new partnership, underpinned by a political impetus and defence could be key. 

The UK and EU can engage in new formats, using defence as a pillar for a more interconnected relationship. For example, the EU recently allowed the UK to join its military mobility project, PESCO, allowing easier transportation of troops and equipment across Europe. Initially, the EU demanded the signing of a defence and security treaty before collaboration in this field but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine necessitated more flexibility and paved the way for closer cooperation.

There are opportunities to take this further, such as in further UK buy-in to the E3 format (a diplomatic coalition of the UK, France and Germany) which continues as a forum for discussion between the three countries on foreign policy strategy and has been vocal on issues such as deterring Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program. Additionally, the European Intervention Initiative (tasked with quickly deploying troops in crisis scenarios near Europe’s borders), which the UK participates in and the possible creation of a European Security Council offer opportunities for the UK to retain influence in the EU through its participation and forge a closer relationship, all of which lays the basis for closer UK-EU ties. 

With NATO soon to find a new secretary-general, there is a much-needed opportunity to get Brits in high places or at the least, rally behind a like-minded and familiar EU candidate.

Grasping the new political dynamics in the Nordics and making the most of the strengths of new defence partnerships have the potential to show that the UK is very much still part of Europe and serious about an improved TCA clearing the way for a closer, structured and values-based partnership.

With the right approach, not only could we partly heal over a very difficult few years but  subsequently forge a more fruitful and cooperative relationship that makes a real difference to geopolitical and economic security and opens the door for new possibilities for the future relationship. 

Alex Wright is research director at the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations. Based in Finland, Alex was formerly a diplomat at the British Embassy in Helsinki covering trade policy

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