In recent years, much attention has been given to the economic woes of countries such as Greece and Spain and the possibility that they will depart from -- or be forced out of -- the eurozone, while the upcoming referendum on Britain's continued European Union (EU) membership promises to dominate global headlines in the coming weeks. Less attention, however, has been given to other European countries that are also experiencing economic difficulties, and to movements in these countries that are calling for a departure from the eurozone and the EU. One such country is Finland, where in the past year, there has been increasing support for a "Fixit," or Finnish exit from the European common currency.
In this interview, Antti Pesonen, the former chairman of Finland's Independence Party and current member of its board of directors, discusses the growing movement in favor of a eurozone exit for Finland, and his party's platform in favor of departure from both the euro and the EU. He analyzes the country's current economic downturn, as well as developments in other crisis-hit countries such as Greece, and shares his thoughts for what a future outside the EU and eurozone could be like for a country such as Finland.
Michael Nevradakis: Share with us a few words about the Independence Party, how it began, its history and its platform.
Antti Pesonen: It began in 1994, before the Finnish decision about the membership to go to the EU. There was a group of people who thought that there has to be at least one party that defends Finnish independence and real democracy.... Finland becoming a member of the EU meant that Finland is not anymore an independent state. It's the main reason for the party, and after 20 years, more and more people have seen that there is a real need for big change and a return to our own currency and decision-making.
What are conditions like in the Finnish economy today, and what has been the impact of EU and eurozone membership for Finland?
Eurozone membership has meant many difficulties. It has cost Finland and its people a lot. Our exports have declined dramatically. There is now news that in January of this year, exports have gone down 10 percent from 2015, and there is growing unemployment and, in many ways, a kind of mental chaos in Finland, because in the biggest media, there is still the attitude that [the mainstream media in Finland] don't want to have a discussion about a euro exit or EU exit. So there seems to be only one alternative, and this alternative is based on EU membership and the euro. Our party is still outside of parliament, and therefore it's very hard to get our voice heard.
You mentioned the decline in exports. From what I understand, this decline is in part due to the EU's embargo toward Russia. Tell us about the impact of this embargo.
Yes, it has been very significant, especially for the sector of export of food to Russia, which has gone down dramatically, and also in other sectors. Russia has not been the most important export country, but one of the most important. The embargo has large consequences in many ways. Also, our western neighbors -- Sweden, Norway, Denmark -- they have their own currency and they have possibility to rule their own economy much better than Finland.
What has the government's response to this economic downturn been in Finland? Have there been austerity measures and cuts that have been implemented, for instance?
Yes, there is now a continuing and difficult discussion about how to cut public spending, and there is huge pressure to slash wages, and it's difficult to say how it's going to be with the government's decisions. But it's clear that they will cut public spending, and it means more and more difficulties for the poorest people. It seems clear also that unemployment will increase because of these decisions that are ahead.
How do the people of Finland in general view the country's participation in the EU, the eurozone and potential North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership, and how do the media in Finland portray these institutions to the public?
I must first say that I think the main problem for these issues is in Finland is that there is no real, open discussion in public, big media. There is a growing need and growing opinion that Finland should leave the euro and return to its own currency, but it's such a strange situation that in the Finnish parliament, there is not one party that is for euro exit or EU exit.
Public opinion is, of course, very much connected to what are the topics in the media, and this silence about alternatives is dangerous. But of course, there is some hope and much hope, for example, through Britain's upcoming referendum of leaving in the EU or staying there. It's very good for people to see that there are alternatives.
About NATO membership, Finland is outside of NATO and about 60-70 percent of Finns are in favor of staying out of NATO, but in the biggest parties, there are strong views that Finland should join NATO, and even more, there are, in the government and in the Finnish parliament, strong opinions that Finland should be more and more connected to the EU's foreign and security policy.
I must say also that from my point of view and from the Independence Party, we strongly stress that it's very important for Finland to stay out of big powers' conflicts and also outside of NATO. Now Finland is connected to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and other conflicts the EU is part of, and as a neighbor of Russia, for Finland it's very dangerous long term to be part of conflict between the West and Russia. My point of view and the Independence Party's is to get Finland neutral, just like Switzerland is.
What do you estimate is the support for a eurozone exit at this time in Finland?
I think that even though there is not now such an open, public discussion, the reality that real politics and real decisions that people have seen -- these are the main reasons for growing need to leave the eurozone. I think it's very promising that people, after many years, have been able to make their own decisions, even when it's not seen in political decisions and the government's policy. But I think that such kind of strong views will increase, and someday will lead to maybe referendum or some kind of other decision that makes Finland leave the eurozone and take its own currency, which is very important for the base of the economy and our future.
Many of the other positions of the Independence Party of Finland closely relate to issues that are of great importance in countries like Greece, including defending domestic food production, developing self-sufficiency in energy production and ensuring the balanced development of the country's regions. Tellusmoreaboutthesepositions.
Yes. We need strong reform, for example, in energy policy. There are now all the technologies available to produce energy from sustainable resources. Finnish official energy policy is largely based on nuclear power and also on the import of electricity. Making a sustainable future and getting more jobs and having people to decide their own future needs strong support for reform -- for example, in energy policy and also, like you mentioned, about food. There is now a situation where the import of food to Finland per year is 2 billion euros more than our export of food. In energy, imports are about $8 billion euros per year higher than exports, and these are two quite important topics for the Independence Party, for there has to be a big change. It means also more jobs to Finland and, in many ways, more sustainable policy in the future.
What are the obstacles that your party faces in earning enough electoral support to enter parliament?
It's clear that it's very hard to work when the public big media are against you and when you have nearly no money to get your voice heard. I think that our time is coming. I'm sure about that. One obstacle has been that there has been are some so-called alternatives. There is one big party in parliament that seemed to be an alternative to EU politics, but it's now in government and it's making just the same policy that the old parties have done. Also, nowadays, it's more and more clear to many and to the voters that made this party big that they have been cheated. But we must concentrate on our own job and our own alternative, to make it more and more clear, and I'm sure that reality awakens people and there will be a strong will for change in parliamentary elections [currently scheduled for 2019, though early elections may be held], and also a strong change in the politics of Finland.
It's an old saying that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some people all the time, but not all people all the time. The Finnish people are used to being ruled by someone. We have been, for 600 years, under Swedish rule and after that, for about 100 years under Russian rule, so the independence time in Finland was quite short and it's also in the mentality -- this kind of attitude to be ruled by someone -- but I am sure that EU membership and all this, what it means, will not be for a very long period. It will last some time, some years ahead, but there will be big change.
The Independence Party, from what I understand, participated a couple of years ago in a pan-European meeting of like-minded and Eurosceptic parties, which was organized in Greece in December 2013 by a Greek movement -- the United Popular Front. What relations does your party maintain with these other European movements?
Yes, and it was a great success and a great meeting in Athens, what you just mentioned. We have some connections and we try to build more. There are many movements -- for example, in Denmark and in Britain -- and now, after this Athens meeting, we have connections to Southern Europe, which is very, very good for us in many ways, as we can get information and see how people's needs and opinions are very much the same all over this area, even when the cultures are different and the countries have different kind of history, and so on. This kind of cooperation is very good and very important, hopefully for all.
The government of Finland has been known to have often adopted a very harsh stance towards Greece with regard to the so-called "bailout" agreements that Greece has signed with the troika. How do you view the stance of the Finnish government towards Greece and the Greek crisis?
Quite problematic, to say the least. I must say first that public media and the information that ordinary people get about this Greek crisis is quite one-sided, and I think that the government's opinion and attitude is quite strongly dependent on what, for example, Germany has done. The attitude and opinion of Finnish people towards the Greek people is not the same as the Finnish government's decisions.
What was your reaction to the referendum that took place in Greece regarding the austerity measures in July 2016, and the subsequent rejection of the referendum result by the Greek government?
I'm not very surprised, but it's not very nice to see that people are cheated and governments are doing things that are the opposite of what had been promised, and which are against the majority of people's opinion. It's quite sad to see.
How do you view the ongoing refugee crisis and the actions of the EU and the Western European countries in response to this crisis?
The Western countries are behind this crisis, because if there hadn't been Western military actions in the Middle East -- and these areas that the refugees are coming to Europe from -- the situation would be quite different. I think that the biggest Western countries are not taking their responsibility for this crisis. It's very, very sad to see that people, millions of people, have to suffer so much, and of course, many millions have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria, for example.
When we try to think about solving this problem, it has to be a question, number one, of how to stop killing and fighting. It's obvious that when states are ruined and there are -- for example like now in Afghanistan or in Libya -- there is no real state anymore, it's a very dangerous situation in many ways, and there is no one that will take responsibility for the security and building some kind of sustainable future. Of course, when this refugee crisis is reality, there have to be some kind of measures to take care of these people, and there is a need to help people as close to home as possible, but some of these refugees also need to get placed outside of their own countries. It's not easy. I think there are not very easy solutions for this, but to avoid growing racism and other very negative consequences, governments should now concentrate to stop this crisis and conflict.