Maria Ohisalo interview: Borders, feminism and Finland’s green recovery plan

A little over a year since she became Green party leader and interior minister, Maria Ohisalo talks about the most pressing issues on her desk at the moment.

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File picture of Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo (Green), Helsinki 5th November 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

It’s been a memorably hectic first year in office for Maria Ohisalo.

The Helsinki MP became leader of the Greens just weeks after her party gained five seats at the 2019 general election, and then endured a baptism of fire as interior minister when Finland took over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Council a few weeks after that.

Although the big set-piece Helsinki events of the presidency were over within the first three months, there was still a non-stop grind of European travel; the small matter of a collapsing government and change of prime minister at home; and her own wedding to plan.

“And then suddenly we all fell into this corona crisis” says Ohisalo, summing up 2020 so far in less than a dozen words.

“Now we’re finally starting to get out of it, but the whole of society has to change and we really need to rebuild society again after the crisis” she tells News Now Finland.

On top of her inbox this week is the issue of opening Finland’s borders again, or not. It’s a subject that forces the minister to be part public health official, part gatekeeper, part diplomat.

“The most important and the leading idea of course is to save the health and life of the people living in this country” says Ohisalo.

At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, as Ohisalo tells it, countries did pretty much their own thing when it came to border closures, and there was a lack of European-wide coordination about this issue.

Now however, there is more cohesion and the EU has come up with a list of countries whose residents will be allowed in without restrictions – although individual member states can set their own rules.

Finland has already decided it will open up to countries who meet a minimum virus threshold by the middle of July, but it’s controversially unclear yet whether Finland’s closest neighbour Sweden will make the cut.

“I think everybody understands that all the countries do their own decisions and what I’ve said many times is that Nordic cooperation is really important for Finland, and Sweden is a really good neighbour which together we have really good relationships. This is why for example we have said we are ready to offer help, whatever they need. If they Swedes need testing capacity and we have that, we would probably give that.”

Sweden is still reporting more than 1,300 new cases of coronavirus every day, with more than 5,370 confirmed Covid-19 deaths. By comparison, Finland had another 22 cases of coronavirus reported over the three day weekend period, but no new deaths.

File picture of Maria Ohisalo MP (Green) / Credit: News Now Finland

Setting Finland on a path for green recovery 

As border restrictions start to ease, and the country tries to grow economically out the other side of the pandemic – with hope, and planning, to avoid a second wave of infections – there’s constant talk of a ‘green’ recovery effort.

“Even before we got into this crisis the Green party launched this programme of a fair transition, the idea is not totally new but it has been part of our elections programmes for a long time. It sort of binds together all the measures we need to take in order to build our society better to face the future crisis and realities” Ohisalo says.

As the government introduces measures to stimulate the economy, ministers are thinking more carefully about where to put that cash, and Ohisalo says the stimulus packages have “green foundations.”

“We decided to invest a billion euros in public transportation, railways, walking and cycling. This is building our infrastructure, bringing more jobs to people and at the same time getting rid of carbon emissions.”

For some people – and not just critics – the Greens haven’t done enough to leverage their position in government to force through bigger, bolder changes.

Finnair, which is partly owned by the state, is one of Europe’s fastest-growing polluter airlines. A series of investigations by News Now Finland revealed that Neste, also partly owned by the state, has a poor track record of supply chain integrity and biodiversity loss near palm oil mills in Indonesia – and continues to market biofuel in Finland that would be illegal in other European countries. This government remains intransigent too on stamping out peat as a fuel source.

So is Maria Ohisalo’s Green party green enough? There’s only so much her party can do she says, when state-owned companies have a broad degree of autonomy to operate as a business.

“At a strategic level we have said that all the state-owned companies should also follow the climate goals, and goals on biodiversity. And obviously the world is not ready. The Greens have been in politics for 30 years and since the 1990s we have said we should make a green tax, and still we are not there” she says.

File picture of Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo (Green), Helsinki, 5th November 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Dropping the F-bomb in politics 

This week another policy idea central to Maria Ohisalo’s personal political beliefs has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy online and in the media: intersectional feminism.

“The idea is that a human being is more than just a gender, a human is also their age, background, ethnicity, and when we work in order to get more equality in society we need to take into account all these factors. And, it’s not a new idea” Ohisalo explains.

The recent announcement from the Greens that intersectional feminism was a core component of the government’s plans drew sharp – sometimes abusive – responses from the political right.

Finns Party MEP Laura Huhtasaari had one of the more polite reactions when she said the Green left (sic) has created “a new caste system” in Finland, where “the white heterosexual is at the bottom” and that supporters of the Christian Democrats and Finns were “casteless.”

So if the words intersectional feminism are political red meat to the government’s opponents, why not just call it intersectional equality?

“Maybe the biggest problem is that the people who always say that yes I am in favour of equality then you ask what are you willing to do to reach more equality, then you don’t hear much. There is a silence. You don’t hear any measures” the minister says.

“For me, and the Green party, feminism is a way of having active measures to get into a world where we have more equality.”

You can hear the full interview with Maria Ohisalo on the new episode of our summer Podkäst, available Friday 3rd July on Spotify, iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher and News Now Finland social media channels.