By the time Sanna Marin (SDP) walked out to face a small pack of domestic journalists at her official Kesäranta residence on Wednesday afternoon, she seemed to be in a determined mood.
The prime minister should, after all, be on her summer holidays already but now she’s doing the media rounds to ‘sell’ the new EU deal to the public: the early reviews from the Finnish press were quick to be critical, but after a few days a more nuanced picture of where Finland ended up is starting to emerge.
After one of the longest European Council meetings ever held – you’d have to go back to Nice in December 2000 to match it – Marin and other EU leaders all made uneasy concessions to eventually agree on a three year €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund, and a longer term EU budget as well.
No single country got everything they wanted from their negotiating positions, but meetings into the wee small hours took their toll and the summit was by all accounts fractious.
So did Marin, as the Financial Times reports, “snap” at Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez?
“I didn’t snap. I always behave very constructively” she says.
“But still, I confirm that I was very tough of course. I was in the European Council meeting to defend also Finnish perspective and goals for the whole recovery instrument. And the main goal for us was to get down the grants” Marin tells News Now Finland in an exclusive English-language interview in Helsinki.
“It was tough for our goals when it came to the whole package, but I was constructive. I tried to find ground where we could all agree and compromise together” she adds.
Finding a more even weighting between grants and loans in the €750 billion recovery package was one of Finland’s key objectives ahead of the meeting, and the government can point to a certain amount of success on that score.
But aligning with the ‘Frugal Four’ of Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Netherlands won’t have won Finland too many friends in the short term, especially with southern countries who felt the north did not respond positively enough when they needed help the most.
“Well of course there was different opinions when you look at the net payers and net receivers. This is natural I think” the PM concedes – although the southern European countries, among the hardest hit by the pandemic, won’t quickly forget how the Frugals and Finland dug their heels in and made it more difficult for them to get the money they say they needed.
“Of course we are very careful how our money is being spent, and of course in this perspective it’s natural that there’s a lot of discussion and also criticism about this package” says Marin.
“But I want to underline that it is so important for Finland that the whole European economy recovers. We are a very small, and also export-dependent country so it’s crucial for us that European economy recovers, and it’s also in our interest that we all recovery from this horrendous crisis that we’re all in” she explains.
Political opposition to the deal
Finland’s largest opposition parties, the Finns Party and the National Coalition Party, have been uniformly critical of the deal, with politicians and party activists alike taking to social media to pick at any details. There’s little, if any, constructive discussion about what they would have done differently in Brussels, or the realities of whether their alternative strategies would have worked. At this point it’s all conjecture anyway.
Some common refrains are that Finland got nothing, or at best very little. That Finland gives more than it gets from the EU. That Finland will take on more debt as the EU borrows on international money markets to raise the capital for the coronavirus recovery fund.
The government would in turn say that without their dogged determination to see the amount of grants significantly reduced, Finland’s debt exposure would be much more than it is.
“If we are looking at our net paying position, actually we did quite well. If you look at only the [multi-year budget] our net payer position went to the better direction actually. If you look at both the [multi-year budget] and recovery instrument even there our net paying position is very good compared to other countries that are net payers” explains Marin.
She points to €400 million that was retained in agricultural funding, plus an extra €100 million for development initiatives in northern and eastern Finland – a commitment lifted directly from the government’s own policy programme, so a tick in the box for that as well. Finland also gets around €3.2 billion from the recovery fund itself.
“I want to look at it also in the European perspective […] we are in serious crisis together. We are in serious crisis, and we need to recover together” Marin states.
Linking funding with good governance
One area where the government can claim less success than they hoped is over conditionality: linking EU funds with good governance, rule of law and human rights.
There are concerns across the European Union that countries like Hungary and Poland pay only lip service to some of the EU’s core values – and that they’re not being held properly to account.
Finland and other countries had wanted to see more direct language that would be very explicit in making clear to populist leaders that they need to toe the EU line if they want to get money from both the coronavirus package and the multi-year budget.
Those ideas were essentially swept under the carpet.
A Twitter account which follows Visegrad 4 politics – from Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia – says the other European countries backed down on rule of law issues; the Washington Post says it was a “win for Hungary and Poland” that the EU backed away from linking funding with good governance; while Politico says Hungary “got everything it wanted.”
Marin says she still thinks there’s quite tough wording on conditionality in the budget package, because it removes the rights for countries to veto any action against them – instead action could be taken by qualified majority votes – but this seems like a rosier assessment than the reality of the situation.
Priorities for spending the €3.2 billion recovery funds
By September the Finnish government will have to present some concrete plans for spending its €3.2 billion slice of the coronavirus recovery fund.
The emphasis, says Marin, must be on green growth.
“It needs to be green, it needs to be more digitalization, and it needs to go in the direction where we boost our competitiveness, together as Europe but also in Finland” she says.
The prime minister lays out her vision of more green jobs and green technology that can be exported; and areas where Finland can use some of the funding to raise the employment rate.
“I think there’s also a lot to be done in education, in research, in the new technologies we need. I think we are very ambitious in the green economy” she says.
“We need to do big changes in the way our society functions, and I think there is also a big investment in green recovery. This will benefit Finland in the long term because we have very ambitious climate neutral goals.”
Listen to the full interview with Prime Minister Sanna Marin in our summer Podkäst, available Friday 24th July from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and News Now Finland social media channels.