Sunday, August 13, 2006

Finland and the War in Lebanon

The war in Lebanon has been causing some movement in Finnish political life. Finland, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, is represented in the outside world by its foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja. Tuomioja has not made himself popular in U.S. and Israeli circles by leading the European chorus of denunciation of Israel's military operations in Lebanon, and calling for an "immediate ceasefire" practically from the first day of the conflict. A recent Helsingin Sanomat feature (in English) gives some idea of Tuomioja's international role, and his own perception of it. It is perhaps summed up in the disclosure that "for years he has carried a small international peace symbol on the lapel of his jacket."

During the Finnish presidential election campaign last January, in which Tarja Halonen, also a left-winger, was returned to the presidency only in the second round, voices began to be raised among the Conservative opposition, led by the National Coalition Party's Sauli Niinistö, on the subject of Finland's foreign policy, which many Finns consider to be too much focused on the EU, while ignoring the possibilities that might be offered by a more pro-Atlantic orientation, and by full membership of NATO. One commentator in particular, the political analyst Henrikki Heikka,a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, led the pro-NATO line in the debate.

Although Finland is not a member of NATO, the country contributes the second highest number of soldiers per capita in NATO's operations in the world, and has been in command of NATO's operations in parts of Kosovo. Yet, as Mr Heikka pointed out during the presidential campaign, "for reasons related more to tradition and domestic politics than anything else – Finns prefer to call the country's foreign policy 'military non-alignment'. Finland's neighbour Russia is, of course, firmly anchored in an anti-NATO position, despite occasional propaganda forays suggesting an interest in "co-operation".

The conflict in Lebanon, and Finland's role in it via Mr. Tuomioja, have once more brought these opposing views to public attention, with the recent publication of a Helsingin Sanomat article (Finnish only, subscribers only) by Mr. Heikka once again advocating an officially pro-Atlanticist direction in Finland's foreign policy, and Ms. Halonen once again rejecting such a proposal out of hand.

Although the difference of views is presented by both sides as a mere question of verbal definitions and political formulae, there seems little doubt that it represents a genuine divergence of opinion on foreign policy, moving along traditional "conservative-versus-leftist" lines. Such a political split exists in various forms in many other European countries, including Britain (where the debate is given further edge by pressure coming from Britain's large Muslim communities), and it will be interesting to see how it develops in the world's now rapidly changing security situation.
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