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Markku Heikkilä

The Nordic Region, after all

The principles of law, the model of the welfare state, gender equality, small class differences - you can find the common and distinctive features of the Nordic countries in all that is important in Finland. Despite this, there is surprisingly little talk about 'Nordicness' and the Nordic model. As a tribute to this very last edition of Analys Norden, I head off in search of Finland as a Nordic country. The journey begins as far away from the capital cities as possible, as close to everyday life as possible.

Feb 16, 2012

Between Tornio and Haparanda a new building site seems to have appeared once again, which is beginning to encroach upon the undetermined, still undeveloped area between the two countries. Soon the towns' buildings will be close to each other.  The new shopping centre on the Finnish side and Ikea on the Swedish side are already so close that you can carry your shopping bags between them on foot.

I cannot remember now with any certainty what is currently being built at the border. There have been many joint plans but they have remained on paper as lofty visions. It is not so easy to get investment money in this part of the world. Maybe it is an event square, perhaps it is finally a joint bus station which will connect the bus services along the Gulf of Bothnia in a reasonably sensible way. Tourists have to be very resourceful to find connections from Luleå in Sweden via Haparanda to Finland in the direction of Oulu or Rovaniemi.

I drive across the national border into the car park outside the shop, in a car with studded tyres that I bought a couple of years ago in Haparanda, where tyres, for some reason, are much cheaper than in Finland. The adjacent Ikea store distributes catalogues in northern Finland with the text in Finnish but the prices in Swedish kronor. In the grocery store there are well-known Finnish bakery and dairy products, but this time, for a change, I buy Swedish. I pay for them in Finnish and in euro.

According to the local newspaper Tornio's cinema is closed again, and there have been attempts to get new Finnish films shown in the People's House in Haparanda. That was not successful. Helsinki and Stockholm have such sweeping bureaucracy that you cannot get the films from a stretch of half a kilometre across the border. That is everyday life amongst border obstacles. It is as if the border did not exist but yet it is there.

It is over 200 years since the border between the countries was drawn up by the River Torne. However, there is still no cultural border there. Sweden comes towards you like one gone astray. The Finnish names have been kept and the language is Meänkieli, the characteristic Torne Valley Finnish dialect. It is not until much further inside the country that everything changes to standard Swedish.

Still a bit further to the north and one of the languages on the signs becomes Northern Sami. One can ask oneself if the Sami are not actually the true Nordic citizens. A minority group whose identity is based on disregarding the borders between Finland, Sweden and Norway. The common news programme in Sami, Oddasat, crosses the national borders in a way that must be unique in the world. At the same time there is something deeply Nordic about it.

In the north there is no need to talk about the Nordic model. It is a natural part of everyday life. At the same time they face difficulties in everyday life. The borders are perhaps not a nuisance on the calotte, but distances do not become less for that. At this time of the year there is no way to travel between the centre of northern Finland and northern Norway because the only bus service to Tromsø only runs in the summer. If you don't want to drive over the mountains in the wintry conditions on the roads in your own car there is no choice but to fly via Oslo and Helsinki. It is more expensive and takes longer than if you had gone to Spain. Towns such as Tromsø, Kirkenes, Luleå, Kiruna, Oulu and Rovaniemi should be able to be connected to one another when it matters the most, but the distances cannot be conjured away by magic.

When you travel along Finland's eastern border from north to south something changes. You no longer see Swedish or Norwegian cars anywhere. But you see Russian cars everywhere. At each border crossing tourists from the east pour into Finland continuously. On the signs in the tourist centres and in the shops the second language is Russian.

In bi-lingual Finland, the Swedish minority on the west coast watch television programmes from Sweden in the evenings when the Swedish language broadcasts from Finland stop. In eastern Finland you do not turn on the Swedish language Channel 5 even by accident.

There are distinguishing factors

There are factors which distinguish Finland from the other Nordic countries. One of them is Russia - the huge neighbour which Finland has chosen to separate itself from firstly through close ties with the Nordic Region and secondly with Europe. 200 years ago Finland passed under the control of Russia but kept its legislation from the Swedish era. This had a crucial influence on Finland's future as a Nordic country. The border with Russia is still clear but something is happening. Finland is being transformed into a holiday paradise for the Russian middle class and it is hard to consider paying guests as a threat.

The other is Estonia. Ships sail between Tallinn and Helsinki all the time and the old town in Tallinn is already far more familiar to Finns that the Old Town in Stockholm. Estonia has mentally become a very close neighbour, yet Estonia is not a Nordic country. Geography has done its part. St. Petersburg and especially Tallinn are closer to Finland's capital while Stockholm is far but still a ferry trip away. Oslo, Copenhagen and Reykjavik are somewhere in the distance.

The third is the EU and especially the euro. A national project which led to Finland being firmly anchored in the west. This was something which should have been an outright success but which has turned into a veritable nightmare:where is it all actually leading? What will happen to the euro and how much is it going to cost? In the government district of Helsinki a moaning can be heard which is becoming much louder as the crisis in the eurozone worsens. Louder every day. Open any newspaper and there will be something written about a return to the Finmark. Either as a possibility or as an impossibility.

The fourth factor is inevitably language and a special feeling of being different from the other Nordic countries. All Finnish speakers who take part in Nordic meetings have experienced the same frustration when the others speak their mother tongue to each other and every nuance is lost somewhere out of reach during the discussions. The Swedish language's position as an official language in Finland is very secure, but a new rawness can be heard in the discussions today.

The fifth ought to be royalty. From a republic's view it is a mysterious phenomenon in the neighbouring countries, which no one wants introduced to Finland, but which many still in some way tend to be envious of. In any case when there is a wedding.

Identity is deeply rooted

There are distinguishing factors. Despite this, with reasonable certainty and without scientific studies one can say that there is no cross-border identity in Finland which is so deeply rooted as the Nordic. Maybe be it is because of the flags, maybe because everyday life is so familiar. You seldom pause to analyse it in detail.

The Nordic model, the preservation of the welfare state - all the political parties claim to want to maintain it. Of course there are subtle differences and also a political game. The state needs to save money, the service structures are modified and it is not easy. The basis of the discussion is the national interest.

For many EU critics "Nordicness" stands out as a kind of desirable alternative to the euro and the Finnish approach to the EU. Perhaps not so much because of "Nordicness" as such, as the Nordic countries' different euro and EU solutions. Even those who defend EU co-operation do not hold the Nordic countries in contempt. For them emphasis is on EU politics. None of the camps analyse or follow the Nordic countries' social debate to any great extent. Obviously they follow the news but lack a deeper knowledge of their neighbours. Despite this the Nordic presence is taken as a matter of course.

When the new President Sauli Niinistö takes office soon, his first state visit will be to Sweden. That is how it has been and how it should be. The new President's first gesture is a Nordic handshake. There is no other alternative, and nobody disputes that either.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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