How do the ideas for introducing tuition fees relate to Finland’s membership in NATO?

Veronika Sušová-Salminen shows the links between neutrality and the Nordic welfare state, which NATO and neoliberal policies now replace.

After years of strange neutrality during and after the end of the Cold War, Finland hurriedly decided to join NATO this year. This was not surprising, given that there was a fairly strong Euro-Atlantic current in Finnish politics, which was given all the aces by Russia’s interventionist war in Ukraine, including the support of the public opinion. Joining NATO is mostly considered a security or international policy issue. However, little consideration is given to other contexts.

Recently, in Finland, the possibility that local universities and higher education institutions might be given the opportunity to introduce tuition fees has begun to be pondered. The suggestion has come from the ranks of the finance ministry, which is in the hands of the Centre Party (Keskusta). This is linked to the next step: a proposal for cuts of EUR 9 billion, which are said to be ‘necessary’ over the next eight years. Introducing tuition fees (not yet across the board) should compensate for the lack of public funding. At the same time, tuition fees are being discussed as a way to improve Finnish higher education, which in the latest OECD ranking fell below its average.

Finnish education as a whole (not just higher education) has been publicly funded and provided without fees.

There are study grants for Finnish citizens, i.e. essentially study benefits, which provide basic economic security for students and enable them (along with part-time jobs etc.) to become independent more quickly and start building a life of their own. One of the important Finnish values has been equality, including equality in access to education. While the newly opened debate has raised these issues, there are also arguments that, in some cases, it would be ‘justified’ for some students or their employers to pay tuition fees.

The whole debate is now at least “just” beginning to test (and push) the boundaries of the current vision of the role of public education. The debate framework is based on a classic formula: ‘necessary’ cuts starve public finances, the impact is externalised to taxpayers, and the public service is privatised and commercialised (eventually opened to rent-seeking).

In June this year, the Finnish political scientist Heikki Patomäki wrote an excellent article for Monde Diplomatique on the circumstances and consequences of Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO. The article is aptly titled “The End of the Nordic Model: Sweden and Finland joining NATO”. In the article, Patomäki reveals a context unfamiliar to the ordinary Czech or Central European reader and shows another important dimension of the decision of these two countries to join NATO.

Patomäki connects the Nordic model of the welfare state with the Swedish social democracy, whose political hegemony was consolidated in the 1920s and 1930s. In the case of Finland, he relates it to post-war developments and the politics of Urho Kekkonen.

Patomäki writes about a key speech by Prime Minister Kekkonen in 1952, in which “Kekkonen linked Finnish neutrality and its Nordic identity. While the speech was about military alliances and the possibility of peace – it was a desperate cry for peace – the idea of “an alliance of neutrality” had manifold political consequences in a situation where the social-democratic movement had already achieved hegemonic status, especially in Sweden. In the following decades, Kekkonen’s Nordic policy of neutrality, combined with the successful struggles of the labour movement and centre and left parties, enabled Finland to replicate, with some modifications, the Swedish model and build a universalist democratic welfare state. This was also a period of rapid economic growth, technological dynamism, urbanisation, and decreasing inequalities.“

According to Patomäki, there were connections between Sweden’s active internationalism, hence Finnish neutrality, and the Nordic model. Both were built on shared social values that were then reflected in the foreign policy of these countries.

These arrangements existed within the framework of the Cold War and its rivalry between the two competing systems of capitalism and communism. The collapse of the USSR led to the strengthening of the already existing trend of compromise between social democracy and neoliberalism (but no longer between socialism and capitalism), the so-called Third Way. In this context, the social democratic governments here also resorted to financial liberalisation to impose a new discipline on macroeconomic policy and to financial deregulation, which led to the financial and monetary crisis in the early 1990s (which was reinforced in Finland by the simultaneous collapse of the Soviet market).

The proponents of neoliberalism in Finland typically became critics of the Finlandization policy, which led to a total reinterpretation of this policy and, as we see today, of Finnish neutrality. The main leitmotif has become the desire to put Finland on the ‘Western side’, i.e. on the winning side of the Cold War.

In both countries, there was (and still is) a redefinition of their identities as European and Western, which then gradually replaced (or still coexists with) the Nordic and neutral one.

In the case of Finland in particular, the historical revisionism of the 1990s gradually led to Finlandization and its policies during the Cold War being contrasted with Europeanness, becoming a “betrayal” of Western Finland – and as such was eventually rejected by many. “Westernization” is linked to the gradual emergence of neoliberalism.

Patomäki goes on to write about not only Finnish but also Nordic developments in the 1990s:

“Across the Norden, economistic discourses about the requirements of “new times” rose, involving neoliberal framing of new social problems and consequent transformations in terms of austerity, tax-reforms favouring the well off, privatisation, outsourcing, and applications of new public management. In the 1990s, the intimate Cold War ties between Sweden and NATO were revealed to the public. By this point, to the extent that Sweden was still leading the Norden in some sense, it was leading it away from the Nordic model…”

Naturally, a similar process then occurred in the other Nordic countries and in Finland.

Finland’s (and Sweden’s) entry into NATO will thus be most likely accompanied by further neoliberalisation.

So far, it has been slower in the region because neoliberal policies were entering a stable and democratic political system here (unlike in Central and Eastern Europe, where they became part of shock therapy that politically immobilised local societies).

For one thing, joining NATO is essentially a triumph of the local neoliberals over the Nordic model. It is therefore not surprising that the entry into NATO, in addition to the militarization of the budget and society, is and will be accompanied by further attempts to expand the neoliberal modus operandi and dismantle the remnants of the Nordic model. The latter reflected different values and a different vision of the world and of own identity. Thus, like the Central Europeans, Finland is counted among the ‘victors’ of the Cold War, but the high cost of this belated victory will be felt sooner than hoped, and they will hardly be victorious.

All of us in Central Europe can tell the story…

This article was first published in Czech by Cross-Border Talks’ partner, časopis !Argument.

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