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Finnish report Finnish report
by Euro Reporter
2015-02-17 10:46:52
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President would have resigned if Finland had vetoed EU membership

In a 1994 national referendum, 56.9 percent of Finns voted to join the EU, which Finland did in the beginning of 1995 along with Sweden and Austria. But EU membership wasn't the only thing on the line.

”I don’t know if I have ever made this public before, but I told my wife that if I can’t convince the Finns that we should join the EU, then I’ll resign. They can get themselves another president, I said. And I would have done it,” said Ahtisaari, who served as Finland's 10th president from 1994 to 2000.

Ahtisaari, founder of the Crisis Management Initiative, an NGO that works to resolve conflict and build sustainable peace, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 2008. He says that he felt so strongly about how important EU membership was for Finland that NATO membership fell in the EU's shadow. “My NATO stance is the same now as it was then," said Ahtisaari. "During my time as president I did not actively push for NATO membership because it was very good that we attained EU membership.” According to Ahtisaari, Russia is neither a threat to Finland nor a reason for the country to join a military alliance. ”Finland should belong to all the organizations that Western democracies belong to,” he said.

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Finns face grim choices in a national election

Just like in Greece, the main topic of Finland’s national election, in April, will be austerity. But the Finns have little or no chance to vote against it. All the major Finnish parties promise painful belt-tightening to keep public debt from ballooning as the economy struggles to expand. The government debt of Finland has almost doubled since 2008, from 28 percent of gross domestic product to 48 percent at the end of 2014. Taxes have risen 3 percentage points over the same period as different administrations tried to preserve benefits without resorting to deep cuts. The jobless rate this year will rise slightly to 8.8 percent, the government estimates. GDP languishes below its 2008 level.

Finland’s economy has failed to recover from a multitude of shocks in the last seven years. Nokia went from being the world’s biggest maker of mobile phones to making none, and the paper industry, Europe’s biggest, suffered as readers abandoned newspapers for the Web. A record-long recession in the euro region and a downturn in neighbouring Russia have hurt exporters of all kinds. Government forecasts that economic growth would fix public finances proved unfounded. Finland has the fastest-aging population in Europe, and politicians haven’t figured out how to pay for the pensions and health care that the swelling ranks of retirees will need. Among the first European nations to hold an election since anti-austerity party Syriza grabbed power in Greece, Finland may signal what’s in store for incumbents in other national elections in Europe. With ballots approaching in Denmark, Ireland, Spain, and the U.K., more voters may reject the status quo because they’re tired of governments’ inability to end the lingering effects of the financial crisis and to keep their promise to restore prosperity. Polls in Finland show the opposition Centre Party winning the most votes, in part because it hasn’t held power in four years. “These elections will certainly be about the economy,” says Juhana Aunesluoma, the director of the University of Helsinki’s Network for European Studies. “Finland’s economic situation and outlook are so worrying that the Centre Party keeps gaining popularity while doing practically nothing.”

In a Jan. 28 speech, the party’s leader, Juha Sipila, didn’t hide his pessimism as he presented his party’s economic vision. He pledged to check spending and said he’d cut the budget to ensure outlays stay at the 2014 level. One target for cuts are Finland’s generous unemployment benefits. Sipila says it will take another decade to revive the economy, and the country will need to scrap a goal of curtailing the growth of public debt by 2017. The party would seek to create 200,000 jobs under a to-be-unveiled plan that will mean more borrowing. “The situation is bleak, and this may be a longer endeavour than we realize,” Sipila said. Prime Minister Alexander Stubb sounds just as gloomy. “We’ve been living beyond our means since 2000,” he said in a debate with other party leaders on Feb. 3. “We built our welfare society on the assumption that we would have 3 percent economic growth permanently.” This year the economy is expected to grow 0.9 percent. Finnish voters don’t especially like the choices they face. Says Sirkka Kontula, a caterer: “The government proposes cutting jobless benefits to get the unemployed back to work faster—but what work? There is no work. It looks like those most in need in Finland are the least likely to get any help.”

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Finland approves nuclear depository plan

Finnish regulators have given final approval to a plan to build a nuclear waste depository and processing plant beneath Olkiluoto Island. The plan calls for spent nuclear fuel from the nuclear power plants of Teollisuuden Voima and Fortum to be packed in copper canisters and then embedded in the bedrock beneath the island at a depth of up to 450 m. After several years considering the proposal, the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority of Finland (STUK) has told the government that the facility “can be built to be safe.”

“We have already assessed that the operational and long-term safety of the nuclear waste facility are on a sufficiently high level for granting the construction licence,” explains STUK section head Jussi Heinonen. “This is a new type of facility, which is why the appropriate approach is to progress in phases and, at the same time, assess and elaborate the designing of the facility on the basis of the accumulating knowledge. “For example, we will gain more detailed knowledge about the local characteristics of rock at the final disposal depth once the construction of the facility begins.”

The plant’s designer Posiva, a waste management specialist jointly owned by Finnish nuclear companies Fortum and TVO, says that it is now able to carry out detailed engineering work on the designs. It estimates that building the facility will cost approximately €3bn (US$3.4bn), and that it will be processing waste for around a century. According to Posiva, the first preparations for the disposal project began in the 1980s, and the Finnish parliament first gave its in-principle approval to the project 14 years ago. STUK has been considering the company’s construction licence since late 2012. The government still needs to approve an operating licence before the proposed repository can start processing waste. Posiva says it expects to apply for that licence in 2020.

 


          
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