Finland’s strong far right party is known for defending policies against immigrants and other vulnerable groups. But it’s also known for pushing an anti-EU agenda. Its double stance has been questioned recently.

Originally called the True Finns, the party reinvented itself as the Finn party (Perus in Finnish). Since then, it has been hiding its real identity within the European conservative environment, mainly the ECR Group in the European Parliament.

But since 2018, the leader of the party and former MEP Jussi Halla-aho abandoned ECR for Matteo Salvini’s new far-right Identity and Democracy group. Although it is questionable how wise Perus’ decision was, the fact is the party chose to stay on the dark side of European politics.

However, Perus, as is the case with many other parties in Europe, denies that it is a far-right party. Instead, it tries to masquerade its hate as patriotic rhetoric.

Last August, Oula Silvennoinen, a history researcher at the University of Helsinki, told the Finnish YLE A-studio that the Finns are part of the far right provoking immediate reactions in the camp of Perus.

“It would be good to make it clear also to the viewers what we mean by the far right. It’s a relatively broad term that incorporates right-wing extremists, neo-Nazi organisations like the Nordic Resistance Movement and radical right-wing parties like the Finns Party,” said Silvennoinen, as quoted by the Helsinki Times.

European Interest caught up with Oula Silvennoinen to discuss today’s far-right reality in Finland and in the EU. He is a well-known historian who has conducted significant research about Nazi Germany and fascism. In 2016, he wrote together with Marko Tikka and Aapo Roselius a book titled “Fascism in Finland. The Heralds of the Black Dawn”. The book searches the roots of fascism in Finland and its place in the European fascist movement. He was also a candidate of the Green League in April’s parliamentary elections.

European Interest: In your book, you argue that today’s far-right in Finland shares a similar ideology with the 1920s fascist movements. How do you explain the return of such far-right arguments in the political debate after a century? How would you describe the type of electorate that is attracted to such ideas and what do you think motivates them to support the Finns?

Oula Silvennoinen: Fascism never went anywhere, neither did the ideas and aims that define the far right in general. The present-day Finns Party is almost explicitly built on a platform of xenophobia and racism, and caters especially to authoritarians. Curbing, and in practice, ending altogether at least humanitarian immigration, is the cure-all solution offered by the Finns Party to almost every conceivable question. The most radical supporters envision also deportations of immigrants to return Finland to an imagined era of ethnic homogeneity. That’s politics of nostalgia, a longing to a largely imagined past that never was, but common to the far right and fascist movements. The party leadership and supporters also tend to display a poor grasp of how society and governance actually work, and are therefore susceptible to populist rhetoric and pie-in-the-sky solutions to complex problems.

EU-politics do not play a big role for the Finns Party, as their supporters tend to be uninformed and uninterested in the inner workings of the union and actual policy-making. Symbolical acts and ideological posturing is more important to them

The Finns party abandoned the Conservative Group (ECR) in the European Parliament and joined Matteo Salvini’s far-right group Identity and Democracy. Considering Salvini’s political mistakes in Italy and the corruption scandal in Austria, do you think this was a wrong move of Jussi Halla-aho? Or do you think the Finns party believes that a narrow affiliation with the European far-right will increase its influence in Finland?

I think it’s too early to say whether the move was right or wrong for them. One thing is clear, however, the Finns Party leadership definitively thinks Salvini’s group is ideologically the right one for them. They see themselves as explicitly belonging to that reference group, and whether or not that will have a positive effect on the party’s fortunes in Finland is less important. The move is merely symbolic, though. EU-politics do not play a big role for the Finns Party, as their supporters tend to be uninformed and uninterested in the inner workings of the union and actual policy-making. Symbolical acts and ideological posturing is more important to them.

A few months ago, asked by the media about whether they could cooperate with the Finns, the two candidates for the leadership of the Centre Party did not exclude such a possibility. In Austria, Denmark, Latvia, Bulgaria and elsewhere in Europe, we see conservative, liberal and even social democratic parties flirting with the far-right. How do you explain such a trend in the EU countries?

I’m not sure if we’re seeing here a trend in any other sense that political parties generally are interested in having a place in government and are therefore ready to compromise, sometimes even with radicals like the Finns Party. What is worrying for Finland, though, is that the Finns Party was thrown out of the last government by exactly the two parties, that now are sending signals of their readiness to consider co-operation, even in a position of junior partner. In the meantime, though, the Finns Party has only continued to grow more radical. This is what worries me most, as no party to whom the well-being of the Finnish republic and democracy is dear should entertain ideas of co-operation with the far right.

Ahead of the European elections, the general impression was that the far-right parties were leading with unprecedented electoral success. However, except for the success of the Italian League, the rest of the parties failed to achieve any exceptional performance. Do you think the rise of the far-right in many EU countries has reached a limit in terms of electoral gains?

Indeed, the performance of many of these groups turns out lacklustre, to say the least. I’m afraid the general impressions are still much influenced by the far right’s populist rhetoric stressing the inexorable, continuous progress these parties are supposedly making in their quest for power. The reality, of course, is often very different, but that has little impact on the rhetoric. We might indeed be seeing in many countries the far right reach the ceiling of their potential support, after which it will become to maintain the upbeat narrative of continuous progress. In politics, what goes up will eventually come down, and it is clear no movement can remain on the march forward forever.

What is worrying for Finland, though, is that the Finns Party was thrown out of the last government by exactly the two parties, that now are sending signals of their readiness to consider co-operation, even in a position of junior partner. In the meantime, though, the Finns Party has only continued to grow more radical

Over the past 30 years, there is a tendency among academics and politicians to use the term “populism” to describe a wide range of political movements – from the far-right to the left. Do you believe such a term represents an ideology? Is it correct, from political and scientific point of view, to include in the same category racist and xenophobic parties such as the True Finns and the League with the Spanish Podemos or Greece’s Syriza?

I’m with those scholars who define populism less as an ideology of a discernible content, and more as a rhetorical style. Therefore, I think it is justified to speak of populism whenever a political movement tries to portray itself as the authentic voice of “the people” and cast its opponents as “the elite” lacking a mandate to represent anyone. Many different types of political movements, from left to right, can use such a basic approach to politics. The Finns Party started as right-wing populist movement, but has by now definitively made the shift to the radical right, and the far right in general. They still maintain their populist rhetoric, though.

One of the goals of the Finnish EU Presidency is to introduce the respect of the rule of law as a condition for receiving EU subsidies. Such a perspective would threaten firstly the Hungarian government, while many other governments could be also targeted. Are you an optimist about the EU’s capability to prevent attacks against independent judiciary, media freedom and human rights?

I am an optimist, if for no other reason than that an optimist has better reasons to get up from bed every morning. The EU’s capability to put through measures that would make an end of the authoritarian challenge to the core values and principles of the union remains to be tested, for sure. But what I think is crucial for the future of the EU is that the member countries need to find a way to construct a more robust defence of the essentials of the union. Democracy, the rule of law and open society need to be vigorously defended, for almost everywhere are they threatened by forces who would undo them.