The Finnish government has been roundly criticised for abstaining in a vote on transfers of refugees from southern EU countries. One serving ambassador says the move is ‘image building from hell’, but PM Sipilä has defended his government’s flexibility on immigration.


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Finland’s immigration policy was questioned this week when the country abstained in a vote on transfers of refugees from southern EU states. Interior Minister Petteri Orpo made clear however that the country would accept its share of new arrivals regardless of the abstention.


The abstention brought strong criticism from former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja and even the serving ambassador to Switzerland, Jari Luoto, who said that the government rigidly adhered to the government programme without regard to the situation on the ground.


«The compulsory — and pitiful — explanation is the wording in the program of Finland’s government,» wrote Luoto on Facebook. «Now it seems that whatever happens in the real world, we’ll stick to what has been written months ago under the crystal chandeliers of government’s palace in Helsinki.»


Subtle change


In fact a subtle but significant change in government policy occurred in September. The contortions are necessary because of the binding nature of most Finnish government agreements. Once a policy is agreed between the government parties, it is usually in place and very difficult to change.


In this case the issue is particularly thorny because of the large strand of anti-immigration sentiment in Foreign Minister Timo Soini’s Finns Party. Premier Juha Sipilä pointed out to journalists on Wednesday that in fact the cabinet had agreed to alter its stance on immigration.


«The situation has changed, and so we will do our bit on this issue,» said Sipilä. «This is a clear change from what was announced earlier in the spring.»


The original policy said explicitly that internal EU transfers of asylum seekers would be based on member states’ voluntary participation.


«Image building from hell»


The new version, published on 11 September, says that “Finland will participate in internal transfers of asylum seekers. Finland emphasizes that the main principle of internal transfers is voluntary participation and that these actions are exceptional, and emphasizes that member states have a responsibility to develop their asylum systems and operational capacity.”


The end result of that is that Finland cannot vote in favour of a mandatory mechanism for transfers, but will participate in one and won’t vote against. That position reconciles anti-immigration forces in the Finns Party and those pro-Europeans in the Centre and National Coalition parties who want to do their bit—but critics say that it damages Finland’s standing in the world.


«This is really baffling,» wrote Luoto. «On one hand we — quite rightly — are doing our share BUT at the same time we are doing whatever we can in order to spoil what is left of our reputation and distance ourselves from our closest partners. This is image building straight from hell.»


Speaking on Yle’s Radio 1 on Thursday morning, former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said that the problem lay with one party.


«I’d like to believe that Minister Orpo is a little embarrassed about a situation where he has the Finns Party’s ball at his feet,» said Tuomioja.


Salolainen: This looks weird


Another former foreign minister and veteran member of the Foreign Policy Committee, MP Pertti Salolainen agreed that the three-party government — which includes his own conservative National Coalition Party — has internal pressures on the refugee issue. The result looks odd from the outside, noted Salolainen, a long-time Finnish ambassador to the UK. 


«The place for protesting may be more here in our own country rather than in the international field,» said Salolainen on Yle Radio 1 on Thursday morning.