Being in Finland reminds me there’s another way of discussing Europe and doing politics

Since I moved to Edinburgh for my studies three years ago, I’ve returned to my native Finland for a few weeks of summer holidays each year. It’s a refreshing experience to see old friends and to go to the sauna. The Fazer chocolate is excellent – I’m munching on it as I speak.

Yet there is another, more abstract thing I appreciate about Finland: the political culture.

A peaceful, normal European country

The Helsinki Cathedral. Photo: Juuso Järviniemi

They say that a frog placed in a pot full of cool water won’t jump out as the water is gradually heated, but instead it will stay in the water until it gets boiled to death. British politics has become heated over the past three years – watching news reports of cool and calm Finnish politics is a stark reminder of that.

In Finland, an MP doesn’t get murdered. One of the country’s best-known activists doesn’t get beaten on the street. There is no need to fear a shortage of food and medicines. It would be unimaginable for a leading tabloid to run a headline describing judges as “Kansan viholliset”.

Daily Mail in April 2017 when Theresa May called a snap election. Photo: Dunk / Flickr

Most importantly: though Finnish politicians engage in vigorous debate, you never need to doubt that they have the national interest at heart. They are transparent about their respective visions for how the country should be run. In Finland, you rarely get the feeling that politicians are trying to hide their true intentions. For Finnish politicians, cooperating with colleagues from other parties is perfectly natural.

In other words, Finland is a peaceful, normal European country. The UK could be like this, too. All that Britain needs to do is be its own best self.

Ask yourself how to improve Europe

It’s rather bewildering indeed that the UK government feels oppressed by the EU, while virtually all the other 27 member states feel comfortable in their skin as European countries. (You may keep hearing about the troublemakers, but there aren’t many of them. If you can name three or four, there’s still 23 or 24 other countries where things are fine.)

Finnish people have heard the narrative about the EU menacing the country’s national sovereignty, but they’ve rejected it. Talk about “Brussels bureaucrats” is about as cool and edgy as smoking cigarettes is. For Finland, like for so many other European countries, the EU is an opportunity. We feel like being part of a club makes us safer and stronger.

During her premiership, Theresa May was famous for looking lonely at European Council summits. (Photo: “Tiochfaidh ár lá 1916” / Flickr)

For the UK’s neighbours, the ‘European question’ isn’t “to be or not to be”, but “how to make Europe work better”. Leaders across Europe are discussing new ideas for developing the EU, and they’re doing it with an open mind. Some ideas are good, others are bad, but at least they are trying.

The UK can have its say, too: in the 1980s, when it wanted a Single Market, the others agreed it was a good idea. Since then, has the UK put forward any other good ideas?

The UK can do better

This is not meant to be a discouraging story, but an encouraging and inspiring one. The UK may be a depressing place at this moment, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There is another way of doing politics, and another way of discussing Europe.

Photo: Gordon Joly / Flickr

The alternative is in plain sight. The UK has traditionally been the stable democracy other countries can look up to. Now that Britain is struggling itself, it can look around for positive examples from other countries around it.

If the UK is serious about becoming “the greatest place on Earth”, like the Prime Minister says, it should remember that some of the world’s most successful societies are proudly European.

In 2016, Leicester City won the Premier League. Zara Holland was on Love Island. Feeling old yet?

Justin Timberlake, Zara Holland, Secret Life of Pets

On 23 June 2016, the top 3 singles on the UK Official Singles Chart were One Dance by Drake, This Girl by Kungs vs Cookin’ on 3 Burners, and Can’t Stop The Feeling by Justin Timberlake.

Mike Posner’s I Took A Pill In Ibiza was #10, Adele’s Send My Love To Your New Lover was #25 and Alan Walker’s Faded was #26. The Chainsmokers’ Don’t Let Me Down was #30. In 2016, the Grammy winners for the Best Dance Recording were Skrillex and Diplo, together with Justin Bieber.

In 2016, Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris were still dating. The Scotsman’s Celtic charm wore off around the time of the EU referendum, and soon afterwards Taylor Swift got together with Tom Hiddleston.

Zara Holland in August 2016. Photo: Century Black / Flickr.

On the small screen, the second series of Love Island aired in the summer of 2016. On 17 June, Zara Holland was stripped of her Miss GB title for having sex on TV. She walked out of the show on 19 June. Just in time to vote in the EU referendum, I suppose! Cara De La Hoyde and Nathan Massey went on to win the series.

On the big screen, meanwhile, the highest-grossing film in the UK and Ireland the weekend of 23 June 2016 was The Secret Life of Pets. (The first one, not the sequel.)

Nigel Farage proclaimed the day after the EU referendum “independence day”. Fitting, then, that the second-most popular film that week was Independence Day: Resurgence. While Brexiteers promised sunlit uplands, the film saw an insurgent alien force nearly destroy the world. Turns out Hollywood’s prediction of the future was more accurate than Farage’s.

In 2016, the British entry in the Eurovision Song Contest was Joe and Jake’s You’re Not Alone. The winner was Ukraine with Jamala’s 1944. Since then, Portugal, Israel and the Netherlands have all won the contest. Maybe 2020 will be the UK’s year! Hopefully the Eurovision fans flocking to London in 2021 will smuggle some fresh fruit for us to eat.

Leicester City, Andy Murray, Rio Olympics

In the Premier League, Leicester City were crowned the surprise winners of the 2015/16 season. The best goalkeeper of the season was Petr Čech. Frank Lampard, who played for New York City, retired at the end of the 2016 season.

Now Leicester has returned to mid-table obscurity, and Frank Lampard and Petr Čech have begun new careers in management and coaching. Or given that we’re talking about Chelsea, I guess I should say busing. *badum-tss* If only ‘parking the bus’ still conjured thoughts of Chelsea, instead of Boris Johnson and a £350 million porkie.

Leicester City score against Southampton in April 2016. Photo: LIHD Leicester City / Flickr

On 10 July 2016, Andy Murray won his second Wimbledon singles title. He would also be Team GB’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics the following month.

At those Olympics, Britain won an impressive 27 gold medals, placing second in the medal table behind the US. Second-biggest sporting nation in the world, right? Well, taken together the rest of the EU won 54 gold medals, placing ahead of the US’ 46. Maybe the EU don’t need us more than we need them, after all.

François Hollande, Barack Obama, Matteo Renzi

Don’t you wish Obama could’ve just stayed on for a few more years? (Photo: Voice of America)

In June 2016, Barack Obama was the President of the United States. Much like the UK, the US has seen some dramatic events since 2016, too. For example, there have been 1,148 mass shootings in the US since 23 June 2016. On a more cheerful note, Michelle Obama’s book Becoming was published on 13 November 2018 – one day before negotiations for Theresa May’s Brexit deal finished.

In June 2016, François Hollande was the President of France. David Cameron was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Remember those guys?

In June 2016, Matteo Renzi was the Prime Minister of Italy. Unfortunately for him, it seems he was taking tips from Dave: Renzi, too, lost a referendum in 2016. Unlike David Cameron, though, he didn’t step down but still fought a general election – and lost. This autumn, Italy and the UK are equally likely to have yet another election. Who said Brits and Italians have nothing in common?

“Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband” -David Cameron on 4 May, 2015. (Photo: Global Panorama / Flickr)

In July 2016, Turkey was shaken by a failed military coup and by President Erdogan’s violent response. While Britain has spent the last three years arguing over Brexit, Erdogan has been busy purging Turkish military and civil service, and torturing political prisoners.

In case you hadn’t noticed, absolutely no-one is talking seriously about Erdogan’s Turkey joining the EU – though somehow Brexiteers keep bringing this idea up. With Brexiteers now taking aim at the very foundations of British democracy, let’s hope they aren’t taking their cues from Erdogan.

Harambe and bottle flip

Grim, eh? So let’s wrap this up with some memes from 2016.

In June 2016, it was cool to say “dicks out for Harambe”…

LittleT889 / Wikimedia Commons

…and everyone was flipping bottles.

At the end of 2016, people were posting about how long a year can feel.

That’s accurate – except that Brexit has been going on three times longer than that. Just make it stop already!

The fight against Brexit has taught life skills to countless Brits

Almost every cloud has a silver lining – even Brexit does. Shocked by that June 2016 referendum, the UK has developed the world’s strongest and most vibrant pro-European grassroots movement.

From ‘Cornwall for Europe’ all the way to ‘Highlands for Europe’, hundreds of volunteer-run campaign groups have gained strength in the past three years. Millions of Brits have taken action against Brexit – to take just one example, over six million signed the Revoke Article 50 petition.

The Remain cause has inspired countless of Brits to participate in civic life like never before. The pro-Brexit camp will never manage to mobilise as many ordinary people as the Remainers have done.

When the public learns by doing

A cause you believe in is the best possible motivation for learning new skills. The campaign culture that has developed around the fight against Brexit is rich: all conceivable tools have been mobilised for the cause. Petitions, protests, buses, letters to MPs, all manner of social media campaigns, marches, street actions, costumes. Campaigners learn from each other, and test their skills when engaging in local groups.

When thousands of citizens learn how to set up an outdoor stall or a small-scale demonstration, Britain’s democratic life grows stronger.

In the last three years, countless of Brits have made space for essential campaign equipment such as flags and leaflets in their homes. When thousands of citizens learn how to set up an outdoor stall, run a political campaign channel on social media or arrange small-scale demonstration, a country’s democratic life grows stronger.

The labyrinth that Brexit legislation is going through in Westminster is teaching interested citizens about the British political system in more detail than any school module could. A friend of mine pointed out how Google searches for the process of ‘proroguing’ the Parliament have exploded. Suddenly “everyone decided they need to know” what it means, he said.

Democracy isn’t done to us, it’s made by us

Photo: Alexandra Person

Brexiteer politicians keep repeating that going against this narrow three-year-old referendum result would undermine British citizens’ faith in democracy. To the contrary, the campaign to stay in the EU has done a great, deep service to British democracy.

The campaign has taught people how to participate. Like my friend says, “parts of Britain are starting to get to the point where the idea of democracy is that it’s done by the people, organised bottom-up rather than top-down”.

A lot of people have found out that “politics only seems completely impenetrable because it’s been dressed up that way”, he thinks. Indeed: Politics isn’t only about men in suits insulting each other in arcane language. It’s about speaking with your family and friends, and standing up for yourself when you need to.

Photo: Alexandra Person

This country’s inhabitants now spend more of their spare time on volunteering. By doing so, they’re gaining a whole array of skills: written and verbal communication, event organising, teamwork, graphic design, storing and transporting campaign materials, handicrafts, painting placards, and so on. Maybe these skills help Brits be more creative in their day jobs, too.

No matter what the outcome of the Brexit process is, the British economy and social fabric will emerge from it scathed. Millions of Brits have lost their tempers with each other. Relatives and long-time friends have fallen out over Brexit.

But in one way, the years-long Brexit rollercoaster has turned British people into stronger individuals. Thanks to the fight against Brexit, Brits are now more skilled than before – and more prepared to stand up for themselves when needed.

This article is an adapted version of a text published on The New Federalist.

EU students in the UK must join the fight against Brexit

There are around 140,000 of us. We may not have a vote, but we have a voice. It’s about time we use it.

When we speak of EU nationals in the UK, we normally mean ‘the three million’ – who often are adults with families, jobs and children in the country. These people are highly organised and mobilised. As they should be: they are fighting for their lives, almost literally.

In comparison, the 140,000-or-so EU nationals studying in the UK may feel like spectators. We’ve come here for just a few years and most of us spend the bulk of our time on campus, mainly interacting with other students. Even pro-European Brits have occasionally told me I have no right to speak. Meanwhile, many other EU students have chosen to keep their head low and hope for the mess to go away by itself, or for Brexit to drag out until they have graduated and left the country.

It’s everyone’s business

Yet we’re deceiving ourselves if we think Brexit doesn’t affect us. One of pro-Europeans’ key talking points is the blessing of free movement. And indeed, many EU students have plans to stay in the UK after graduation and maybe, in time, become one of those who have a British spouse and half-British children. Welcome to the three million.

But what if you plan to be out of the country already before the flow of new likes on your graduation pictures has subsided? Well, ask yourself this: Of the millions of people who might in the future use their right to live and work in the UK, could one possibly be you – a person who’s lived in the country, has friends there and masters the language? Even if it’s not on your mind right now, the odds don’t seem that long.

Or maybe you’d at least like to ensure your younger siblings and other compatriots have the same opportunities as you did. You had the joy of smiling smugly when your American classmates complained about their tuition fees. Your student debt is slightly less daunting than theirs thanks to the UK’s membership of the EU. It’s much nicer to go back to your high school to give a talk about studying in the UK if the path still exists for other people to follow.

EU students see the forest for the trees

More than three years of Brexiting has driven the UK a bit crazy. The increasingly thick Brexit lexicon is alienating people from the debate. After all, no sane person wants to spend all day raving about what the right honourable member for Willynillyshire said about alternative arrangements for the backstop this time. 

Perspectives from EU nationals can be a breath of fresh air. Knowing another country for comparison can enable us see the bigger picture.

Countless conversations are constantly taking place on the streets, on local newspapers and the cesspools of the Internet. In these discussions, we can make an invaluable contribution. To name a couple of topics, we can give insight into where the UK is similar to other European countries, where it’s different, and how we can improve the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe. Why not join a street stall with your local pro-EU group and give it a go?

Speaking with people is also the best way to defuse hostility towards EU nationals living in the UK. People are afraid of what they don’t know. To help fix this, you don’t even need to wear an activist T-shirt – talking with people in your local community is enough.

Having a nice conversation with the lady living down the street – about anything, not just Brexit – might not immediately change her worldview, but it might make her image of EU nationals living in the UK a bit more positive. By doing that, you’re already making a difference. You’re helping to keep your own options open for your future, you’re fostering understanding between peoples – and you’ll probably have a smile on your face after you’ve spoken with your neighbour.