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Pragmatism and the New Europe

Editorial by Henrik Stenius

It is possible to make an impact in the New Europe through skilful networking. For this reason, Pertti Joenniemi, in the conference on Small States and European Security in Dublin, doubted the usefulness of the concept of small states when attempting to master the game of New Europe. The important players are neither big nor small countries, but cross-border networks. I have only the vaguest idea what skilful networking means, but I do know that in the political culture of the Nordic states there are different kinds of skilfulness and different concepts of pragmatism.

In the beginning, there was the pragmatism of rural culture. There are researchers (Satu Apo, Peter Aronsson, Bo Stråth) who see modern elements in the traditional Nordic peasant culture. They detect a rational, pragmatic way of thinking in agrarian culture, in the peasant’s natural and practical attitude to the world, in the fact that the peasant was not a completely subordinate subject but an active, negotiating, autonomous individual.

At the same time there was also an unpragmatic feature in Nordic societies, namely a rigid, unified code of behaviour which Nordic citizens adhered to in a good-natured way. This culture of obedience can be explained by the homogeneous Lutheran culture, which gave people very little freedom to choose between different sets of rules.

Then came the European Union. Joining the EU created problems. Different countries have their own attitudes towards laws and centralised regulations: in non-Nordic societies, which are characterised by strong subcultures based on the principle of subsidiarity, and which are ruled by clientistic traditions rooted in the age-old separation of Church and State, the law is just one consideration among many when choosing a course of action. Only in the Nordic countries do law and legislation wear the mantle of sacrosanct venerability. In these countries, the arrival of European meta-regulations and the need to cope with a variety of existing rules creates special problems. It is obvious that the Nordic countries have solved this problem in different ways.

Swedes regard themselves as pragmatic: however, one has to ask what Swedish pragmatism means. The point of departure is the same as in Finnish political culture: society can be reformed, and the reforms will be brought about by new legislation. In the Swedish case, however, it is not only the law but also politics that has a special, sacrosanct status: in fact, politics is even more sacrosanct than the law. This Swedish way of thinking was explained by the philosopher Axel Hägerström (1868-1939). Hägerström’s thinking became important because it fitted in with and gave backbone to a commitment to modernising the whole nation. The idea of a single codified set of rules was maintained. This modern version of one unified code of law was legitimised solely by an appeal to rationality. It was believed that there was one rational solution to every problem in society. All politics converge at this point. Swedish pragmatism is therefore the opposite of the kind of pragmatism which is created by different sets of laws, norms and values. The Swedes in Brussels sometimes feel frustrated because they find that the rules of European politics are wrong.

The Finns do not usually regard themselves as pragmatic. But I think there is, nevertheless, something which could be called Finnish pragmatism. When, in 1994, the Finns voted by a small majority to join the European Union, the referendum campaign had been exciting if not dramatic. There were no furious debates, and no deep divisions between pro and anti camps. There were of course different opinions on the EU. When the Finns worry about the EU, the reasons are much the same as for citizens in the rest of the EU: the republicans are losing the battle to speculators in international dealing rooms and to the latter-day nuncios in Brussels. Insofar as there was a public debate, it was primarily couched in economic terms. But in a strange way, beneath the surface of the public debate, everybody was convinced that EU membership was really a matter of national security. This conviction, however, did not make the decision less complicated. Everybody could see both sides of the argument: membership of the EU could weaken as well as strengthen the security position.

It is fascinating to make comparisons with the heated debate in Sweden and Norway which sharply divided the public into those for and those against EU membership, a division that still plays an important role in political debate in those countries. One expression of Finnish pragmatism is the fact that once Finland had joined the EU, there was universal acceptance of the new situation.

There are two dimensions to this kind of pragmatism.

Fintan O’Toole writes in the New Statesman (7 March 1997) about the ease with which the Irish have accepted their role in the New Europe. He contrasts this with the English attitude, which is riddled with complex issues concerning their identity which they have never before had to confront. "We are supposed to be obsessed with such abstractions as sovereignty and national identity, while the English are meant to be cool and pragmatic." Something similar, a pragmatic attitude towards the EU, can also be identified in Finland. Perhaps a self-confident feeling of being able to perform skilfully in a European context is a characteristic of peripheral nations. Perhaps small and peripheral countries feel there is a special challenge in showing strong neighbouring countries that they can manage independently.

The other dimension has to do with the fact that Finland is a border country. The way people look at Europe and the world is fundamentally different on each side of her eastern border. In terms of power politics, the relations between the two countries in question are fundamentally asymmetrical. The borderland position, and especially the experience of being a part of a greater empire, (i.e. a Grand Duchy of Russia between 1808 and 1917), created an ability to cope with different sets of rules. In international relations the Finns accept that there are different rules. This is the core of Finnish pragmatism. Otherwise, on the national scene, the Finns act according to just one set of rules and -- unpragmatically -- follow them.

Henrik Stenius

See also:

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