Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

A friend in need or a friend indeed: Finnish perceptions of Germany's role in the EU and Europe

Tuomas Forsberg

January 2000

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


Finland is often seen as a country whose view of Germany has traditionally been more positive than that of the average of the European countries. According to an opinion poll that was conducted in 1996, 42 % of the Finns have a positive view, 47 % a neutral and only 6 % a negative view of Germany and Germans. This positive attitude is not only a result of the large amount of cultural and trade contacts or societal similarities, shared Lutheran religion and German roots of Finnish political thinking but derives also from the historical experience that Germany has been willing to help Finland in bad times. Although this view is not necessarily correct when judged against the historical record and although it is not unanimously shared by all Finns, it provides the necessary starting point when assessing Finland’s view of Germany in today’s Europe.

Against this background, it is understandable that the basic relationship between Finland and Germany in the post-Cold War Europe has been tight and amicable. Finland has regarded Germany as its close partner and has had no major objections to Germany’s central role in the Union. The political leadership often points to the great amount of shared interests and similarities in political reasoning. This pattern deviates clearly from the Cold War period during which the political relationship suffered from the division of Germany, and from the Soviet Union’s suspicions about Finland approaching West Germany.

Underneath, however, the picture of Germany in today’s Finland is not always that rosy. There are two kinds of sources for a negative attitude. First, a negative image of Germany as an aggressive country also exists in Finland. That image is based partly on the own historical experiences, foremostly the war in Lapland, and partly on the general post-war stereotypes of Germany that have spread to Finland both through the Soviet as well as through Anglo- American media. Second, there is the more general suspicion about all great powers, which is not based on any direct experience of Germany’s domination. Rather, the fear of Finland’s subordinated position to one big power (the Soviet Union) during the Cold War has now been transferred to another (EU – Germany). The critique on government’s policy towards Germany that has every now become visible in the public debates is usually based on the combination of these two mental constructions.

The recent changes of the capital city, the government coalition as well as the political generation in the post-unification Germany were mostly seen as positive developments in Finland. Basically, Berliner Republik has raised more expectations than fears about the future role of Germany in Europe and about the bilateral German – Finnish relationship. The change of the capital city was perceived as bringing Germany closer to the Baltic Sea and the North. The growth of Germany’s political and cultural influence was seen as working also in Finland’s favour. Initially, the assumption that Germany might become more self-assertive, was regarded as a healthy historical corrective and not as a reason for worries. For example, Germany’s demands for reducing its net-payments to the EU budget, its claim for a seat in the UN Security Council or its redefined military role were generally approved by Finns. Nevertheless, the Finnish EU presidency started with a lesson that the new Germany’s self-assertiveness may cause unforeseen problems in the bilateral relations. The so-called language dispute that concerned the interpretation in the unofficial meetings opened many eyes in this regard. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported, for example, that the attitude towards Germany changed overnight. The controversy was settled amicably and the leading politicians reassured that the basic relationship has not suffered from the incident. Nevertheless, the episode left with some mixed feelings about the future in particular because the relationship between big and small member states is regarded as one of the sensitive questions of the upcoming intergovernmental conference of the EU.