Positive influence - Issue 150 - Magazine | Monocle

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When Sanna Marin took office in 2019 aged 34, the Social Democrat politician became the world’s youngest prime minister. She attracted global attention for forming a coalition of five parties, all led by women. She is the third female prime minister of a country that has also had a female president and that was the first to give women the right both to vote and to stand for parliament, in 1906.

Marin’s centre-left government has set ambitious goals of reforming Finland’s healthcare sector and achieving carbon neutrality by 2035, years before other Western countries. It has won plaudits for its pandemic response, which allowed for a comparatively open economy with less severe lockdowns while maintaining one of the lowest infection and mortality rates in the developed world.

This doesn’t mean that her time in office has been without tumult. Marin has had to grapple with infighting among her coalition government, whose constituent parties don’t agree on precisely how to achieve the country’s climate goal. She has had to fend off attacks from right-wing populists, whose various parties have overtaken the Social Democrats in recent opinion polls. In December, Marin attracted widespread criticism for partying in a nightclub despite having been warned that she had been exposed to coronavirus. Finnish foreign policy continues to be beset by neighbouring Russia and Marin’s government has finalised Finland’s largest-ever military upgrade, namely the purchase of 64 multi-role fighter jets for €10bn. 

monocle meets Marin after a Friday plenary in the Eduskunta, the country’s parliament, to talk about brand Finland, the Arctic region and equality.

Finland tops many international tables – it’s ranked as the world’s happiest country, the least failed state and one of the least corrupt states. Is Finland as successful as it is made out to be? And how can brand Finland up its diplomatic game to reflect that?
We should be proud of how far we have come. Finland has developed in a few decades from a poor, agrarian nation into one of the world’s most affluent and happiest states, where citizens enjoy a high quality of life and excellent education. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have problems. We still have work to do in equality, human rights and ensuring that our economy stays competitive.

In global affairs, Finland’s role is to lead by example. Our nation is proof that focusing on the welfare of citizens also leads to economic success; it’s not either/or. We are contributing to gender equality too. Globally, women are still in the margins when it comes to political leadership. We should hold half of the power in the world.

Another area where we can lead by example is climate change. Finland can show that an ambitious climate policy makes economic sense and doesn’t mean that states need to compromise on bringing welfare to their citizens.

The world order based on US hegemony and interventionism is gradually coming to an end. What shape will the new world order take and what is Finland’s place in it? And what approach does Finland take towards Russia?
Finland’s place is firmly in the EU. I am a strong advocate for the EU taking a more prominent role in world politics and in shaping our future. Geopolitics is playing a bigger role than before in global affairs, with China, the US, Russia and other powerful states often putting their national interests before international co-operation. The EU should not remain naive in this new reality. It should identify its strengths and focus on them. 

In this new world order, the EU should be less dependent on other powers, not only in defence and foreign policy but also economically. The pandemic has laid bare just how dependent our economies are on global supply chains. It has taught us that we have to increase production capacity in Europe. We also need to develop energy production, so that Europe doesn’t have to rely on foreign sources.

When it comes to Russia, Finland believes in dialogue. This is an area where the EU needs to improve. We need to be capable of better dialogue. Even if we don’t see eye to eye, we need to be able to discuss difficult issues straightforwardly. We cannot solve problems such as the situation in Crimea and Ukraine, or issues of democracy and the rule of law, if we don’t talk about them first.

The melting of Arctic ice is opening up a northern sea route to Asia, revolutionising world logistics. What does this mean for the Arctic and for Finland?
We should remember that the Arctic is an extremely vulnerable region and climate change is a big threat to it. Our focus should be on combating the melting of the sea ice because studies show that if the Arctic ice sheet melts, it will release gases into the atmosphere that will exacerbate climate change globally. That should be our priority instead of contemplating potential uses for the region. Finland strives to keep the geopolitical tensions in the Arctic to a minimum.

Finland wants to be carbon neutral by 2035, which is the most ambitious goal in the Western world. Are all Finns on board with this plan and are they willing to make the necessary sacrifices, such as cutting down on personal vehicles and flying overseas for holidays?
It’s about more than just individual choices. We have to restructure our economies to make them more sustainable. We should see the big picture and look at how we use the limited resources we have. That said, we need citizens to be on board as well. There will inevitably be those who disagree with my government’s goals. But what ultimately matters is that all of the key institutions and stakeholders in Finland, such as the business lobby, the unions, the scientific community and even large parts of the political opposition, agree that we need ambitious climate policies. 

“Finland’s role is to lead by example. Our nation is proof that focusing on the welfare of citizens also leads to economic success. It’s not either/or”


Got to hand it to her...

We might disagree on the specifics, which is part of democracy, but there is a wide consensus on the big picture. Finland is a consensus-driven society and I believe that we can meet our ambitious goal by working together. To give you just one example, various Finnish industries have, on their own initiative, already presented road maps for how they can reach the 2035 goal. 

This bottom-up approach is something that Finland is very good at. It’s not about the government imposing rules and restrictions but about different sectors coming up with their own solutions. Other countries could learn a thing or two from us.

ou have a five-party government with all-female leaders. Has that made governing Finland any different in your experience? Have you been treated differently because you’re a young woman?
Finland has a long-standing tradition of multiparty government. As a result, we are used to negotiating with our rivals and finding compromises. We are consensus-driven by nature and the fact that we are all women doesn’t change this. But, of course, it makes a difference in a symbolic way. That we have a female-led government says a lot about what kind of society we are. It shows that our children are born into a society where they can pursue their dreams regardless of their gender or their background. It is important that we show the world that those in power can look different to what people are used to.

But gender still makes a difference in politics and in society, both in Finland and abroad. One of my government’s priorities has been to make structural reforms to address this. We have, for instance, made parental leave more equal between women and men. To achieve real gender equality we need to change people’s attitudes but also reform those structures that create and maintain it.

As a young, female leader, I have received a lot of attention in the international media. If I look back at my career, yes, I can see that I have been treated differently because of my age and the fact that I am a woman. The same applies to many of my female colleagues. However, in daily politics the prime minister’s position is so strong that I have not felt that I have been treated differently during my premiership.


Eduskunta, the Finnish parliament

Has the pandemic dampened your government’s progressive policy programme? Do you think that you will be remembered only as the pandemic prime minister?
The pandemic has been an unprecedented crisis that has hit us hard and it has taken up a lot of our time. I am very proud that we have managed, despite coronavirus, to further many of the goals that we set in our programme. We have completed or are in the process of completing crucial reforms – in health and social care, for example – that will improve the availability and quality of basic public services throughout Finland. We have also extended compulsory education to the age of 18, increased the staffing requirements for caregivers for the elderly and introduced a statutory right for citizens to see a doctor within a specified number of days. It’s clear that this period will be remembered for the pandemic but I would also like this government to be remembered for strengthening the Nordic welfare state in Finland and for bringing more welfare to its citizens. And, of course, for helping them through this difficult time.

“The democracy of the future doesn’t need to look like what we have had in the past. We need representative democracy and political parties but we also need to find new ways of influencing social issues”

What is your advice on how to get young people engaged in politics?
I have seen how interested and engaged the younger generations are in social issues. They are ready to act to change things that they deem important. So the question here is, “Do we need to change politics?” The democracy of the future doesn’t necessarily need to look like what we have had in the past. We need representative democracy and political parties but we also need to find new ways of influencing social issues. When a person becomes engaged in an issue, it is always a very valuable thing, even if it does not happen through party politics. And when young people notice that they can be part of change and influence things, it will often inspire them to get involved in traditional politics too. In a vibrant democracy, there are various channels through which people can act on issues that they deem important. What matters most are the issues and the fact that people are interested in them. That is how I became interested in politics myself; I was worried about equality and climate change, and wanted to act. 


Marin contemplating her vision

The pandemic seems to have halted the advance of populist politicians around the world but we are still seeing a lot of distrust of the media, science and public officials. What needs to be done to bring civility, rationality and a sense of togetherness back into politics?
That is a major challenge to our democracies. Social media and even some parts of the traditional media have been spreading false information and conspiracy theories. It’s clear now that social media, which promised to bring people together and lower the barriers between us, also has a dark side. For example, it has made all opinions seem equally valid. This should not be the case. Scientific facts are more valid than personal feelings or opinions when it comes to scientific issues.

Social media has made it very easy for people to find support for their views, instead of relying on scientific research and fact-based arguments. It is an echo chamber where you can always find someone who agrees with your personal opinion, whatever it might be. The antivax movement is a concerning example of this. 

So we need to stand up for science and facts. This means that sometimes you’re proven wrong and you need to change the way you’re doing things. My government has certainly changed course a few times during this pandemic when the experts have presented new findings. That’s the only wise way to act.

Sanna Marin’s CV
Born in Helsinki
Enters municipal politics in Tampere, Finland’s third-largest city
Heads the city council in Tampere
Elected to the Finnish parliament
Graduates from Tampere University with a master’s degree in administrative sciences
Becomes minister for traffic and communications, then prime minister six months later

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