National Identity in Finland and the Netherlands

This blog post is about national identity in two northwest European countries, Finland and the Netherlands. Specifically, I will write about how ideas and conceptions about these identities have changed during the last decades. The essay is based on a presentation I gave at the Finnish Embassy in The Hague on 22 March 2018 at an event to commemorate a hundred years of cooperation between these states.

To begin with, it is necessary to discuss shortly what I mean by national identity. It is a tricky concept that can denote many different things. In this context, it is relevant to make a distinction between:

  • the identification of individuals with a national unit, a nation or a state (individual level);
  • a case of a collective identity, i.e. the collection of shared attributes and characteristics that makes a national community recognizable (social-collective level);
  • the identity of a state as a nation-state (state-systemic level).

My analysis concentrates on the last, state-systemic, level of national identity. Here, national identity refers to a system of meanings and symbols that bind the political state together with an ethnically or culturally understood national unit. This association can be fruitfully studied on three dimensions: internal unity or homogeneity; external differentiation and international position; temporal continuity and development.

When I moved to the Netherlands in January 1992, I had just finished my participation in a European study focusing on the national and European identity and orientation of intellectuals. Intellectuals should here be understood broadly, including not only writers, academics and artists but also otherwise influential people such as politicians, high civil servants and journalists. In the Netherlands, where public debates on national identity and Dutch culture were also going on, I soon realized that the Finnish results could only then be properly interpreted and understood if they were compared with those from another country. Therefore, I carried out similar interviews in the Netherlands.

Nation-state Identity: Strong and Weak

This small comparative study finally grew to become my dissertation in political science that I defended at the University of Helsinki in 1999. The empirical material consisted of historical descriptions of and analyses on Dutch and Finnish national culture and character, of official or semi-official books representing the state, nation and society, and of the contemporary debate on national identity. The results confirmed the somewhat surprising finding of the interview study: the descriptions of the nation, national culture and national character were in both countries strikingly similar. In other words, there did not seem to be many differences between Finland and the Netherlands what comes to the way of life, cultural beliefs and practices or personality traits.

However, there was a clear difference in how these states and nations were perceived in the above-mentioned spatial and temporal dimensions of nation-state identity. With regard to national unity, the Dutch approach emphasized the diversity of the nation both in the past as in the present. In Finland, the national unity in general and the homogeneity of culture in particular were elevated to one of the distinctive marks of Finnish identity. In terms of differentiation and international position, Finland was commonly placed between East and West as a unique case either with genuinely own traditions or as mixing elements of both in an original way, whereas the Netherlands was usually placed within the larger northwest European area, culture or community within which lots of countries have much in common. In the temporal dimension, Dutch texts and intellectuals pointed out lots of changes in the course of the history of the Netherlands and emphasized the modernity of the contemporary Dutch way of life. In the Finnish case, in turn, the roots of national norms and values and the Finnish way of life were often located in the ancient past, and the continuity of national culture was generally highlighted.

To sum up, it seemed that despite similarities in the content of national identity there were clear differences in the form of national identity. The Finnish case could be perceived as a strong nation-state identity emphasizing unity, differentiation, and the continuity in time. The Dutch case would rather be an example of a weak nation-state identity that is made of ideas about the diversity within the nation, about belonging to a larger group of countries or a geographical area and about modernity rather than age-old heritage.

Bifurcations in National Identities

Winds of change were blowing already at the time of the publication of my thesis in 1999. After the end of the Cold War Finland was opening doors and windows to Europe and to the world and joining the European Union in 1995 was often understood as a return to (western) Europe where Finland always had belonged were it not forced to stay outside or in the margin because of inescapable geopolitical realities. Finland was also starting to recognize its traditional minorities and consider diversity as an asset. The country had become a destination of larger-scale immigration in the early 1990s, and the Finnish integration policy, using Sweden and The Netherlands as sources of inspiration, guaranteed immigrants’ right to own language and culture. The international success of certain high-tech companies, of the cellular phone producer Nokia in particular, changed the public image of Finland from a traditional country to an avant-garde nation that leads the world to the future of information societies.

In the Netherlands, the change in national self-image and identity, towards an opposite direction, came some years later but with a stronger force. It also consisted elements that are more surprising. The positive attitude towards immigration and culture diversity became contested. In January 2000, a long essay on Dutch multiculturalism and its failures by a well-known public intellectual, Paul Scheffer changed the tone of debate. His text now looks quite moderate but more radical ideas emerged rapidly. Pim Fortuyn based his populist critique partly on a general dissatisfaction towards Dutch politics but he also strongly contributed to the rise of anti-Islamism as a central feature of Dutch multiculturalism backlash. Fortuyn also urged to defend traditional Dutch culture, values and identity. He was murdered just before the parliamentary election of 2002, but the following governments started discussions about Dutch norms and values, launched the project to make a cultural and historical canon (published in 2006) and even suggested establishing a Museum of National History. While searching for the historical roots of the nation, Dutchmen started to treat international cooperation with suspicion, as the rejection of the Constitution of the European Union in a referendum in 2005 shows. Regional belonging could not anymore be taken for granted.

As a result of these developments, national identities became much more contested issues. There had of course never been full consensus about what makes Finland or the Netherlands a nation-state. There were always different ideas about what the core elements of these nation-state identities are but the ideas, conceptions and notions of the late 1980s and most of the 1990s were, however, clearly dominant. Since the turn of the Millennium, there have been two competing narratives containing incompatible elements in both countries. In the Finnish case, there is the tension between the traditional emphasis of national unity and the new acceptance if not celebration of diversity. In the Netherlands, the traditional notion of tolerance clashes with the new feeling of longing for shared norms and values that especially the four governments of Jan-Peter Balkenende strongly expressed. The main difference is that exclusivist Dutch neo-nationalism hardly had any historical roots at all whereas examples of the more international and open-minded notion of Finnish identity can be found from all decades since the mid-19th century, albeit in a minority position. At the same time as many ideas and initiatives sound anachronistic in the 21st century, in the Dutch context some of them are genuinely innovative.

National Identities in Turbulent Times

It would be good to gather again similar material that I studied in the 1990s to make a comprehensive analysis of the presentations of and discussions about national identity in Finland and the Netherlands. This examination is necessary to make proper comparisons both in time and between these two countries with regard to the latest developments. Because of a lack time, it was however impossible to conduct a full-scale study this time. Furthermore, both countries have stopped publishing the kind of official or semi-official book-form presentations of the country I used in my dissertation. Marketing Finland and the Netherlands nowadays mainly takes place on the Internet.

Based on the material available, it however seems justified to conclude that discussions on national identity are still going on in both countries. Even though exact scrutiny is not available, it also seems that this debate is both more extensive and more heated in the Netherlands. Recently, lots of books, essays and articles on these issues have been published and seminars and discussion events have been arranged. Annually recurrent discussions about the legitimacy of “Black Pete”, the blackface portrayed companion of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) have been particularly fierce. Recently, there have also been controversies surrounding the celebration of national heroes of the colonial past. Neo-nationalism and political xenophobia have become integral parts of Dutch politics, nowadays represented in the Parliament by the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders and the Democracy Forum of Thierry Baudet and Theo Hiddema.

The longing for a stronger nation-state identity has spread from the original populist corner to other parties as well. In the election campaign of 2017, the liberal leaderMark Rutte presented a situation of choice for those living in the Netherlands: Be normal (behave according to Dutch values) or go away. The current Dutch government represents right-wing liberals (VVD), left-wing liberals (D66), Christian Democrats and a Calvinist Party (ChristenUnie). The government statement has a clear neo-nationalist undertone. “[We] believe that by projecting a distinct Dutch identity we can continue to make our mark in Europe and in the world.” The government wants the foundations of a shared identity such as the national anthem and Dutch cultural achievements to play a more explicit role in people’s lives. The government declaration also emphasises that Dutch identity is not a uniform concept and reminds the reader of tolerance, equality and the freedom of religion. This is a good manifestation of the co-existence of two versions of Dutch national identity, possibly also a result of a compromise between the right-wing parties and the D66.

In Finland, the societal atmosphere was quite calm and the political sphere remarkably stable until 2010-2011. In fact, Finland seemed to be relatively immune to the neo-nationalism, political populism or new radical right that was gaining more and more ground in many European countries. The slow increase in the electoral support of the populist party Perussuomalaiset (True Finns, later the Finns Party). In European comparison, Perussuomalaiset of that time was, however, quite a moderate party with regard to immigration, multiculturalism and nationalism. On the Internet, much more radical ideas and opinions were expressed in the web sites dedicated to immigration, multiculturalism and the position of Swedish language in Finland. A nationalist organisation, Suomen Sisu, and the provocative blog of Jussi Halla-aho became well-known, the latter also becoming a popular politician.

Before the 2011 parliamentary election, the more radical nationalist and xenophobic groupings and Perussuomalaiset joined their forces, receiving more than 19% of the vote and 39 parliamentary seats out of 200. The so-called aloof election manifesto (Nuiva vaalimanifesti) that criticized strongly Finnish immigration policy, integration policy and multiculturalism was for most part incorporated into the election programme of the party. With this election victory, nationalist ideas about Finnish national identity gained a stronghold in the Finnish Parliament. At the same time, the reader must be reminded that despite of the general change towards openness and tolerance described above, there had always been some politicians that had cherished the traditional version of Finnish nation. In other fractions except the Perussuomalaiset, these politicians had however constituted a minority.

In 2015, Perussuomalaiset succeeded in maintaining much of its popular support and joined the centre-right government of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä. Similar to the Netherlands, we can find diverging ideas about Finland and its position and role in the world. The government programme includes an immigration policy section that largely follows the ideas of Finns Party nationalists. However, the government programme also solemnly states: “Finland is open and international, rich in languages and cultures. (…) We have rich linguistic and cultural heritage and we foster a bilingual Finland in accordance with our Constitution and values.” The tensions between the moderate and compromise-seeking politicians and the radical hardliners became gradually apparent and in the 2017 party assembly, Jussi Halla-aho was overwhelmingly elected as the new chairperson. The seizure of the party leadership finally led into the disintegration of the party. Those left outside formed their own parliamentary group that continued to support the Sipilä government, and later they founded their own party, the Blue Future. Support for this party has, at least for the time being, been marginal.

Based on these developments, and other observations from public sources, we can find both similarities and differences in the understanding and interpretation of national identity. In both countries, national identity has become a political battlefield where there are two clearly different narratives and images of the nation fighting for support in the hearts and minds of Finns and Dutchmen. There is the strong nation-state argument emphasizing internal ethnic and cultural homogeneity of the nation, or at least a core national community the interests of which should be protected and to which other groups and communities (minorities) should be subordinate. This approach also stresses the existence of historically developed national cultures that differ from other each other in a significant and meaningful way. This story of the nation also emphasizes political independence and sovereignty. The weak nation-state argument recognizes ethnic and cultural diversity and accepts it as a demographic fact, sometimes also considers it an asset in contemporary times. This narrative also underlines the existence of a European culture and identity and the importance of belonging to that cultural community and political organisation. The latter version also rather looks curiously to the future than nostalgically to the past.

The main difference between the two countries is in the societal and political position of ideas and opinions supporting “strong nation-state identity”. In the Netherlands, nationalist rhetoric has gradually penetrated the political field spreading from populists to mainstream parties. This development, in turn, has made some other parties, especially in the left wing of political spectrum, articulate their diverging opinions more strongly. Dutch politics and society seems much more polarized in this question than Finland. Finnish neo-nationalism, at least in its more radical form, still occupies a marginal position in politics. The distance between the political message of the Finns Party, now led by Jussi Halla-aho and his companions, and other established parties is quite long. It might also be that it is because of this distance that the rhetoric of other parties in these questions is somewhat imprecise or sloppy, if compared with the electoral programme of the Dutch Green Party Groen Links, for example.

The Future of National Identities

At the time of writing this, it is difficult to say what will be the future development regarding national identities. Looking back, and locating national developments in Finland and the Netherlands into a broader international context, we can notice a relevant change in the overall situation between the turn of the Millennium and the present. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we could think of the rise of nationalism, populism and xenophobia as the last flame of an obsolete ideology or an old-fashioned way of thinking. European societies were then waking up to changes in the society produced by immigration, European integration and globalization. Not everyone was pleased with what he or she saw as becoming the new normal. However, the author of this essay belongs to those that sincerely thought the ressentiment among the electorate would be a temporary phenomenon, the consequences of which would remain limited. Now, I am remarkably less hopeful and optimistic, and there are sound reasons for this change in the state of mind.

Instead of disappearing after the fuel of the change-resisting flame had run out, the multi-faceted neo-nationalism has become more popular, more institutionalized, and more powerful in Europe and elsewhere. There are places where this way of thinking about nation and society have been able to govern state politics. In other countries, nationalists of different colour have been able to influence government policy indirectly. In many countries, nationalist forces have won elections. There is hardly any country in Europe where the neo-nationalist party (or parties) remains marginal in terms of popular support.

Researchers and journalists have brought up ideas that make this development understandable. In some cases, populist politicians opportunistically exploit the embarrassment and insecurity among the electorate for their own purposes. However, there is also genuine and legitimate dissatisfaction in Western societies. For some, the source of dissatisfaction is international migration and increasing ethnic and cultural diversity that produce a feeling of a loss of control of borders and of own society becoming unrecognizable. For others, the transfer of political power to the European Union, international regimes and to global companies and financial institutions produces agony. In addition, many people have felt their level of income and/or standard of living has been in decline, if not always in absolute terms, in many cases relatively speaking.

Even though the protest that raises from these sentiments of dissatisfaction is legitimate, the problem is that a nationalist’s responses to the torn relations between state, society and culture and to the role of the nation-state in the world do not give us appropriate answers to contemporary challenges. One thing is that the nostalgic view of the nation united by ethnicity and culture clashes with current demographic realities. Western societies simply must learn to cope with diversity and to organize it so that a sufficient level of the sense of belonging is maintained. Diversity is an undisputed fact. Another thing is that there’s also no way to turn the clock back with regard to the interdependency of states and societies in questions such as climate change, population growth, criminality and terrorism, technological development, or the weapons of mass destruction. In addition to the recognition of diversity of a societal reality, we also have to admit that we need more international and supranational cooperation, not less.

Societies are not natural; they are fabricated and need constant maintenance. Societies are units constructed institutionally and symbolically. The institutional creation and maintenance of societies takes place through and in political decision-making organs, administrative organisations for the preparation and implementation of decisions and political forces such as parties and interest groups and organisations. The symbolic dimension of the making of a society consists of shared ideas, opinions and attitudes about what the society is like and how it should be developed. National identity, in all its forms, is in the core of the symbolic construction of a society.

Nationalism once provided a relatively well-functioning model for societies to meet the challenges and possibilities of modernization, the 19th century being the heyday of both. That simple world of nations and states has now been left behind and there is no road back. Therefore, we need new stories about the nation and about the relation between the state, the nation and the society and about the places of states in the global arena in order to survive and thrive in contemporary circumstances. It will be very worthwhile to follow how Western societies succeed in forging these new narratives and images and how these are understood, accepted and internalized. In particular, Finland and the Netherlands are interesting countries to study from this point of view also in the future.

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