- Finland's political leaders held an informal summit in Saariselka, Lapland this weekend
- Policy-makers from Spain and Portugal pulled out at the last minute
- Quest: Retreat was an opportunity to see leaders "at their most honest"
It has been a long and cold winter in Europe. You might think an invitation to spend a weekend in Northern Finland with more icy weather would be the last thing anyone would have wanted. Not a bit of it. When the invitation came to attend the Lapland Retreat deep in the Arctic Circle I jumped at the chance.
Finland's PM Jyrki Katainen and Europe minister Alex Stubb, host the retreat and this year invited the prime ministers of Denmark, Croatia and Latvia, along with the president of Estonia, the deputy PM of Turkey and the Europe minister from Ireland. Several more including a member of the ECB and ministers from Spain and Portugal pulled out at the last moment.
This is an eclectic group of countries: two hardline EU members, (Finland and Denmark), a country about to join in July (Croatia), one in the middle of a bailout (Ireland) and one on the outside wanting to join but so far spurned (Turkey).
The idea was to avoid being bogged down in the crises du jour, this year, Cyprus. Rather, think Big Thoughts about the future of Europe while wearing slippers, wrapped up in blankets in a remote log cabin. It is a quixotic goal since the very future of Europe depends on its ability, or failure, to handle crises, such as Cyprus; which frankly it has spectacularly failed to do.
The metaphors were everywhere. The reindeer at the welcome family photocall managed to poop all over the ground, which was quickly shovelled over with fresh white snow in time for the pictures ... like the euro crises, covered up but still smouldering underneath. Looking at the reindeers antlers was imaging leaders impaled on the horns of euro-dilemmas. Freezing European economies. Icy conditions. Oh I could go on.
It was striking how strident these leaders were about what needs to be done. "Austerity with growth," said Finland's prime minister, in other words, just as his country has done. Finland incidentally has just had a tax-raising budget, cutting spending but still managing to lower corporation tax. It can be done, came the satisfied shrill from the north.
"Follow the rules," said Denmark's Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She returned to the theme again and again. If countries had done what they were supposed to do, we wouldn't be in the mess we are.
Whatever sympathy there may be for the people of Cyprus froze like the lakes outside when they spoke of the Cyprus banking system. Sobriquets such as "unique," "unusual," "unprecedented" were used when what they wanted to say was "out-of-control-Wild-West-money-laundering banking-industry." Oh yes, with Russian money (you can always rely on the Finns to put the boot in, ever so politely, to Russia).
The Finnish PM rejected the idea he was a hardliner (he is) preferring to call himself a pragmatist. The difference matters not. Finland is one of those countries, along with Germany, that has had enough of bailouts. Alex Stubb, its Europe minister, made clear the future for European rescues is bailing in with investors' money not bailing out with Finland's taxpayer cash.
Attending the Lapland retreat was fascinating. Not because of the reindeer I ate (it really is a delicious meat) or because the snow this far north is, well, really white. But because I got to see leaders at their most honest: all the PMs had taken their own hard decisions, for instance Croatia preparing for euro membership and terrified about Italy's chaotic economy on its doorstep; Estonia, dealing with multi-year recession; Finland with its own anti-Europe factions.
So they have had enough. They want the 27 member countries to get on with it. Sort it out. Deal with it. Concentrate on issues like digital single market, growth. The only problem, everyone says, is that change comes as quickly as a Lapland thaw. Just as with the reindeer poop, which as far as I know is still there, covered up, like the euro crises.