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Gov’t leaders riled by call for EU appraisal of flagship reform plans

Finland’s opposition MPs are joined by a few breakaway members of the governing parties in asking for a review of the "freedom of choice" component of the slated service reform.

Atalk 8. maaliskuuta 2018.
Representatives of four political parties appeared on Yle’s A-Talk on March 8. Image: Yle

Finland’s centre-right government’s planned social and health care reform would include a "freedom of choice" element that it says would give residents a wider range of services to chose from. Opposition parties oppose the change, and say the bill should be sent to Brussels because they suspect it is not in compliance with European Union law.

Four ministers appeared on an Yle talk show Thursday night to discuss the reform. The freedom of choice component that would make private health and social care providers a much larger player in Finland’s service offerings was one of the two opposition ministers’ gravest concerns. In addition to making the playing field less equal, they argue that it is also doesn’t comply with EU law.

But this concern isn’t limited to just opposition MPs, however. A few rebel members of the conservative National Coalition Party, one of the three political parties in Finland’s coalition government, have also said the bill should be sent to Brussels to be checked. MP Susanna Koski has publicly called on the government to do so, as she has joined NCP MP Elina Lepomäki in her suspicion that the EU will strike down the social and health care reform upon appraisal and leave only the Centre Party’s much-desired regional administration reform, which is linked to the service reform, intact.

"Sweden didn't ask permission"

Finland’s Supreme Administrative Court has also demanded that the plan be sent to the European Commission to be checked. Until now, the government has stated that EU notification is not necessary.

"I like the EU, but we certainly don’t need to be asking Brussels about every little thing," Finance Minister and NCP Chair Petteri Orpo said on the March 8 programme.

He says Finland’s current system of social and health care service was never approved by the EU, nor was Sweden’s similar health and social care reform that also introduced "freedom of choice", or more private health and social care options.

Centre Party Minister of Local Government and Public Reforms Anu Vehviläinen said that her ministry has been in constant communication with EU officials specialising in the law for months now on the current draft of the reform plan. She said Finance Ministry secretary Martti Hetemäki was last in contact with them on Thursday, for example.

Greens and SDP playing for time?

Green Party Chair Touko Aalto was critical of the fact that the government is not heeding the instructions of the Supreme Administrative Court or the parliamentary committee on constitutional law. He says he fears that if Finland is later found to have acted in opposition to EU law with the reform, it may have to pay extensive damages.

"Why take a risk like this? Why play games in the name of national interest?" Aalto asked the government ministers on Thursday.

"It’s not true that we are just closing our eyes to the fact that this is an important question," Vehviläinen responded.

Antti Rinne, chair of Finland’s leading opposition party, the Social Democrats, pointed out that some of the NCP’s own members are worried about the possible ramifications of not having the EU assess the plan ahead of time.

Vehviläinen accused both Rinne and Aalto of waving the Brussels card to stall for time. The government is running out of time before the next parliamentary elections in April 2019, and fresh polls suggest the SDP now has the most voter support.

"You want this to drag on, because everyone knows that an evaluation from the EU Commission would take a long time," she said.

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