Gutsy Finland ready to come in from the cold: In Helsinki, Andrew Marshall finds the Finns ready to take a pragmatic plunge into Europe

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The Independent Online
REIJO KELA twists and turns on the dimly-lit stage - sometimes he is waltzing with an imaginary partner; at other times, wrestling a wild animal. He shifts from elation to despair as he dances to music from an accordion, while a hypnotic voice chants in the background.

This is a rally against the European Union, a few days before tomorrow's referendum when Finland will choose whether or not to join. Mr Kela is a choreographer, and so dance is how he has chosen to comment. He is uncertain; and that is what his movements try to express. 'For me, in my mind I say we have to join, but in my heart, I have some questions.'

It is a common response. In the students' union building where the rally is, others say the same. The singer, Heikki Laitinen, does not know how he will vote. 'I think Yes,' says Hannu, in the audience. 'But I've been . . .' He waggles his hand.

According to latest opinion polls, about 22 per cent of the population feel the same. But half say they will vote Yes, and entry seems all but certain. The rally against attracts a thin crowd, and some in the anti-EU movement feel the campaign has not been well- handled.

The Greens have been split, though many environmentalists are opposed. Most of the toughest opposition has come from farmers, who feel the package negotiated for Finland is insufficient.

It is a big step for a country that five years ago still stood in the Soviet Union's shadow. Though its subservience to Moscow was exaggerated, its room for manouevre was limited. What is happening now is a momentous event, one of the biggest changes in a short history of independence, say senior officials. 'It is a kind of coming of age,' explains Paavo Lipponen, Social Democratic Party chairman.

Though culturally and linguistically the country is quite distinctive, and though it has a foot in both East and West, 'we have always felt we belonged in Europe,' says Prime Minister Esko Aho.

Neutrality, so long prized for the breathing space it brought from Moscow, is being discarded. Though opponents of membership talk of 'independence' and 'autonomy', neutrality is not much of a referendum issue. One senior official speaks openly of 'after neutrality'. In a speech last week, Mr Aho, while still using the word, said the core of Finland's policy was 'military non-alliance and a credible independent defence'. Joining Nato or the Western

European Union (WEU), the EU's defence arm, is not in prospect, though Finland will seek to be an observer with the WEU.

Britain believes the entry of Finland - and possibly Sweden and Norway, depending on referendums next month - can do nothing but good. The countries are committed to free trade, concerned about protecting national interest, wealthy and will be resistant to rapid further integration, officials believe.

The Queen visits Helsinki next week, after her visit to Russia, and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, will accompany her. Though Finland is well to the left of Britain on environmental and social questions (most countries are), one British

official says 'politically, we're laughing here'.

Austria has already decided on membership. Officials here and in Brussels, Oslo and Stockholm hope Finland's vote will play a positive part in convincing their fellow Scandinavians to vote Yes, taking the EU to 16.

Though the Finns are highly pragmatic, and likely to keep a low profile on many issues, they will make their mark. They are very tough, for a start, with sisu (or gutsiness) the defining national characteristic.

And any nation used to doing its negotiating in rooms full of damp hot air is probably off to a head-start in the EU.