Leading Article: A step closer to true European union

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The Independent Online
FINLAND'S entry into the European Union, clinched by the decisive result of yesterday's referendum, will give the enlarged EU a significant new dimension. It also enhances the prospects of Sweden and Norway, where scepticism is strongest, to follow the Finnish example when they vote next month.

If that happens, the EU's membership will rise on 1 January from 12 to 16 members, the Austrians having approved membership in June. Denmark joined in 1973, so the EU would embrace all four Nordic countries. They will offer valuable reinforcement to advocates of free trade within the EU, such as Britain, Germany and Holland. Their likely support for the EU's social and environmental provisions will be less welcome to Conservative British governments.

Finland's entry has its own significance. At a stroke the EU's borders will advance north of the Arctic Circle and to the Russian border. With Finland, the EU will acquire a member state with a long and sometimes traumatic history of dealing with Russia. During the Cold War, and especially under President Urho Kekkonen, the Finns evolved a unique relationship with their mighty neighbour, involving a pragmatic form of non-alignment and economic co-operation.

The economic decline of Russia dealt the Finnish economy a severe blow, shrinking it by 13 per cent and raising unemployment to almost 20 per cent in a recession from which it only recently began to emerge. Fear of political as well as economic instability in Russia played its part in pushing the Finns towards EU membership. The success of the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in last December's Russian elections proved helpful to the pro-EU lobby; he has threatened the one- time Russian province of Finland.

Russia is not a threat for the moment, but EU membership is seen as a guarantee of security. Even if the concept of neutrality has lost much of its meaning since the end of the Cold War, it is worth noting that, with Ireland and Austria, Finland will become the union's third neutral member.

If the Swedes also join, there will be four.

At a more parochial British level, the message from Helsinki is twofold.

First, the traditionally detached Nordic peoples are coming to believe that their economic and political interests will be best served within a union; British Conservative separatists should take note. Second, with enlargement to the north, free trade arrangements with the Baltic states, and the prospect of east European countries joining, a genuinely different and far more authentically European union is in the making.