When silent Finns speak up

Finnish prime minister Sipilä said this morning that the decision to give new support to the Greeks is a step in the right direction. Sipilä immediately added that the Finns will strictly evaluate whether the Greeks adequately execute all parts of the agreement. He knows that people in his country – especially the ‘True Finns’ – have difficulty with yet another round of support for ‘the unreliable Greeks’.

Although the flags of the 2 countries have a lot in common, their cultures are completely different. An emotional and chaotic Greek may regularly succeed to impress a calm and relaxed Finn with her charms. However, as soon as the Finn gets to work, he appears as a target-oriented professional who goes after his goals in a friendly – yet very determined – way. Long discussions do not help the process. Alexander Stubb, the Finnish minister of Finance, remains silent while others speak. Incidentally – when the others temporarily shut up – he will use no more than a few words to clarify his position. That happened Saturday night, when 3 words were enough to voice the opinion of the Finns: “It is enough!”

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Even for the very experienced Greek negotiators this was an unexpected move. During the last few weeks, Tsipras developed as a professional and skilled negotiator. At crucial moments in the negotiation process, he introduced new tactics that surprised his counter negotiators. Involvement of a third party with power (the Greek people, in an extra referendum), changing negotiators (Varoufakis was sent home), old Greek wine in new bottles (reject a proposal, and later submit the same proposal with minor changes) and good old ‘divide and rule’ (France and Germany started to quarrel about the right approach). All these major negotiation tactics had their effect.

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The Greek and Finnish cultures are opposites on most of the dimensions of culture, and from this point of view we can easily understand what happened. In below figure the scores of Greece and Finland are plotted on 4 cultural dimensions (source: Culture Map, by Erin Meyer): in which forum will important decisions be taken, what form of trust do people look for, how to deal with planning and with deadlines, and how to persuade others of your point of view. Four aspects of culture in which Northern Finland and Southern Greece are different like night and day. And this was beautifully displayed during the past week. In very clear and non-diplomatic language the Finns indicated that Greece had proven to be an unreliable partner: they did not live up to the agreements that they made earlier with the EU. The Greeks have a different perspective: trust is something entirely personal, and when trust has been built up and you are an equal partner within the collective, you help each other in difficult times. Not the Finn, who does not need many words to end a relationship where one partner proves unreliable.

The scheduling-dimension shows how unreliable the Greek are through the eyes of a Finn: for the latter, a deadline is a deadline. For a Greek, a deadline is something to strive for, and that you aim to meet unless… new developments require attention. Facts show that the flexible Greek is completely unreliable, at least for the practical and pragmatic Finn. At the same moment the Greek will wonder what happened to the principle of European unity and solidarity: especially when you are in difficult circumstances you should act united, and stand up for a close friend in trouble.

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Alexander Stubb, the Finnish minister of Finance, was silent on Saturday. The Finns use this relaxing silence to think over difficult and complex decisions. Stubb’s mind wandered off to local Finnish politics: the Finnish Party that opposes new loans for Greece and threatens to leave the coalition when new support agreements are made. The consensus-loving Finnish prefer to keep the coalition as-is, but are also very clear when speaking to the other partners at the negotiation table. So we saw some crystal clear tweets from Stubb during the past few days: “Greece is being given exactly two choices. It’s a rather black-and-white choice.” Already before he clarified his position: As Finland’s prime minister, I have only one thing in mind: that is the interests of Finland.”

With the agreement that was reached this morning it became clear that the Greek negotiation tactics of the past few weeks has been excellent: they achieved more than what insiders saw was the maximum possible gain for Greece. Although coalitions in several countries are under pressure now, Greece remains a partner within the European Union and the monetary support they get with more than 80 billion euro is unexpectedly high. Tsipras can return to Athens as a man of state, who successfully protected the Greek pride. The Finnish have played a major role in the last episode of this drama, so that also Stubb can satisfy his people back home in the north. And Hollande and Merkel do not go into the history books as the two leaders who formed Europe and then made it collapse. Not yet.

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