Antero Vartia is a (Green) Member of the Finnish Parliament and an entrepreneur. He has been during some months an actor. He shares with Finland Politics his views on his experience in the Parliament, and on the government’s politics.
What was bringing you into politics?
Politics is a place where we talk about the rules of the system, and I have always been interested in them, but I have never been interested in politics, per se. The political game is something, I have to admit, have never even paid a whole lot of attention to. But then again, the system is interesting. When I was a young guy, around 13, I started reading books about economics, without actually understanding anything about them. My uncle and godfather was writing them, and so that’s how I got into it. And then in college, I realized that I understood a little bit more about the system than any other kid, only because I had been reading those books. It did not mean that I was talented, but because I knew a little bit more, I was also keen to read more.
And then I went to the Helsinki School of Economics, and there I was not really a good student, but I was still interested in the system. And I knew that, one day, I would want to get into politics.
It happened three years ago: I walked into the Green Party’s office, and told them that I am willing to do something, just to be active and start doing something. And at that time, I had no idea that I would run first for the European Parliament, and then later for the Finnish Parliament. And by the time I walked into the office, I did not know a single politician, not even from the municipal level.
Why the Greens?
Why the Greens? I have read a lot of Osmo Soininvaara’s writings, and I’d say that he’s still my biggest idol in politics. That’s how I learned to understand the Green values better. But Greens also represent a party to me that’s neither on the right nor on the left. People on the left blame Greens for being on the right, and people on the right blame Greens for being on the left, and for me, that’s the exact right position, because there are answers on both sides of the aisle. The main thing for me is to be liberal, to be progressive, to think what the future is going to be like, and to understand what kind of problems we are facing, especially with climate change and other limits of our planet.
The Greens are the only party that have been talking about it for decades now, and the others are first waking up now. And the others are still saying, yes, climate change is the biggest challenge we are facing, but they are not willing to do anything about it. And if we do not manage to stop climate change, to hinder it a lot, nothing else matters. I mean, we are talking about our retirement age in Finland, but it is pointless, because climate change is going to ruin that.
You have been a candidate in these two elections, but you have a lot of other activities, as an entrepreneur, as an actor. How did you find the energy and the time for the campaigns?
I have to emphasize that I am mainly an entrepreneur, and I have been an entrepreneur for 15 years. I am not an actor. I was acting in a soap opera 15 years ago, but that was just a tiny, tiny role, I was picked from the street, and I thought it was an exciting challenge that took me 6 days in front of the camera for the soap opera. Then, I have been hosting a TV show, and that is also something that I was asked to do, I did not apply for it myself. I have never really been interested in acting or hosting a TV show, but the show that I was hosting was called Find My Family, where we traveled around the world, looking for missing relatives. It was more a documentary…
You were quite busy as an entrepreneur, but you decided however to be a candidate…
I was not busy. 2 years ago, I had plenty of time. Of course, as an entrepreneur, my main goal is always to build something so that it works without me being there myself. I think that is my responsibility, to hire the right people and teach them how to run the company without me telling them what to do. And I just follow the numbers and make sure that things are going OK.
Then, at some point, I had a lot of spare time, I had reached the goal. But it did not make any sense to me. It was like sleeping in the morning—when I woke up, I just turned around and tried to sleep some more, because I had nothing else to do. And then, I did not want to work for anyone else. I did not want to establish a new company, knowing that money does not excite me at all. I need to make enough to survive, but I have no interest in making a lot of money. And I was doing relatively fine by that time, so I figured I needed to do something else more meaningful, and that’s when I decided to try the Greens and offer them my help…
You are now in the Parliament. Is it a meaningful job?
Absolutely. It is. It is. I love doing it. I am learning a lot. I have learned so much within the last 9 or 10 months, I did not imagine it would be like this. I like the people. I like the things that we are talking about over here.
The only problem I am having is that now is that I started constructing this new restaurant by the water in Hernesaari. That project started a year and a half ago, and by that time, I knew that I would be running for the elections. But I obviously did not know whether I would get elected or not. When I got this opportunity of building a new beautiful restaurant there by the water, I took it. It is a lot of work, with the Parliament, but it is going to be finished by the end of May, so my life will be focusing entirely on the Parliament.
What is the most important thing you have done since you are a Member of Parliament?
So far, it is just like building the ground for being able to do this work properly. It takes quite a lot of time to get to know the system, to get to know the people. There are quite a few people over here, and I did not know anyone beforehand, so that takes some time. That is the most meaningful thing.
I am not able to accomplish a whole lot, as the Greens are in the opposition. But I have been able to get my voice heard on a couple of issues—for instance, liberalization of pharmacies: we are limiting the amount of pharmacies in Finland, which I find ridiculous, because we have a lot of people who would be good or capable of running a pharmacy. And the other thing is the taxi cartel, the taxi market: we limit the amount of taxis, and the system is quite expensive for the people. And now, especially with digitalization, people can tell with their phone “I need a lift from here to there”, and if there are people driving their cars around the city, going maybe in the same direction, they can share the ride and the costs. This is what basically I am hoping that Uberization will be about: Uber is just one company that can profit now, we need to change the system. But it cannot change as long as we limit the amount of people driving a taxi, and we say it is illegal for somebody to drive someone from one place to another, and getting paid for that without being a tax
And those are things that I can pretty well explain in the media. But I have only been here for 10 months, and for the first months, I have to say, it was scary. I have never been afraid of anything before like I was afraid over here. I remember I was like a shy kid. It was like going to the upper elementary—a lot of new people and scary surroundings. It took me 5 months to get used to this.
During these months, you had to deal with the program of the government. As an entrepreneur, what do you think about the policies to support companies?
First, we have too many norms, and I am really glad that we are talking about getting rid of the unnecessary ones. I think that the role for the government and big institutions like the European Union is to control the system. How does the financial market work? What are the rules over there? But we should not be controlling people the way that we are doing now, and we shouldn’t be controlling small businesses the way we are doing now. We have lots of rules and regulations that we could perfectly well get rid of and let people work. People have to file so many papers, and prove that they are doing everything right and according to the law, it takes a lot of work and time and money, and I do not find it all that necessary. The government has been talking about how they are going to do, and I like it.
More generally, I cannot understand why the government and the opposition are so strongly challenging each other, when we should be cooperating. We have the same goal. There are 200 people in the Parliament, and we should be working on getting better rules, instead of fighting each other so much. It is a power game here, and I really do not understand why we are doing that so much. We should have more dialogue within the system, but the system itself kind of even prevents it. And also, the media maybe amplifies the system, because only the roughest statements or weirdest thoughts get through the media, and those are usually not the ones that build a better cooperation between people and parties.
The government is trying to decrease the costs for the companies, in order to improve the growth and bring up employment. As an entrepreneur, do you agree with this policy?
The cost of labor matters. We cannot dodge that question, even though the Greens are also saying that it will not help if we lower the payment. But the truth is that if it is not profitable for a company to hire a person, they will not hire the person. And at the moment, the question is “if I hire that person, will he or she going to bring an output sufficient to pay for their salary”. If we lower the pay, they are more likely to be able to do that.
But the bigger question is, “What is the risk involved in hiring a person?” And especially in smaller companies—let’s say a company who employs 4 or 5 people. If they hire a new person, there’s always a great risk involved. If after those 4 months’ trial period time, the person is not working that well, or is not suitable for the job anymore, it is then really hard to get rid of him or her. If we could lower that risk for small companies, they would certainly be willing to hire more. Our system is not built for this millennium, this decade. It was good for the 50s or the 6os, but not in a world that is changing so fast, where everything is happening so rapidly. We need to make people move between jobs a lot more than we do nowadays.
It looks hard for the people employed today, but we cannot continue to have hundreds of thousands of people unemployed, it is too much. More and more people are losing hope, and we should be taking better care of them. But as long as it is risky for the businesses to hire them, they will stay unemployed. Listening to me, you may think that I am a Green leaning to the right…
But we have no alternative because the government cannot invest for creating these jobs, because we are in the EU. If we had our own currency, if we had our own central bank, I would be leaning a lot more to the left. If I would be a member of the European Parliament, I would say that the European Central Bank and the European Union need to take a bigger role in creating those jobs and investing.
The problem with Finland is that we are actually taking a lot of debt every year, and it is a risk because we are borrowing from foreign banks. And if we start showing that Finland is not controlling its expenses that well anymore, the interest rates are going to hike, and it is going to make it even harder for us to make the decisions for ourselves.
Would it be better if Finland was outside the euro?
Well, nowadays it is easy to say that yes, I think it would be better for every country, except maybe Germany. But we are in the euro, and we cannot leave the euro, as it has a lot of advantages to be in the group of countries with the euro. If we leave the euro, every other country should leave the euro at the same time. It has to be handled well and organized well. But if Finland decided to leave the euro just alone, it would be total chaos in our country.
What about the government’s policy concerning energy, which is important for global warming?
They set really ambitious goals on ending the burning of coal by the year of 2030 and cutting the use of oil into half by the year of 2030. But I am not convinced that we are doing it right now, that we are sufficiently ambitious. We need to be more active. We need to be more proactive. The lobbying machine of the old industry, the dirty energy industry, they are extremely powerful. And I understand why. They are losing a lot of money. If we tell them “you need to close now this factory that has been burning coal, and is very profitable”, it is a terrible thing for those companies.
But we are causing climate change mainly by burning fossil fuels, and we need to stop doing that. And the only entity that is actually going to be capable of doing that is politics. We set a lot of ambitious goals in Paris, which was absolutely wonderful. But that has not altered any of the goals in Finland so far. And that is something that surprises me, because there are also a lot of opportunities involved there. The whole world is going to be fighting against climate change and aiming for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and we should be the frontrunner in this business. In Finland, we have a lot of engineers. We are certainly capable of finding good solutions that we are going to be able to sell abroad. Our companies doing that will be making a lot of money.
But we should prepare the ground in Finland for that business through politics, by showing that we are going to be extremely active on this matter, and making sure that we are going to stop climate change. We should be the first country in the world to stop burning all the fossil fuels. Maybe the first after Sweden, as they have set a date and they are usually really good at what they do. But Finland should be following their path.
It is a little surprising, because Juha Sipilä seemed to be quite convinced during his campaign…
Exactly, but it is his party. There is a strong defense of specific interest in the Center Party, in particular in favor of peat, which is even dirtier than coal, and destroy our waters at the same time. But it is Finnish. That’s why they want to burn it, and it is a good business for many.
I have to say that I put a lot of hope on Juha Sipilä, and I have not lost it completely yet, but I wish that the government would be more active on acting on climate change….
If there was one law, one decision that you would like to see voted in the Parliament, what would it be?
It would be to vote a law indicating that we are going to stop using all fossil fuels by the year 2030. For example, such cars using fossil fuels should not anymore be sold or imported in Finland, even if should be able to use the old ones for as long as people are willing to pay for the hiking gas prices by that time. I had an electric car. I just sold it, because I live so close to the Parliament nowadays. But it was easily the best car I have ever had. And people do not understand how good electric cars are and how, if we just started manufacturing them more, the cost of them would plummet.
But in order to make those cars, in order for the electric cars to get a bigger piece of the market, we need to help with politics. We should, for instance, say that there are no taxes any car with zero emissions. And poof! People would start buying them.
Have you taken into account the energy factor when building the new restaurant?
Yes. At least we tried. For instance, there is a big warehouse right behind the place where we are building it, and I have had long negotiations with them, because I wanted to rent the three-thousand-square-meter space on the rooftop to set up a solar panel. With that equipment, we would have produced all the electricity we use ourselves. The problem this warehouse is not on the same lot as the restaurant, and with the present tax system, it means that the cost of electricity would be tripled. Because it is on the other side of the street, and not within our lot, the cost is so high that it did not work.
Otherwise, we have done a lot. For instance, we are going to use completely green electricity there. It has to be produced 100% renewably, and not even certain hydro power is included, because that’s causing harm for fishes. The timber we are using has an FSC certificate, which is proving that the wood is coming from sustainably handled forests.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Politics is meaningful. People often say, even many ex-members of the Parliament, that it is really hard to have any influence over here, but I find the system pretty fair. I understand democracy a lot better now than I did before getting elected. We have concentrated this five and a half million nation into two hundred people. And everybody is more or less represented here, in a fair way, as fair as we can make it. So, people’s voices are heard over here. And it is fair that we have to talk and discuss and vote on things and decide whether we want this new rule or not. It is not always efficient, it takes time, and so on, but the system is fair. And it is extremely important that the way we are working is justified, and that the laws voted are implemented and respected.
And even though it looks like it is really hard to decide anything over here, if we look backat all the great things that have happened in politics, we should still believe in the system. And we are living through tough times right now, but 10 years from now, things are going to be hopefully a whole lot better, because of the decisions everyone made in politics some years before.