By Anne Kauranen
HELSINKI (Reuters) -Finland should aim to leave the European Union in the long term, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine means European unity should be the priority for now, the far-right Finns Party's Jussi Halla-aho said ahead of a party congress on Saturday.
Halla-aho, author of the anti-immigration party's "Fixit" policy that envisioned an EU exit in 2019, is expected to be nominated during the congress as its candidate for a presidential election due in January 2024.
Opinion polls show the hardline former party leader is unlikely to win the presidency, but his views are influential within the Finns Party, which is part of the right-wing government that took office in June.
Delegates at the weekend conference discussed the party's EU stance in light of the Ukraine war and its governing alliance with pro-EU allies.
"It is justified that we aim to leave the EU in the long term," Halla-aho told Reuters, citing "a democratic deficit" in which the EU limits member states' sovereignty.
"But at the same time, of course, we recognise that in the prevailing world situation, a fragmented Western Europe would be much weaker against the threat of totalitarian countries," he said. The Finns Party backed the country joining NATO this year.
Many party figures echoed his views, saying exiting the eurozone and EU should remain long-term goals, while Foreign Trade Minister Ville Tavio said the party would reject any new joint EU debt while in government.
Support for right-wing populism has been on the rise in parts of Europe, as a cost-of-living crisis fuels discontent with establishment politics and a backlash against the rising costs of a green transition.
The Finns Party congress also rejected the EU's proposed Nature Restoration Law, with Tavio calling it "a sad example of the acceleration of the EU's dictatorial policy under the guise of climate change".
So far, however, far-right parties have been mainly junior coalition partners or outright excluded from working with established groups even as some of their agenda items may have nudged centrist politics to the right.
The Finns Party has suffered two setbacks in recent weeks.
Economy Minister Vilhelm Junnila had to resign over Nazi references, then the party's chairwoman, Finance Minister Riikka Purra, had to apologise for her old anonymously written online comments that included racial slurs.
Currently parliament speaker in Finland, Halla-aho made opposing immigration the party's main focus when he chaired it from 2017 to 2021 but says that had nothing to do with racism.
Instead, his party opposes immigration from certain parts of the world as "harmful for Finland", he said, refusing to name any countries.
"If someone thinks that is racism, then 's'il vous plaît', they can call us racist, but this is not how I understand racism," he said.
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen in HelsinkiEditing by Justyna Pawlak, Hugh Lawson and Helen Popper)