By Tuomas Forsell and Jussi Rosendahl
HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland's euroskeptic Finns party must push for stronger controls on immigration and not just play a supporting role in the ruling coalition, the frontrunner in the party's leadership race said.
Jussi Halla-aho, a member of the European Parliament and an anti-immigration hardliner, has become the favorite to replace the more moderate Timo Soini, the country's foreign minister, who will step down as party chief next month.
Halla-aho said he wants Finland to leave the European Union but that he would not call for a quick referendum on EU membership as most Finns were likely to vote to stay in the union. Leaving the EU should be a long-term goal, he said.
"If we now went to a referendum, we would lose, and it would be much harder to have the debate on the EU after that," Halla-aho told Reuters in an interview conducted on Tuesday.
As party chief he would push the coalition to impose tougher controls on family members joining migrants who settle in Finland, which the coalition has agreed but not implemented.
"In my opinion, we should also impose controls on the Swedish border and not accept asylum seekers from Sweden," he said, arguing that the party grassroots expects a tougher immigration policy.
"If this conflicts with EU legislation, we should still do the necessary... and take the case to EU courts."
Halla-aho has previously hinted that if elected leader he could take the party out of the three-party coalition, a move that could lead to the breakup of the government and derail planned healthcare and local government reforms - key parts of the government's plan to balance public finances.
In the interview, however, he said the party could stay in government and push a more radical agenda as he believes that without the Finns its coalition partners would have a hard time forming a new government given the current parliament has a largely leftist opposition.
"I believe the threshold to break up the government is very high for these parties, even if the Finns party changes its style a little."
"I believe we have more leverage than people think."
Prime Minister Juha Sipila's Centre Party and Finance Minister Petteri Orpo's centre-right NCP have declined to comment on the government's future after the Finns party's leadership change.
FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT
The Finns party, formerly known as True Finns, is known for complicating EU bailout talks of troubled states during the euro zone debt crisis. But since joining the government in 2015, it has seen its support drop after it made compromises in the coalition.
"Many of our voters feel betrayed ... We support our coalition partners, but have failed to reach our own goals," Halla-aho said.
"Within the scope of the government program, it is possible for us to stay in the government, but we must break out from a supporting role the party has drifted to."
The latest opinion poll by Taloustutkimus shows 40 percent of Finns party voters back Halla-aho, 46, to be leader. His closest rival, the more moderate Sampo Terho who has just been appointed the government's EU minister, has the support of 26 percent. The party will vote on a new leader on June 10.
Halla-aho said countries with generous welfare systems like Finland cannot afford the European Union's policy of free movement of workers.
"In most Western European countries, people are starting to see the same as in Britain, that an ever smaller group is covering the costs of an ever larger group, and the union is turning into a machine transferring money from the north to the south."
The current leadership sought to distance the Finns from far-right parties in Europe such as France's National Front and the Sweden Democrats. But Halla-aho, who was fined by Finland's Supreme Court in 2012 for comments on a blog that linked Islam to paedophilia and Somalis to theft, said he wants to bolster cooperation between nationalist movements in the European parliament.
"We should not care too much over small differences in nuance and style. We can state that we do not agree with each other in everything, but we have common core targets, at least in immigration."
(Editing by Susan Fenton)