Tuesday

27th Feb 2024

Analysis

Self-proclaimed 'EU nerd' Stubb elected Finnish president

  • Alexander Stubb (l) during a European Council in 2014 with then Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and former German chancellor Angela Merkel (Photo: "The Council of the European Union")
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Former Finnish prime minister and centre-right candidate for the National Coalition Party, Alexander Stubb, 55, emerged victorious in Finland's presidential elections, securing 52 percent of the votes according to a preliminary count.

In the election's second round, Stubb faced Pekka Haavisto, 65, who got 48 percent of the votes. Haavisto ran as an independent but is a long-time member of the Green League.

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  • Alexander Stubb was the vice-president of the European Investment Bank (EIB) from 2017 to 2020 (Photo: EIB)

Stubb defeated Haavisto with very small margins, identical to those by which Tarja Halonen defeated Esko Aho in 2000. These are the smallest margins since Finland started electing its presidents by popular vote in 1994.

In contrast to some European countries, presidents in Finland aren't mere figureheads. He or she leads the country's foreign policy in cooperation with the government and assumes the role of supreme commander of the defence forces.

Despite this, the debates ahead of previous elections often delved into a wide range of subjects such as national unity, equality, hard work, or the social exclusion of youth.

This time, things were different.

The media coverage focused primarily on foreign and security policy, with an emphasis on the latter. This is not surprising since news in Finland has been dominated by a series of international conflicts and Finland's accession to Nato.

Two subjects that were discussed extensively were the war in Ukraine and Finland's relationship with Russia, which has deteriorated to an all-time low.

This decline has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and because the Kremlin is suspected of targeting Finland with a number of malicious acts such as damaging the Balticconnector pipeline and transporting asylum-seekers to the Russian side of the border between the two countries.

"Due to this uncertainty, the electorate looked for a president that would be ready and capable on day one," says Matti Pesu, leading researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Both Haavisto and Stubb are foreign policy veterans. Haavisto served as the foreign minister in the previous government. Before that, he was the minister of international development and the EU's special representative to Sudan and Darfur focusing on peace talks.

President-elect Stubb, a self-proclaimed EU nerd, earned his PhD at the London School of Economics in 1999, where his thesis explored the flexible integration of the European Union and the Amsterdam Treaty. After that, he worked as an advisor at the European Commission led by Romano Prodi.

From 2008 to 2015 Stubb served as foreign minister, prime minister and lastly minister of finance. After losing his party's leadership in 2015, he quitted Finish politics in 2017 and became the vice-president at the European Investment Bank. And most recently he has worked as a professor at European University Institute in Florence.

New era for Nordic cooperation

The Nordic countries, and especially Finland, Sweden, and Norway, are turning a new leaf in their history as their security doctrines and cooperation are more aligned than ever before. Soon, they will all be members of Nato, they are members of the UK-led joint expeditionary force, and they have defence cooperation agreements with the United States.

Ahead of the elections, candidates discussed whether the Nordics would form a block inside of Nato. While many agreed that there would be mutual coordination, an official political block is unlikely to see the light of day.

Yet, both Matti Pesu and Gunilla Herolf, senior researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, underline the importance of developing a common defence structure for the region.

"If war erupts, all operations will run through Nato and it's important that Finland, Norway, and Sweden operate under a unified command. In grey-zone scenarios, however, involving hybrid warfare, the Nordic countries will closely coordinate their analyses and responses," Herolf explained.

She also underlines that decision-makers in Sweden recognise that if Finland or the Baltic countries are attacked, Sweden will be next.

"Being neutral or a third party is simply not an option," she also said.

European vs Transatlantic solutions

Until Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the presidents of Finland and France lobbied for deeper EU security cooperation within the parameters of the Lisbon Treaty's article 42.7. In short, this article states that if one country is attacked, others need to provide aid and assistance.

Finland and France may have thought this article could become similar to Nato's fifth article, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

But because Finland is now a Nato member, researcher Pesu doubts that Helsinki would push for more robust EU-security guarantees — unless Trump is elected president of the US again.

According to Herolf, the consequences of a Trump presidency have also raised questions in Sweden, where decision-makers now recognise a need for more European cooperation when it comes to arms manufacturing.

Along the same lines, Finland's Stubb has suggested enhancing Europe's defence cooperation by allowing the European Investment Bank to grant loans for the defence industry. The same view has also been echoed by Finland's current foreign minister Elina Valtonen.

Peace vs pragmatism

While the debates in Finland focused extensively on hard security, both second-round candidates have experience in conflict resolution and peace work.

Finland has assumed the role of a mediator by organising summits between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in 2018 and Mikhail Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush in 1990.

Ahead of this year's elections, most candidates stressed that organising such summits in the future would have to be in closer coordination with European and North American allies. In practice, however, Pesu doubts that mediation or promoting peace would become a priority for the president, due to a lack of time and resources.

While Finland, Europe, and the Nordic countries have experienced significant changes in their geopolitical landscape everything has not turned completely upside down. Hence, there will also be much continuity in Finland's foreign policy in the years to come.

"Even though there are many new things on the agenda, some are unlikely to change. For example, Finland is unlikely to become the most vocal actor on the international stage. Instead, it will retain a certain level of pragmatism in how it conducts its foreign policy," said Pesu.

Author bio

Johannes Jauhiainen is a freelance journalist and civil servant developing local democracy in Helsinki, Finland. He previously worked for an international foundation promoting dialogue in the Euro-Mediterranean region, as an election observer for the OSCE and as a human rights observer.

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