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30th Jun 2022

Finland's Stubb runs for Juncker job with jab at populists

  • Stubb said the 'hugging populism to death' tactic has worked in Finland (Photo: European Parliament)

Finland's former prime minister Alexander Stubb threw his hat into the race to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as EU Commission president on Tuesday (2 October), announcing he would run to be the 'Spitzenkandidat' for centre-right European People's Party (EPP) ahead of the European elections next May, and promising to take on populists and defend liberal values.

Stubb is the second candidate to announce his bid for the EPP's so-called 'lead candidate' (or Spitzenkandidat) to head the European Parliament's largest party into a campaign that is expected to pit eurosceptics against pro-European forces, and possibly with it take the European Commission's top job.

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"The decision [to run] at the end of the day was very simple, and based on one word, and it was values. European values are currently under attack from the inside and outside, and from our party proper," he said, referring to the internal conflict within the EPP with Hungary's ruling Fidesz party.

"If we don't stick to our basic values, in other words, human rights, fundamental rights, human dignity, freedom, liberal democracy, rule of law, if we don't stick to these fundamental principles, including equality, we are left with nothing," Stubb said in Strasbourg announcing his candidacy.

"I intend to take on populism head on, but in a pragmatic way," he added, saying that Europe was based on "liberal democracy, a social market economy, and fair globalisation".

Stubb recalled that in 2015 when he was Finland's prime minister, the far-right True Finns were brought into the coalition government. Later that party splintered, and moderated its positions.

Stubb said this model of "hugging populism to death" might not work in all member states - but that politicians should listen to what people say.

"There are legitimate fears on migration, the digital revolution, related to the future of work, and fears need to be addressed before it is too late," he said.

He named the US, China, and Russia as external threats for the EU - and Poland, Italy, and Hungary as internal threats.

EPP battle

The Finnish politician will now run against Germany's Manfred Weber from the conservative Bavarian CSU, who leads the EPP group in the European Parliament, and who has the tacit blessing of Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel.

Stubb positioned himself as centre-left, within the party, compared to Weber's centre-right.

The party will choose the lead candidate in Helsinki on 8 November.

The European parliament is pushing member states' governments to appoint the lead candidate of the winning coalition at the European elections as the president of the European Commission.

The EPP has increasingly shifted to the right in response to populist anti-migrant parties, and the May 2019 election is expected to be a watershed moment for the centre-right party in how it will respond to the populist challenge.

Stubb said that asylum centres outside the EU would need to be established, paid for by the EU, and he supported the commission's proposal for some 10,000 more staff for the EU's border agency.

He also said that the EU needed a humanitarian asylum-based quota for each EU member state. Some central and eastern European countries have refused to take any migrants based on such EU quotas - and it is unclear how they would agree to Stubb's proposal.

The EPP has itself been struggling with its unruly member, Hungary's Fidesz, which has taken a hard-right direction in recent years.

Stubb said he has met with Fidesz MEPs on Tuesday, and said there should be a procedure with Fidesz to reach an agreement on values.

"The values issue is a very clear one, you are with us or are elsewhere. If we lose our values, we lose our identity as a party," he said, only a few weeks after the majority of EPP deputies voted in favour of a sanctions procedure against Hungary over concerns on the rule of law and rolling back democratic freedoms.

"I have zero tolerance for intolerance," Stubb remarked.

The 50-year old Stubb is a former prime minister, foreign minister, and finance minister of Finland - a eurozone country. He is currently the vice-president of the European Investment Bank (EIB). Stubb said he will take a five-week unpaid leave from the bank to run his campaign.

Stubb is graduate of the College of Europe, a breeding ground for eurocrats, speaks five languages, and is an avid sportsman, participating in triathlons.

During the Greek crisis, he was one of the hawkish finance ministers, who backed tough austerity measures in exchange for the bailouts to Athens and other crisis-hit capitals. He might face difficulties in getting votes from the southern EU member states.

Stubb said he will spend the next few weeks traveling across Europe, campaigning to gather support.

EUobserved

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The German centre-right MEP initially refused to take press questions. Meanwhile, he will have to find a way to distinguish himself from current commission president Juncker.

Why 'Spitzenkandidat' is probably here to stay

The power of the parliament to 'appoint' the president of the EU Commission is new, highly-contested - and not universally understood. In fact, even some of the lead candidates to replace Jean-Claude Juncker are against it.

EPP poised to pick lead candidate, amid struggle over Orban

The EU's largest political family has gathered in Helsinki to chose its lead candidate for the European election next May. They need to take on populists - but are struggling to deal with the 'enfant terrible' within their own ranks.

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