Alexander Stubb, the Ironman triathlete and former Finnish prime minister who wants to be European Commission president, has divided the campaign ahead of him so it resembles a race.
It has three stages: the European People’s Party (EPP) primary in which he hopes to be chosen as Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate; the European parliamentary election, in which he would champion the conservative party’s Continent-wide agenda; and the formation of the next European Commission for the next five, or perhaps even 10, years.
“For me, this is a triathlon,” Stubb said.
“The EPP race is a swim,” Stubb, 50, explained near the end of a more than hour-long interview, in which he laid out the reasons behind his desire to become the first Generation X leader of an EU institution.
“Then, the European elections. If I win the Spitzenkandidat, I will certainly run in the European elections, so that’s going to be the bike. And then setting up the next Commission, with the support of the European Council and the European Parliament, will be the run.”
But the endurance test isn’t just for Stubb, who officially announced his candidacy at a news conference Tuesday in Strasbourg. It’s also for his colleagues in politics — and for European voters — who are being asked to endure a candidate who is so self-promotional and shamelessly aggrandizing that until recently his Twitter page featured a photo of him with arm outstretched to show off a well-sculpted bicep.
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Stubb’s only competitor so far is Manfred Weber, the German leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament.
Weber is hardly an electrifying character, and has no executive experience in government, but he has the tentative backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel and — more importantly — the inside track on drumming up internal EPP support in a contest that will be decided not by popular acclaim but in a secret ballot at a party conference in early November. Being German, and therefore from the largest delegation in Parliament, is also to Weber’s advantage.
While other candidates could still come forward — the EPP’s deadline for nominations is October 17 — Weber’s insider edge has allowed Stubb to jump into the race claiming himself both an underdog and a bit of an outsider, although he is not really either.
In any event, Weber has promoted his candidacy as an extension of European-style coalition politics, in which it is only natural that the leader of the largest group in parliament should be asked to lead the government.
Stubb, by contrast, is promoting himself, well, as Alex Stubb. Or “Alx Stbb,” as one of his cutesy campaign ads says, illustrating what happens to his name minus the letters E and U.
Setting out credentials
Stubb speaks five languages — Finnish, Swedish, English, German and French — and his academic credentials and professional resumé are shinier than an Olympic medal. He holds a bachelor’s in political science from Furman University in South Carolina, which he attended on a golf scholarship, a degree in French language and civilization from the Sorbonne, a master’s from the College of Europe, and a Ph.D. in international politics from the London School of Economics.
He has worked as a diplomat in Finland’s permanent representation in Brussels, as an adviser to Commission President Romano Prodi from 2001 to 2003, served as a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2008, worked in the Finnish government as minister of foreign affairs, then minister of European affairs, and was prime minister for 339 days — from June 24, 2014 to May 29, 2015.
Stubb’s boosters say he is the ideal, fresh force that Brussels needs to beat back an array of challenges from nationalists, populists, far-right and far-left extremists, and to counter the ennui and dissatisfaction that has created an anti-establishment fervor even among many mainstream voters.
“First of all, Alex is genuinely enthusiastic about Europe and knows it inside out,” said Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen, who preceded Stubb as prime minister of Finland and remains a close friend. “Second, he’s one of those leaders who will be capable of setting up a dynamic agenda for Europe, particularly on artificial intelligence and circular economy. He’s a modern person.”
Stubb had given Katainen right of first refusal to make a run for the Commission presidency and a chance to be the first Nordic leader of any of the EU’s main institutions. Once Katainen said he did not want to run, Stubb began a deliberation process, though the outcome was all-but-certain even before it started. It was no secret that Stubb, who is currently a vice president of the European Investment Bank, has been itching to return to active politics.
Critics, however, say that Stubb’s credentials are oceans wide but as deep as a puddle.
In particular, he will have to defend himself against charges that his lackluster leadership of his center-right National Coalition Party allowed the Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant Finns party to gain ground and finish second to the Center Party in the 2015 election, putting an end to Stubb’s stint as prime minister. After his defeat, Stubb served as finance minister, but the liberal Center Party remains in control of the Finnish government.
Stubb says he was left in an impossible situation, given the domestic political winds and dynamics of the coalition government.
Out with the old?
Stubb’s candidacy may ultimately hinge on whether the EU’s wise elders decide that what the bloc needs most is not proven, long-term leadership (in the mold of Jean-Claude Juncker, who spent 19 years as prime minister of Luxembourg) but rather an image makeover led by a master communicator — thereby making some of Stubb’s self-promotional instincts a prime asset rather than a grating drawback.
Indeed, when it comes to promoting the EU’s message, it is hard to imagine a better poster boy than the Finnish Ironman.
In the interview with POLITICO and again at his formal campaign announcement in Strasbourg, Stubb stressed his deep commitment to European values, and articulated clear reasons for running and why he believes he is the man for the job.
Weber talks about the need to reconnect the EU to the European people. Stubb talks about European values, the need to stand up and defend the European way of life against myriad modern threats.
“Human rights and fundamental rights, freedom, liberal democracy and the rule of law — all of these are under attack,” Stubb said. “They are under attack from the outside, Trump, Russia, China. They are under attack from inside the European Union, countries such as Poland and Italy. And they are under attack inside the EPP family, with parties such as [Fidesz] in Hungary.
“I do not want the year 2016 to mark the demise of our liberal world order, through the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, and that’s why I think it’s time to stand up on the barricades of liberal democracy and make a strong defense,” Stubb added.
“Secondly I am in it because I actually think this is Europe’s moment. Unlike many doomsdayers who try to lead with fear and with hate and with threats, and with nationalism and with localism, with closing borders, I believe this is a time for Europe to take leadership. And obviously that leadership can come from the president of the European Commission.”
Making his case for generational change may be harder for Stubb, given that Weber, his main competitor, is, at 46, four years younger, and the EU’s youngest head of government, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, is just 32.
Still, it is true that Brussels is currently dominated by sexagenarians: Juncker is 63; Council President Donald Tusk, 61; and Parliament President Antonio Tajani, 65.
One EPP official called Stubb a “pro-austerity technocrat” from a small country, who would be supported only by a small group of Northern EU countries.
But even EPP insiders who think Stubb has a slim chance of ultimately clinching the party’s nomination said they believe that his candidacy and pro-EU message would benefit the overall election process and the Spitzenkandidat system, which other parties have criticized, saying it overwhelmingly benefits the EPP, which is widely expected once again to win the most seats in Parliament.
And many were impressed by the rollout of his campaign, which included an array of splashy interviews, a social media blitz, and fancy ads. Stubb’s wife, Suzanne Innes-Stubb, is a British lawyer living in Finland and they have two young children who Stubb said are helping him with Snapchat. In a show of sportsmanship, Stubb even posted a photo of himself with Weber on Twitter ahead of his announcement.
“We are the party that has embraced the Spitzenkandidat process more than anybody else,” said Dara Murphy, the EPP’s campaign coordinator. “Selecting candidates who will engage with each other through a campaign, present their platform and their policies to the people of the Continent as we will, and then have to defend and be accountable after an election is a step forward in the democratic legitimacy of this Continent.”
Stubb said he is taking an immediate five-week unpaid absence from his job at the European Investment Bank, and would begin traveling across Europe to build support for his candidacy. He also said he would roll out detailed campaign proposals on an array of issues, including addressing economic insecurity resulting from globalization as well as on migration and asylum, perhaps the toughest policy fight facing the EU.
As a candidate and potentially as Commission president, Stubb said he would advocate a pragmatic, Finnish approach. “We have to have a warm heart,” he said, “and a cold head.”