Former Prime Minister Alex Stubb (NCP) has announced his bid to become the President of the European Commission.
Stubb has been out of frontline politics for the past two years, filling a job at the European Investment Bank. But at a press conference this afternoon where he spoke in French, German and English, Stubb said he was ready to run for political office again.
“After some contemplation and encouragement from friends I have decided to run for ‘spitzenkandidat’ lead candidate of the EPP party” he told reporters in Strasbourg.
Ahead of the announcement Stubb had been laying the groundwork with media interviews, and meeting with EPP delegations from different EU countries as he attempts to build up support for his candidacy.
The ‘spitzenkandidat’ system is how the European Peoples Party – the political grouping that Stubb’s National Coalition Party belongs to – chooses their top man (it has never been a woman) to become European Commission President if they win the lion’s share of seats in the European Parliament elections next spring.
EPP members will decide between Stubb, German Manfred Webber, and any other candidates who throw their hat into the ring, at a conference in Helsinki in early November.
Stubb’s credentials for the job
This afternoon Stubb, who served just one year as Prime Minister of Finland before leading his party to a third place election defeat in 2015, outlined the reasons he wants to be the Commission President.
Describing the European Union as “more than an international organisation, but less than a state”, Stubb said his whole decision was based on values.
“I believe that the European Union’s values are currently under attack from inside, outside and from within our party” he told journalists, flanked by NCP Chairman Petteri Orpo, former Prime Minister and current Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen, and several NCP MEPs.
“If we do not stick to these fundamental values” of human rights, freedom, human dignity, liberal democracy and equality “we are left with nothing”.
Stubb also said that America, Russia and China were external threats to the European Union, something he called “one of the most successful models of society”. But he also said countries like Poland, Italy and Hungary posed a threat to EU stability.
The view from Brussels
Stubb goes into this contest as an underdog, but says he’ll take five weeks of unpaid leave from his job to go on a listening tour across Europe.
He will use those weeks to remind European politicians of his credentials as an MEP, former Foreign Minister and former Finance Minister in Finland.
“If you want someone who is interesting to look at and write about, someone who has got that, I don’t want to say charisma, but there’s something magnetic about him, there’s something there that has the potential to be a very interesting candidate” says Ryan Heath, Political Director at Politico Europe in Brussels.
“Of course he is very experienced when it comes to EU politics, but maybe that’s a liability when it comes to ‘capital P’ politics” he adds.
“If you don’t know how Stubb performed as a Finnish politician […] he is literally and metaphorically a very attractive candidate. He is a genuine athlete with all those triathlons. He would have very good conversations with Trump about golf. And posing in his Speedos, however corny and cheesy and inappropriate, it will be a novelty” says Heath.
Stubb’s rival for the EPP nomination, Manfred Weber, is a very different type of candidate altogether. Stubb described Weber today as a friend, and someone he’s known for many years.
“Where Weber is appealing, he has not tried to lead a complicated life. He doesn’t try to shove his achievements or intellect down anyone’s throat. He is humble. His is slightly younger, and you can see how he fits into this era as an anti-politician” says Politico’s Ryan Heath.
Is Stubb really a ‘youthful’ candidate?
Unveiling some campaign graphics on social media after his press conference today, Stubb is emphasising that he’s a ‘next generation’ candidate.
It was a theme that his predecessor as NCP chairman, Petteri Orpo, touched upon when he made some comments supporting Stubb’s campaign.
“I think that Alex is all what the EU needs. He is a fresh, new, next generation politician” he told reporters today.
But at age 50, and with a political career in Brussels stretching back almost 15 years, does Stubb really represent the next generation of leaders? He might be younger than the outgoing Commission President, 63-year-old Jean-Claude Juncker, but he’s not on the crest of a wave of new young politicians emerging across the continent.
“It’s hard to call yourself the next generation when you’re 20 years older than Europe’s youngest Prime Minister” says Politico’s Ryan Heath.
Stubb’s chances of becoming ‘President of Europe’
At the moment, Manfred Weber is clearly the front runner in the race to be the EPP’s lead candidate as Commission President. However, that doesn’t mean Stubb can’t emerge to find a top job.If the EPP doesn’t do as well as it thinks in the 2019 European elections, and doesn’t get an easy majority in the parliament, they might have to offer up a compromise candidate for president.
That compromise could be a second place finisher Alex Stubb, or it could be someone else completely, like French Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
“By making himself a candidate now, it means Stubb is available as a compromise candidate later on. Or he could be Finland’s next EU commissioner. Or the EU’s foreign minister replacing Federica Mogherini” explains Ryan Heath.
The European Peoples Party conference takes place at Messukeskus in Helsinki on 7th and 8th November.