Date: 26/12/2016
To some, Alexander Stubb is the Iron Man who could save Europe: a polyglot triathlete, former Finnish prime minister, and, at age 48, part of the next generation of leaders desperately needed on a Continent battered by anti-establishment populism.

To others, Stubb is a well-chiseled has-been, whose 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 parliamentary elections, putting an end to Stubb’s one-year stint as prime minister.

Last summer, the National Coalition Party voted to replace Stubb as its leader, and he is now just one of 200 members of parliament. It has been a humbling fall for a man who served as finance minister, foreign minister, minister of European affairs and, for four years, as one of the better-known members of the European Parliament.

POLITICO caught up with Stubb at the Finnish Permanent Representation in Brussels this month when he was back for meetings, mainly on the topic of Brexit, with senior officials, including senior leaders of the European People’s Party, of which he is a member.

Stubb not only speaks fluent English but, thanks to four years at Furman University in South Carolina on a golf scholarship, he can also execute a perfect Dixie drawl. “Finnish by birth, Southern by the Grace of God,” he says by way of introduction.

Over nearly an hour, he claimed to be content serving in Parliament and focusing on his two young children. But it’s hard to believe that restlessness isn’t twitching beneath the surface. He says he now refuses to do interviews in the Finnish press in an effort to stay out of the domestic fray, but he still writes a column for the Financial Times.

And he spends quite a bit of time pondering the political implications of a world that seems to be changing at warp-speed — which isn’t what a guy who plans to exit public life usually does.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

On change and chaos

“We’re in a mess but we should put things into perspective: The EU is constant crisis management. You move from one crisis to the other and, at the end of the day, it’s just a question of the size of the crisis and who gets hit the hardest. I have always believed the EU advances in three-phases: Phase no. 1 is crisis, phase no. 2 is chaos and phase no. 3 is sub-optimal solution, and that’s very much the nature of the beast.

“There is, of course, a huge difference in the sentiment that we had in the late 1980’s early 1990’s versus the sentiment we have in 2015, 2016. So in the early 90’s, we have the collapse of the Berlin Wall, we have the end of the Cold War, we have the Velvet Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there’s sort of a feeling of hope if you will. Central and Eastern Europe start integrating in the European Union. Democracy, free markets, globalization is on the march. Nelson Mandela is freed. You name it. It was just a decade of hope.

“And once we had gotten things settled in the 1990’s, we move on to the new millennium, which for all intents and purposes becomes an institutional decade. The first 10 years, we were very much happy that the euro has been established, that enlargement takes place, that we have a common foreign security policy, we have justice and home affairs, but we get very tangled up with naval-gazing, looking at institutions. And, you know, I’m partly to blame for that. I am an institutional nerd myself. I love to tinker with weights and votes and numbers of commissioners and the balance of power between institutions here in Brussels. But to be quite honest, Joe Six Pack on the street doesn’t really care about that.

“And then we hit the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and it’s basically been downhill since. We’re all trying to come to terms with the aftermath of the financial crisis.  I think we did quite well in solving and salvaging whatever was to be salvaged. And in hindsight, we came out of the crisis, I am not saying unscathed but, quite well and stronger than expected. People were speaking about the collapse of the euro. At the end of the day, we got more members into the euro. People were speaking of severe economic recessions à la 1873 or 1929. And at the end of the day, our economies bounced back and arguably we are stronger than before the crisis. So we managed that quite well, albeit it was chaotic.

“But immediately in the aftermath of that crisis, we were obviously hit by the asylum crisis and immigration. So when you have two almost seismic events — a financial crisis combined with an inflow of immigration, which we haven’t seen since World War 2— there will be a reaction.

«And the reaction in Europe has been of a populist nature, of a rolling back of powers from Brussels, of a certain nativist inclination, anti-globalist inclination, even anti-Democratic inclination. And then on top of those crisis we get hit with two events which pose question marks: one is permanent and the other is not. So the first one is Brexit – obviously of a permanent nature. And then the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. So the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty at this moment, but my argument is always that Europe will survive.”

On populism and protectionism

“One of the problems is what we do with European integration and the problem is that national leaders, as they are national, they take the credit for all the successes and they put all the blame of failure on Brussels. So everything that’s good is because of me; everything that’s bad is because of Brussels. And if you push that agenda long enough, people start to believe it. That’s what happened in the U.K.: You basically had a 40-year relentless propaganda machinery which was, by and large, eurosceptic and counter-factual.

As far as protectionism is concerned, there are not too many examples in the history of nation-states where protectionism has worked out and especially not in today’s world of technological advancement, information technology, robotics, digitalization, 3-D printing and the rest of it. And funnily enough, if we look at the free movement of goods around the world, tariffs are not really the issue anymore. The goods move pretty freely and the tariffs are quite small. At the end of the day, it’s really about the cost of services and how they cross borders. My children who are 15 and 12 ½, their children are probably not going to go to schools with vehicles that have a driver. They will be printing sneakers off their 3-D printers.

They can already purchase goods and services over the net across borders if they get their parents’ credit card. They and their children will be diagnosed with illnesses better, faster and more accurately than by a doctor. They will not experience market analysts or x-ray experts. So the world they will live in is, by definition, a borderless world and yet we, the geriatric politicians, keep on erecting these walls.

So there’s something sort of highly paradoxical in all of this. And, of course, my fear is that now that we have this wave of whatever you want to call it — nativist extreme-left, extreme-right, whatever-populism — this will only increase as technology develops … and the venting of frustrations will be even stronger towards us. So the situation, although I am an optimist, will probably get worse rather than better. And the funny thing is that common rules are probably the only way forward.”

On Merkel, the last liberal standing

“Finland is a very Western country. We know our place in history and we try to focus on the issues that we know best and believe in – market economy, internal market, free trade, strong European institutions, we try to push that agenda. But we’re 5.4 million people. In that sense, it’s very difficult. I think Europe has one leader right now, to be honest, and that leader is Germany – and especially through the persona of Angela Merkel. She is sort of the last, liberal Democrat standing.

“I am married to a Brit and obviously a strong Anglophile so naturally I’m saddened by Brexit. We are now in a situation where the U.K. has marginalized itself voluntarily from the European Union and we have to live with that.”

“It’s tough days for us, liberal internationalists — I think this is the best term, people who really believe in democracy, market economy and globalization. We just have to fight back. We have to be patient. We have to persevere.

On a fast-changing world

“You don’t need to read much literature on the Fourth Industrial Revolution to understand that much bigger things are happening, whether they are linked to your future job or your future economy or whether they are linked to ethical questions on how far to perfect a human being and do gene manipulation to eradicate disease or improve the quality of a human being.

“We have basically been able to rid the three big issues that have pestered us for all of our lives. One is war. I am not saying it’s completely gone but in comparison to what it used to be, it is. The second one is famine. And obviously that doesn’t pertain to everyone in the world but we know how to do it. And the third one is disease. We have basically beat all of those three things.

“And now the next step is what happens to homo sapiens in the future? And how does that then pertain to politics? And the difference to previous times is that you know one generation had time to grapple with an industrial revolution or agricultural revolution but this just happens so fast that it’s the key is to be curious and try to understand and influence.”

On delivering results

“Liberal democracy is also about delivering results. If people feel secure, if they feel that their economy is stable, then they will also support democracy and political leaders. So I don’t think it’s necessarily time for high-flying visions. It’s more time for doing business and delivering results.”