HELSINKI/BERLIN (Reuters) - He was too sporty, too international and too outspoken for his small country — but he has no qualms about campaigning to become the next European Commission President.
Alexander Stubb, who was Finland’s prime minister and then finance minister before being ditched by his own party in 2016, is the only declared rival to Germany’s more conservative Manfred Weber in the race to lead the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) into next year’s EU election.
The winner will instantly become favorite to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the EU’s most powerful job.
Stubb, a prolific Twitter user known for doing “Iron Man” triathlons, is a clear underdog, but a strong showing could put the 50-year-old enthusiast for European integration in line for another top job, such as EU foreign policy chief.
“If you look at the numbers, the chances (of winning) are quite slim,” he admitted in Berlin on a tour of EU capitals ahead of the EPP vote in Helsinki on Nov. 8.
“The most important thing for me is to stand up on the barricades and defend European values, and drive the pro-European agenda against the grain ... It feels bloody good. Winning the race is almost irrelevant.”
He has harsh words for Italy, which is in a budget standoff with the EU, and says he would kick Hungary’s anti-immigration prime minister, Viktor Orban, out of the EPP if he was unwilling to stick to common values.
“Alex’s positive campaign, added to the fact that everybody knows him, gives Finland a better chance of success in the post-election game of musical chairs,” said Stubb’s friend and countryman, EU Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen.
Stubb, who holds an economics PhD from the London School of Economics, was popular at home when he was elected to the European Parliament in 2004.
He then served as Finland’s foreign minister and EU minister and sought nomination as an EU commissioner in 2014, before Katainen unexpectedly quit as premier to take the job himself.
Stubb then took over the helm of the National Coalition Party and became prime minister for a year.
But his slick image and outspokenness complicated cooperation with more cautious figures such as the president, party sources said. When he wore shorts and sandals to meet reporters at the end of his vacation, eyebrows were raised.
After an election that saw his party slip to junior coalition partner, Stubb became finance minister.
The missteps began to accumulate.
He gave parliament incorrect information about a proposed securities register. As the pressure mounted, a man threw a drink in his face in a cafeteria, and two men fired an air rifle at his home during the night.
Johanna Vuorelma, political analyst at Helsinki University, said Stubb did not fit the mould of a politician in Finland, where modesty and ordinariness are considered virtues.
“He seemed so overwhelming with all the languages he spoke, the exceptional social skills and strong networks he possessed,” she said.
In June 2016, his party decided enough was enough, and dismissed him as leader and finance minister. Last year, he became vice president of the European Investment Bank.
Reporting by Jussi Rosendahl and Anne Kauranen in Helsinki, Noah Barkin in Berlin; Editing by Kevin Liffey