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Northern Lights and rising stars heading for Brussels

6503846831_2f511beb1a_oFor some countries, nominees to the European Commission often emerge as a result of national problem-solving exercises – focusing on who needs to be removed from the national political arena without their pride being damaged, who needs to be compensated for poor treatment in the past, or whose departure causes the fewest ripples.

This hardly looks like being the case for Finland and Estonia in 2014. Both countries are set to send top-level politicians to serve in the Commission – and possibly even their prime ministers.

Finland appears to have an embarrassment of riches. The Prime Minister, Jyrki Katainen (pictured above, right), has long been talked of as a possible president of the European Commission, and while he has ruled out running in the race to be the lead candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP), he may still be a late compromise candidate in the case of post-election deadlock.

Meanwhile, Olli Rehn is the co-leader of the campaign for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party, and the Liberals are hoping to nominate him to a top economic or foreign affairs position in 2014.

 

Read our full profiles of the potential nominees for the Commission from Finland

However, Rehn is unlikely to be Finland’s nominee to the Commission (perhaps opening the way for him becoming the first permanent president of the Eurogroup). The coalition agreement that sees Katainen lead a six-party pact in Helsinki means that the centre-right National Coalition Party (Kok) gets to make the nomination.

The likely Kok contenders for the nomination feature three senior government ministers. Although an advisor to Katainen said earlier this month that the PM “was not in the running for nomination of the [EPP]” – not least because his party will not nominate him in the year before parliamentary elections – there was a caveat.

The advisor told EurActiv that “if somebody calls him, he will take the call” – indicating that Katainen would not immediately turn down an offer to head the Commission. With Kok trailing in the opinion polls, Katainen does not want to harm his standing by running in the EPP race. But come the summer, taking the post of Commission president may get the EU out of a hole and spare him a possible domestic defeat in 2015 – especially as a triple-dip recession is approaching.

But if Finland – and Katainen – does not get the presidency, who else is in the frame? With the PM unlikely to take a more junior role in the Commission, other names emerge.

One is well-known in Brussels: Alexander Stubb has been an advisor at the Finnish permanent representation and the Commission, and served for four years as a Member of the European Parliament. Formerly Finland’s foreign minister, and now the Minister for European Affairs and Foreign Trade, Stubb is a natural fit for the Commission.

Stubb may even be a contender for the role of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (a nomination that would surely scupper Olli Rehn’s hopes of the Eurogroup presidency), although other, more seasoned foreign policy experts and current foreign ministers – such as Sweden’s Carl Bildt and the Netherlands’ Frans Timmermans – are perhaps better bets.

Another later addition to the Kok slate of candidates for the European Parliament elections is Henna Virkkunen, currently Finland’s Minister for Public Administration and Local Government. A well-liked figure who will probably challenge Stubb for the poll of most popular candidate in Finland’s ‘open list’ European Parliament election system, she could become the country’s first female European commissioner. Finland has been criticised in the past for having named only men as European commissioners (in stark contrast to its neighbor, Sweden, which has only ever nominated women).

However, the Finnish puzzle is far from complete. Katainen’s decision is key, as is the election result and the standing of Stubb and Virkkunen. It is not out of the question that other ministers will stand for the European Parliament and vie for the nomination.

Across the Baltic Sea, another prime minister’s decision is also central to the choice of European commissioner. Andrus Ansip (pictured above, left), who has been Estonia’s Prime Minister since 2005, is thought to want to succeed Siim Kallas as the country’s nominee to the European Commission.

 

Read our full profiles of the potential nominees for the Commission from Estonia

Ansip, whose Liberal Reform Party (RE) governs in coalition with the EPP-affiliated Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL), is thought to be keen on a move to Brussels and would surely help Estonia to secure another leading role in the Commission. Kallas has been a vice-president of the Commission since November 2004, helping Estonia to punch well above its weight in EU affairs.

But what of Siim Kallas himself? It had been thought that – with Ansip keen on joining the Commission – Kallas would seek election to the European Parliament. However, with his daughter, Kaja Kallas, standing for the Reform Party, Siim Kallas has said that he will not run in the election (Estonia, like Finland, has an ‘open list’ system where candidates compete for votes against party colleagues as well opposing parties).

The current Vice-President of the Commission – who has held a series of major roles in Estonia, including PM and head of the central bank – may have his eyes on the presidency of Estonia in 2016. And in the meantime, a job swap with Ansip may be a good move for all parties, with Siim Kallas generally liked in Estonia.

Other candidates for the Commission, should Ansip decide to stay and try to secure a third election victory as Prime Minister, include the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Urmas Paet. Like Ansip, Paet has held his role since 2005. He speaks Estonian, Finnish, German and English and is a member of the Reform Party.

Another government minister in the frame is Juhan Parts, currently the Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications. Parts, from the centre-right IRL, was Ansip’s predecessor as PM, serving from 2003 to 2005.

The list of lights from the North and rising stars is long – and highlights the seriousness with which Finland and Estonia are treating the nominations to the Commission as a way of ensuring international influence. Which of the list of senior politicians actually becomes a commissioner will depend more than ever on the decisions of two prime ministers.

Anna Ranki – Pohjoisranta Burson-Marsteller, Helsinki
David O’Leary – Burson-Marsteller Brussels

For more information on Pohjoisranta Burson-Marsteller, go to burson-marsteller.fi