Addressing the European Parliament today (16 April) in Strasbourg, Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen pleaded for the new concept of “fair integration”, which he said would keep the EU safe from the twin threats of nationalism and populism. Many MEPs saw his speech as a jockeying exercise for one of the EU's top jobs, which will be up for grabs in 2014.
Speaking to MEPs in Strasbourg, Katainen said he became a pro-European during his time as an Erasmus student at the University of Leicester in the UK.
“This experience opened my eyes to the importance of European integration,” he said. According to European Parliament sources, Katainen, who is 42, is the only Erasmus student among EU heads of state and government.
The Finnish Prime Minister spoke at length about the economic crisis overshadowing European integration, and about the surge of nationalistic and populist forces.
He made no direct reference to his own country, where the nationalist ‘True Fins’ party became the third largest political force in parliament with 19.1% of the votes following the 2011 general election. Katainen, who is chairman of the centre-right National Coalition Party, isolated the ‘True Finns’ by forming a broad government coalition, including the social-democrats and liberals.
“We should not let pressing economic and social challenges poison the whole idea of European integration. We should not let nationalistic and populist voices dominate the European debate,” Katainen said.
Katainen dedicated a large part in his speech to explaining his concept of “fair integration”, which he described as “European integration that benefits everyone”.
Without mentioning countries like Hungary or Romania, which have been criticised for undermining European values, he insisted that “fair integration” implied that these values must be respected “by all and at all times”.
On the economic side, he made it clear that countries could count on solidarity, but only on the condition that they make every effort to keep their house in order.
“We should be able to rely on each other. But we cannot outsource all responsibility to others. […] Those who decide about expenditure must collect the revenues”, he said.
Finland is a eurozone member and part of the selective club of “triple A’ listed EU countries, which comprises also Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg.
Many Parliamentary observers interpreted Katainen’s speech as a positioning exercise for one of the European top jobs that will become available after the European elections in May 2014.
The centre-right European People's Party (EPP), to which Katainen is affiliated, has not yet decided who to select as their candidate for the coveted position of European Commission President. Another top EU position that will be up for grabs in 2014 is European Council President, currently held by Herman Van Rompuy, who recently announced he would quit politics in 2014. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, also announced that she would step down.
One of the unwritten conditions for acceding to the post is a good command of English and French. Katainen delivered his speech in English, Finnish and French.