Stubb v. Weber: Around Helsinki’s ‘fireside’, no one got burnt

German MEP Manfred Weber (L) and Finland's former prime minister Alexander Stubb (R) in debate during the 23rd People's Party (EPP) 2018 Congress in Helsinki, Finland, 07 November 2018. [EPA-EFE/KIMMO BRANDT]

The EPP’s two lead candidates for the presidency of the European Commission, MEP Manfred Weber and ex-Finnish PM Alexander Stubb, went head-to-head on Wednesday evening (7 October), in a bid to secure support for Thursday’s (8 November) vote on who should lead the party into next year’s European elections.

But the encounter was somewhat of an uneventful affair.

“I think it was a good debate, more like a fireside chat. I felt very comfortable and I hope Manfred did as well,” Alex Stubb told EURACTIV before leaving the conference centre for a high-level dinner in Helsinki.

But around the fireside, nobody got even a bit burnt: the confrontation never heated up and the two contenders even praised each other.

Immediately after the debate, Weber told EURACTIV that EPP showed a willingness of having a democratic debate about the future of Europe.

“We do this internally: EPP set a positive example,” he said, adding that Europe needs to get more out of the “black box Brussels” and discuss issues on how to involve people more.

“People watch us, people look us and there’s a growing interest,” he said.

Although there were high expectations about the only debate of the campaign, the lack of a lively confrontation left a sour taste, considering that the pair, each standing on different political platforms, clash on a number of core issues.

Avoided clashes

Moderated by Irish EPP vice president Mairead McGuiness, the debate showcased different views on how to address populism.

“From the inside, the key question is how we can answer to populism and extremism in Europe. For me the answer is to reconnect the people, to look at their concerns,” Weber said during the debate, adding that this will represent a recipe against populism.

“A lot of people talk of the emerging of populism. I agree, but we shouldn’t blame people for voting for populists,” Stubb said.

“We should actually look ourselves in the mirror and think: what did we do wrong in 2008 and in 2015?” he told from the stage, looking more at the faults of politicians than of the voters.

Stubb played true to his liberal agenda in rallying his vision for Europe, which includes principles such as taking a lead in “establishing international rules for a future world of artificial intelligence and robotization.”

Otherwise, Weber expressed some concerns about the social impact of technology. “We need to give an answer to people who feel threatened by job losses due to these technological changes.”

Also on substantial aspects, Stubb’s strong focus on ‘values’ is at odds with the “spirit of compromise” that would lead a theoretical Commission presidency of the Bavarian politician.

“We need to solve climate change as well,” Stubb said, while Weber didn’t touch any environmental issues when he was asked about European farmers, focusing only on food security and reducing the dependency from external partners.

But when it came to talking about the internal threats for Europe, they both avoided mentioning the elephant in the room, Hungary.

Managing migration

While Weber is widely touted to win Thursday’s contest, Tuesday’s debate highlighted some deficiencies in his policy package, which suffers from a certain vagueness.

For instance, on migration Weber spoke in general terms about winning back the control of the borders, while Stubb was more exhaustive listing three concrete actions that it intends to put into action if he’ll become President of the Commission.

Stubb’s position includes managing migration not by “building walls” or “stirring up fear”, but by “investing in growth and jobs” abroad – conflict with the more traditionally conservative Weber, who presented himself as more unyielding on the issue.

Weber has solicited support from many on the right of EPP spectrum, with leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Austria’s Sebastian Kurz registering their support for the German.

While Stubb recognised the need to appeal to a boarder church, showing off his multilingual skills as he recalled experiences from when he was Finnish Prime minister.

Both men will be up for the vote when the secret ballot takes place on Thursday (8 November) morning, when they will also deliver short speeches to delegates on why they should win the candidacy.

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