He adjusted his jacket, made a wide smile and, after having thanked the moderator and sticked to the formal pleasantries, addressed to the audience with a very simple, catchy phrase: “I must admit it, I am a EU nerd”. Alexander Stubb, Former Prime Minister of Finland, Vice-President of the European Investment Bank and talented marathon runner, gave his speech in front of more than 60 students and professors about his vision of the past, present and future of Europe within the global order, on the occasion of the Jean Monnet series of seminars at Maastricht University.
Standing without a microphone and showing his astonishing rhetorical abilities, the politician and scholar dealt with several core issues through different approaches, including historical, social and economic perspectives.
He started his well/highly-structured speech with a quick overview on the history of International Relations, underlining three key-dates for the development of what he first defined as “the start of the bipolar system”. As a matter of fact, 1945 and the following years marked the end of World War II and the birth of multilateral institutions that are still considered the pillars on which the international system rests on. Bretton Woods, the United Nations, NATO and many more were founded in that decade.
The second cornerstone is, according to the Finnish politician, 1989. He inevitably got emotional speaking of the fall of the Berlin Wall as the beginning of an “era of hope”, where the so-called “Western principles” such as liberalism, freedom and democracy won over the Soviet system. Academically, this also marked the start of the unipolar hegemony carried out by the winners of the Cold War, the USA, as well as the unprecedented boost of European integration with the unification of the East and the West and the economical and political progress in that direction. With a glimpse of pride in his eyes, Stubb also reminded how the European model started spreading throughout the globe, influencing institutions such as MERCOSUR and the African Union.
Nevertheless, his last historical remarks were dedicated to the collapse of the Anglo-Saxon world, both politically and ideologically, in 2016. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, said the Finnish scholar, have represented the peak of a profound crisis that has hit Europe and the rest of the World in the last decade, marking the final transition from a unipolar to a multipolar system in the international arena.
But what are now the challenges that the global order should tackle, and above all, what is the role that the EU should play in this context?
Stubb’s answer was very analytical. He pointed out three mega-trends which he defined as “filters” through which the contemporary issues should be observed. The first one was the demographic situation, with an ageing population and a drastic fall of the fertility rate, whose consequences are already conditioning the commercial, economic and migration trends, shifting the attention from the transatlantic world to countries such China, India and the African continent.
The second mega-trend is related to technology, a core issue according to the Finnish minister. Quoting Harari’s Sapiens, he plunged in a fervent digression about the impact that robotics, IA and the digital era in general will have in the next decades: quite surprisingly, his biggest concerns did not entail the economic sphere, but mostly focused on the social and political role that such a progress can play, as well as on the fear and refusal that the society is showing against it. This fear, he added, led to the British and American phenomena last year. He also pointed out how politicians and officials still struggle not only to understand these new trends -such as the changes that the digitalisation is bringing about the media-, but also to adapt to them in the long-term period.
Last but not least, Stubb also cited climate change as third mega-trend, which will influence mass migration and, consequently, the economic stability of certain areas on the seven continents.
This mega trends, according to his analysis, have developed political instability in the International Relations and have created a sort of “power vacuum”- due to the fall of the US-UK narrative- which will be inevitably filled by other players. But who are, in practice, these players? Stubb did not have a clear answer, but his vision was incredibly optimistic about it. “The European Union can and should take advantage of this multipolar moment”, he claimed, and should primarily defend and protect those values and principles that are now jeopardised: liberalism, democracy and freedom against the threat of an intellectual crumple in the post-truth era. “This is the DNA of the EU. It’s not the right time to point at somebody else’s fault. It is time to unite and stand together, promoting our institutions in this political chaos”. Secondly, paramount importance has been given to the enhancement of technological hubs. “We should not dream of catching up the Silicon Valley, but it is my dream to participate into a Union that challenges itself trying to take a lead in the technological progress. That is the key for the next decades”. He underlined how the single digital market should be the cornerstone of such development and how the younger generations can and must play a key-role for this change, putting into practice a “reverse process” of teaching and learning.
Yet, the digital race should not be the sole objective at the EU level. As a banker, Stubb remarked the importance of international trade agreements and the need for Europe to play a greater role in the global economy, as well as to take advantage of the American withdrawal to foster its weight on climate change. Eventually, he spent some words on the “more traditional” security dilemma; he strongly supported the steps that Federica Mogherini has already made in this direction and hopes for an even stronger collaboration among the Member States to achieve a homogeneous and harmonic defence system.
Such a strong message raised a lot of doubts and questions among the audience. Again, the former Prime Minister proved to be a highly-skilled communicator: he insisted on the positive outcomes of the economic crisis in 2011: “if it was not for the economic crisis that hit our Union, we would not have such an economic integration like what we experienced in these recent years. The same, with time, will apply for immigration, and even for defence. The history of IR has taught us that there are always three cycling phases: first, there is crisis. Then, there is chaos. But eventually, the optimal solutions blossom”.