May 28, 2021

Alexander Stubb: I See the Baltics and the Nordics as One Entity

Jussi Ratilainen
Alexander Stubb says he has the best working title which is former prime minister. Currently, Stubb is Director and Professor at the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence.
Alexander Stubb says he has the best working title which is former prime minister. Currently, Stubb is Director and Professor at the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence.

After seeing the world through the lenses of Finnish politics, experiencing the specifics of Nordic cooperation and shaping the future of the European Union, Alexander Stubb is back in academia. He considers himself a big fan of the Baltics and the Nordics, but not of regionalisation of the European Union, even though he was one of the initiators of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region.


The Baltic states are celebrating their 30-year anniversary of regaining independence this year. When you think back to the beginning of 1990s and compare it to now, have the Nordic and Baltic countries grown closer?

Everything has changed. We have seen the power of open society and open economy, freedom of choice, international integration and institutions. We see the level of development that can be achieved in a very short span of time when it is allowed.

When the Baltic states regained their independence, I was a youngish student in the US. I was as excited as anyone could be for my Estonian brothers and sisters, but at the same time there was a sentiment in the 1990s that Estonia lagged far behind. However, from 2000 to 2010, we started to see rapid development. Then from 2010 to 2020/21, we saw that gap between the Baltic countries and the Nordic countries closing until basically we were at the same level.

It was in many ways a miraculous emergence from a difficult situation and it occurred much faster than in Finland. Remember, Finland was a backwater during the times of Urho Kekkonen in the 1970s. Then, with our mercantilist economic structure, we started to prosper very quickly in the 1990s because of Nokia and our membership in the EU. But that took from the 1970s to 2000 for us.

The open society works miracles when you allow people to do what they want to do. It makes me very happy.

Back in 2006, you together with Toomas Hendrik Ilves initiated the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region. Has the strategy and its implementation lived up to your expectations?

It has even exceeded my expectations. It is quite rare that initiatives coming from the European Parliament end up blossoming. Of course, you can always be critical that this or that did not happen, but I think it was of symbolic value—it brought to the fore our mare nostrum, the Baltic Sea. It also sent a clear message that our destinies are tied to each other in many ways, all the countries around the Baltic Sea, including Poland and Germany.

The strategy obviously had elements of environment and climate, economy and security. It eventually became an initiative of the European Commission, and it started a wave of other initiatives, the Danube strategy, for example. I am quite happy with the way things went at the time.

It was all about identity building.

Identity is quite a controversial topic today. On one hand it unites, but on the other hand it can be a source of problems.

Yes, it can work in both directions. It is interesting that when we talk about identity or identity politics, it is always seen as either right-wing or nationalistic. That is not necessarily the case.

The truth is that everyone has an identity, and we are all defined by certain identity politics. As human beings each one of us has a different type of identity and a different type of experience in life. The question is, how strongly is that identity embraced, whether it is about gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or race, nationality or language, age or experience.

When you understand that your identity is just part of a bigger cosmic development of who we are as human beings and when you can perhaps let go of your identity and understand other identities, then life becomes a lot easier.

The problem, however, is that if you look at two “I”s that have defined who we are in the past 100 years, one has been ideology and the other identity. It is much easier to find compromises with ideology than with identity. The simple reason is that identity is personal whereas ideology is universal.

For example, if I am negotiating a budget with you, you might have an ideological view that we should increase or decrease state expenditure and have higher or lower taxes. I might have the opposite view and we might find a compromise. But if it were about our identity, then it is much more difficult to find a compromise. The interesting thing is that identities quite often are local whereas politics is global. This is what makes the issue difficult.

I am now running the School of Transnational Governance, basically governance without borders, and in that there is very little space for identity, but when we try to understand the decisions that emerge from politics, private sector, media, academia and civil society, we understand that identity plays a part in those decisions.

That is a long way of saying that we cannot really get rid of our identity, but we can perhaps start treating identity in a little less extreme manner and understand that there are a few billion other identities around us.

Part of identity is also shared values.

I am a firm believer in universal values and the declaration of human rights, fundamental rights. At the end of the day everything starts from respect and understanding another human being.

The Nordic values and the Baltic values are not very different. There are a few common key elements: human rights and fundamental rights, the protection of minorities, freedom, democracy, equality and justice. Views about these issues do not differ greatly within the Nordic countries or the Baltic states.

If I were to separate the Nordic countries historically, they were quite lucky in that they could be pioneers in creating what has been generally branded as the Nordic welfare society which is a functioning combination of social security and freedom of entrepreneurship and open society and markets.

Obviously, we are always looking for balance and there will never be such a thing as a utopian state. We will always be looking for whether the state or the market should decide, and the pendulum keeps on swinging. If we can keep the pendulum swinging and focus on Nordic or Baltic welfare states, I think we will be quite okay.

But it all starts with an open society, I always keep on stressing that. If you start closing up, if you are going purely identity-based and state-only, you are going to lose out.

During the pandemic, the first thing the rest of the world noticed about the Nordics, who were renowned for their freedom of movement between the five countries, was how quickly the countries re-established borders and closed up.

The first reaction when Covid-19 landed in Europe through Italy was very much a nativist instinctive reaction to protect your own—yourself, your family, your society, your region, your country. And what did ALL EU member states do? Boom! Yes, we all erected exactly the types of hindrances or borders that Europe has been trying to get rid of. Immediately, we stopped the free movement of people, goods and services. It was not until the European Commission came back and said, “No, you cannot do that”, that we started to understand and began to seek a common solution.

In the Nordic states, in Scandinavia, immediately there was talk about why the Danes had closed the border, and the Swedes asked why Norway had done the same thing to Sweden—it was because Sweden was dealing with the pandemic in a different way. At the time they were talking about herd immunity the viral figures in Sweden were completely different. I do not think people took it personally, they understood the situation.

As we moved along and developed our understanding of the pandemic, we also understood what kind of measures needed to be taken. So, I do not think there was any long-lasting damage to Nordic friendship during the pandemic.

The traditional meeting of the Nordic and Baltic prime ministers on the sidelines of the Nordic Council summit in 2014 in Stockholm. Stubb is second from right, Estonia was represented by Anne Sulling, Minister of Foreign Trade and Entrepreneurship (third from left). Photo: Johannes Jansson /


Overall, do you think regions and regional cooperation gains or loses importance in the EU?

I am not a big fan of regionalisation of the EU. I admit I am a bit cheeky here, because I did the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region and I am a big fan of the Nordics and the Baltics, but the truth is that regionalisation is quite often more divisive than uniting.

During the financial crisis there was talk about the North–South divide, so was very much austerity versus solidarity. I wonder whether that would have happened if Ireland had been the first country to be bailed out in the Euro crisis instead of Greece. Then probably the language would have been a little different, but you cannot change history.

Also, during the migration crisis there was talk about East versus West.

It is also the case when talking about reforming economic policy saying there are countries that are much more progressive, focused on the internal market, and others that are regressive.

This sort of regional divide, I hope, will be a thing of the past. I am realistic, it is not going to be, but I hope it would be. The pandemic in that sense is a wonderful equaliser because you do not have to be an economist, political scientist or rocket scientist to understand that this was a symmetrical hit, everyone at the same time. Yes, consequences are asymmetrical, but we are all in the same boat. You cannot do a North–South divide on the pandemic no matter how much you want to.

But still, there are differences in ideology and development in Europe. Do you think differentiated integration is the way forward for the EU?

I did my PhD in differentiated integration in Europe, and in that I defined three categories.

First, multi-speed or two-speed. This means everyone catches up at the end of the day, but you allow some to forge ahead first. Second, variable geometry, meaning you start getting more permanent structures or conglomerates working together. For example, the Eurogroup and the Schengen area. Third, à la carte which is a sort of pick and choose where you want to be.

My thesis still is that you are not going to create permanent structures, but you can threaten to do so. It is quite helpful in getting results because no-one wants to be left out. It is a little bit like being in a kindergarten sandpit and saying, “No, you cannot come in”, and then everyone wants to jump in.

You have moved from Northern Europe to Italy in the South. How do you perceive the South now?

I live in a country where Mario Draghi is the prime minister. He was the one who saved us from the Euro crisis with his statement, “Whatever it takes”. His latest statement is “calculated risk” in opening up society and he was probably having one of his biggest wow moments when he published how he is going to use the rescue and recovery fund for growth, generating infrastructure and other programmes. So, suddenly Italy looks pretty damn cool.

It is in many ways wonderful to move from Finland via Luxembourg to Italy to see how things are done here. At the end of the day, it is about getting rid of preconceived views and sometimes also prejudices. If you live somewhere else, you understand that country much better.

I have never lived in Estonia, but I think I understand what Estonia is and who Estonians are. It has always been very easy for me to relate to Estonia as I understand the language a bit and our identities are very similar. Whereas, I have never lived in Italy before, and I am learning a new identity. In many ways it is fascinating and very rewarding.

And it is lovely to be out of politics. But I think I still have the best working title which is former prime minister.

The year was 2010 and Alexander Stubb and Urmas Paet were foreign ministers. Stubb, who visited Tallinn, received a pillow made by Kihnu craftsmen as a gift from Paet. Photo: Postimees/Scanpix


Public diplomacy used to rely a lot on personal connections and face-to-face meetings. In today’s virtual world, where not only meetings but also a lot of communication has moved to the virtual space, do you consider that building up a network of real deep personal connections in public diplomacy has become more difficult and less relevant?

Diplomacy as such started changing in the early 2000s. When I was foreign minister, I wanted my diplomats to express their views publicly, while following the government/country line, of course. I wanted them to come out of their offices. I felt their expertise was always very strong in given areas and I asked them to go on Twitter, and for all the embassies to go on Facebook.

The virtual world has not necessarily been bad, especially when connecting to representatives in other countries. For example, I recently talked to 150 Finnish diplomats, all online from around the world. That wasn’t possible before the Zoom era.

But it is problematic for the young diplomats, because they do not yet have the networks. And it is very difficult to network online and virtually.

On the other hand, I have never been a fan of cocktail parties, so perhaps the virtual era provides some balance there.

But overall, I think the pandemic has been good for interaction. We will miss the physical contact, but we will also understand that perhaps we can travel a little less for work than we used to. I used to have to fly roughly 120 times a year. As a foreign minister it was very different, for example, having to fly with Urmas Paet to Syria, but now I could easily cut out about 100 of those job-related flights. I am happy to do my 20 job flights a year, but no more than that.

Whether it is virtually or in person, when an Estonian diplomat meets a Nordic colleague, what should be the five topics they discuss?

The starting point is very simple, as the security structure of Estonia is supported by three very strong pillars: NATO, the European Union and the United States. The fourth pillar, if there was ever to be one, would of course be the Baltic region, including the Baltic Sea and the Nordic countries. In many ways, we are in a collective partnership, we share a destiny with similar memberships in various international organisations and therefore commitments. In that sense the Baltic states and the Scandinavian states should in many ways be seen as one broader entity.

In terms of the themes, I would like to look a little bit beyond them. In many ways the line between war and peace today has been blurred. It is not as clear as it used to be when the world of geopolitics was about counting tanks, soldiers, ships, and military equipment. Today, it is much more complicated. It is linked to information wars, cyber-attacks, intimidation, energy resources, currencies and many other things.

But if I were to pick five topics…

First, you cannot go without military and defence—it is our day-to-day reality.

Second, we should talk about data and information and how that is distributed in our area—this is one of the key elements.

Third, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, is health. Health also has security aspects. When the pandemic rates went up in Estonia, it meant closing borders, so it is a security issue, we must keep that in mind.

Fourth, climate—this is the mega-issue. I do not only mean the Baltic Sea, but also sudden migratory moves because of climate, for example.

Fifth, economy or currency, that we make sure we can support each other when there are tough times economically.

These are the basic issues. They show that we are so interconnected and interdependent, we cannot even think about our lives separately from each other. I see the Baltics and Nordics as one entity. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has always talked about Estonia as a Nordic country and I agree. There is collective mindset, a collective identity, and a kindred connection in many ways.

When I talk about the Nordic countries, I think about the Baltic states at the same time.


Alexander Stubb

  • Alexander Stubb has served as Prime Minister, Finance Minister, Foreign Minister, Trade and Europe Minister of Finland (2008–2016). He was a Member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2008 and the national parliament from 2011 to 2017. He was the Chairman of the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus) from 2014 to 2016 and Vice President of the European Investment Bank (EIB) from 2017 to 2020.
  • Currently, Stubb is Director and Professor at the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence.
  • He is an avid pro-European with experience across all EU institutions from the European Council to the European Parliament, from the European Commission to the Council of Ministers.
  • He holds a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics, a Master’s degree in EU administration from the College of Europe in Bruges, and a BA in political science from Furman University in South Carolina. He also studied French language, culture and civilisation at the Sorbonne in Paris.



The EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region

  • Initiated by MEPs Alexander Stubb and Toomas Hendrik Ilves in 2006.
  • The strategy was approved by the European Council in 2009. It was the first macro-regional strategy in Europe, followed by strategies for the Danube, Adriatic–Ionian and Alpine regions.
  • It aimed to tackle three key challenges of the BSR region: saving the sea, connecting the region and increasing prosperity.
  • It involves Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
  • No new funding or institutions have been founded to support the implementation of the strategy, and funding for operations under the strategy is intended to come from existing financial instruments.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia &


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).