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Can a former Finnish Prime Minister solve Europe's problems?

Alexander Stubb wants to become the next president of the EU Commission. But does he have what it takes to tackle rising populism and bring together a deeply divided continent? He spoke to DW's Conflict Zone.

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Alexander Stubb on Conflict Zone

European leaders have been struggling to tackle anti-EU populist forces, which have been gaining ground in many parts of the continent.

But, according to former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, one solution could be to "hug them to death."

Stubb uses this metaphor to describe how a populist party was brought into a coalition government he led in 2015, only for it to lose support and splinter.

"Their popularity halved. They split as a party and now they are out of government," he tells DW's Conflict Zone host Michel Friedman.

"I have dealt with populists before and I will deal with populists in the future as well," he says.

Stubb, also a former Finnish foreign and finance minister, has now set his sights on a much larger challenge, one that goes well beyond his small country of origin.

He wants to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, but he first has to become the lead candidate of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP).

As he tells host Michel Friedman, "someone needs to stand up from the barricades and defend European and global values."

But will the defence of European values be enough to actually fix a deeply divided continent?

How to deal with Orban

Ungarn Viktor Orban in Budapest (Getty Images/AFP/A. Kisbenedek)

Stubb would like to have a dialogue on values with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Stubb, for instance, would like to have a dialogue on values with Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, whom he describes as a populist "to a certain extent."

The Hungarian leader has repeatedly clashed with other European heads of government, but his party, Fidesz, is one of the groups in the EPP bloc that Stubb hopes to lead.

So would Stubb be in favour of excluding Orban and his party?

"The way in which I would suggest that we go through it is, one, have a dialogue; two, have a declaration on values and if Orban and Fidesz don’t sign that declaration on values, then they're out."

"I have made it clear that I don’t like his illiberal policies," Stubb tells Michel Friedman.

The challenge of migration

Orban and other leaders have most evidently clashed on migration and, in particular, on the distribution of refugees.

But Stubb argues in his manifesto that the migration crisis has been "solved" and "it is time to show all Europeans that the situation is under control."

Pressed by host Michel Friedman on how he can be so sure of this, Stubb says "we must stop the illusion of utopia and that everything is perfect. I think we have mitigated and, in that sense, solved the problem."

Symbolbild Zeitumstellung, Jean-Claude Juncker, EU (picture-alliance/dpa/V. Mayo)

Stubb wants to replace Jean-Claude Juncker once his time as EU Commission president runs out.

"Now it is a question of how you administer it," he says.

His proposals include asylum centers outside of the EU and humanitarian-based asylum quotas.

He also plans to work more closely with African countries, in order to promote jobs and growth and fight the causes of migration.

Iran nuclear deal

Stubb’s focus on values also goes beyond Europe’s borders and, in fact, he talks of "exporting" them through "peaceful means."

One example where this could happen, according to the former Finnish prime minister, is the Iran nuclear agreement.

When asked by Conflict Zone’s host Michel Friedman on what his strategy would be towards Iran, Stubb argues that Europe should stick to the nuclear deal and continue to work constructively with the regime.

"I think nuclear weapons are a question of the future of mankind and of course, if you don’t deal with those, then what’s the point of having values."

Stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

Proteste in den USA nach Mord an Jamal Khashoggi (picture-alliance/newscom/K. Dietsch)

The death of journalist Khashoggi has reignited a debate on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Stubb would also promote a common European stance towards to Saudi Arabia, which has been at the center of a major international controversy regarding the death of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

According to the former prime minister, a common European position should be achieved regarding the kingdom, and the whole situation in the Middle East should also be taken into account.

On the issue of whether arms shipments to Saudi Arabia should be stopped in view of the current crisis, Stubb says that the situation is "not that black and white."

He does however stress that "you have to be very careful when it comes to arms shipments."

"You have to work with the country in question. And then, if you find in certain cases that there is a blatant breaking of these values, then you stop cooperation," he says.

Frankreich, Straßburg: Manfred Weber im EU-Parlament (Reuters/V. Kessler)

Stubb will have to compete with Manfred Weber in order to become his party's lead candidate.

"The key issue when we talk about values is what kind of values you stick to yourself and then you have to take those decisions on those principles," Stubb concludes.

In his quest to become the next president of the European Commission, the former Finnish prime minister will compete against German politician Manfred Weber, who currently leads the EPP and is seen as the favorite candidate.

The chosen lead candidate is due to be announced at a party conference in Helsinki in November.

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