A new European Commission takes office this week. For the first time it will have a female president. The European Central Bank also now has its first female head. But in the decisions on EU senior appointments made last summer one tradition was again maintained: no citizen of the Nordic countries was selected for any of the top jobs.
Denmark has been a member of the EU since 1973, Finland and Sweden since 1995. Their three economies are among the most successful in Europe. Not only does each of them have a level of GDP per head which is larger than Germany’s: they also all score highly on all the key indices of prosperity (literacy, educational attainment, social mobility, innovation, business-friendliness and so on). They have enjoyed long histories of political stability, gender equality (Finland was the first country in Europe where women got the right to vote) and democratic accountability. Their social systems and their standards of public administration are admired throughout the world.
And yet no Dane, Finn or Swede has ever been president of the European Commission or the European Parliament or the European Council, nor the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy nor, in the case of Finland (Denmark and Sweden are not members of the eurozone), president of the European Central Bank. By contrast there have been three commission presidents from Luxembourg in the last four decades (none of them any good); two out of the three council presidents have been Belgian; two out of the four high representatives have been Spanish; and two out of the four ECB presidents have been French.
Nor have any of the EU’s policies been driven by specifically Nordic influence. There have been effective individual commissioners from the Nordic countries: in the outgoing commission, Margrethe Vestager at competition and Cecilia Malmstrom at foreign trade were both highly rated. But it is hard to identify any field in which the EU has developed in a way which specifically reflects Nordic practice or preference.
So why are these three countries so politically invisible in the EU?
One answer is lack of ambition. They haven’t got the top jobs because they have never really fought hard enough for them. There have been individuals from the Nordic countries who have put their names forward, or allowed others to do so on their behalf. Carl Bildt would have dearly liked to be the first high representative in 1999 or the second one in 2009. Paavo Lipponen, who for eight years was a highly successful Finnish prime minister, was tipped for the job of commission president by the Financial Times in 2004. Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s name was mentioned in the same context in 2014. And Alexander Stubb was the rival candidate to Manfred Weber as the spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) for this post for the European People’s Party in 2019.
All three were well qualified and would probably have done the jobs better than the individuals who were in the end chosen. If the EPP had picked Stubb, it would almost certainly have succeeded in getting his candidature through the European Council and would have thus entrenched the spitzenkandidat system—it would have been difficult for President Macron to argue that someone who had been foreign minister, finance minister and prime minister of his country, and who spoke French among his five languages, did not have the administrative qualifications to do the job.