Sanna Marin is the right person to preside over the European Council. But would she want to?
On April 2nd, Finns went to the polls and awarded the centre-right opposition New Coalition Party (NCP) first place, with 20.8 per cent of the votes. The Social Democrat Party (SDP) of the incumbent prime minister, Sanna Marin, came third, though less than one point behind.
It is now up to the NCP to lead the negotiations towards a governing coalition. That will likely include the SDP or the right-wing populists of the Finns Party, who finished second with 20.1 per cent.
Either way, Marin will leave her post. At only 37, that raises the obvious question: what will her political future be?
European Parliament elections coming up next year may well provide ideal timing to kickstart Marin’s European political career. The post of president of the European Commission, currently held by Ursula von der Leyen from the centre right, is unlikely to be attainable: the European centre left will probably not secure enough seats to force through a name hailing from its camp, although 2019 proved—with the abandonment of the Spitzenkandidat principle supposed to translate the election result into an already-signalled commission president—that virtually no scenario is impossible.
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But given Marin’s experience as prime minister, presiding over the European Council, the institution representing the member states of the European Union, would be a perfect fit. Since 2009, European leaders have always chosen one of their own to take over this presidential seat. Herman van Rompuy, Donald Tusk and Charles Michel all have one thing in common: they had already sat in the council as prime ministers, representing Belgium and Poland. Marin, having served as Finnish premier since 2019, would continue this ‘tradition’ of political endogamy.
That trio have another thing in common: they are all men. With von der Leyen being the first female commission president and Roberta Metsola succeeding David Sassoli after his untimely death as president of the parliament early last year, the council might decide on its first female president by appointing Marin.
Geography also plays into this. Last month, the Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, noted the under-representation of eastern countries in the Brussels top seats. She had in mind the member states that joined the union from or since 2004, such as Estonia, and her name is certainly in the mix for a position in the EU or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
But no Nordic politician has yet occupied the post of commission or council president, whereas Poland’s Tusk did serve as the latter. The need to ensure geographical diversity could thus work in Marin’s favour.
Leadership and decisiveness
These are, however, fairly circumstantial factors. The most solid argument in Marin’s support is her record as Finland’s premier. In the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she showed leadership and decisiveness, steering her country into NATO. Finland also played a leading role in shaping the EU’s response to the war.
That decisiveness could prove a refreshing change from the erratic style of Michel, the current president. His term has been marred by protocol gaffes and clumsy chairing of council meetings, leading to discontent among his peers.
Marin remains a highly popular figure at home—the SDP gained three seats on its 2019 tally—but especially abroad. That element cannot be overstated. After all, the council president is responsible for the union’s external representation at the level of heads of state and at international summits. While this latter aspect is often in tandem with the commission president—or in tension, as between von der Leyen and Michel—the international profile of the Finnish premier would be an invaluable asset.
The Socialists and Democrats have never held the council presidency and the last commission president from the political family left office nearly 20 years ago. That ‘tradition’ might of course decrease her chances.
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Doubts however remain. Given her age, Marin’s political future is still largely ahead of her. And she may choose a different path.
Nor can the outcome of the coalition negotiations in Finland be taken for granted. In the scenario, though, of agreement between the NCP and the SDP, that government would be likely to back Marin for the council presidency, while there would be less space for the then-former premier in domestic politics. The NCP’s candidate to succeed her, Petteri Orpo, struck a conciliatory tone towards the SDP throughout the campaign, despite their ideological differences.
Contrast Spain, for instance, where relations between the socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and the parties to his right have been less than cordial. There is a strong possibility that the coming Spanish elections will not return Sánchez to the Moncloa palace but he is under no illusion that a right-wing sucessor government might propose him as council president.
Appointing Marin would send a clear message that the European Council wanted to give a new impetus and renewed visibility to its presidency, after Michel’s inchoate performance. Her global popularity would greatly benefit external action by a more geopolitical EU while re-energising the European centre-left.
But the question remains: would she want the job?
Rodrigo Vaz is an EU policy analyst and consultant, currently based in Lisbon. He has served as deputy attaché in the Portuguese permanent representation to the EU. He has degrees from the College of Europe and SOAS in London. He focuses on foreign policy, mobility and digital affairs.