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Finnish ex-finance minister nominated for new EU commissioner post

The SDP's Jutta Urpilainen won the nod of the EU Commission president-designate for the international partnerships post.

Komissaariehdokas Jutta Urpilainen oli eduskunnan suuren valiokunnan kuultavana Turun Eurooppa-foorumilla perjantaina 30. elokuuta
EU commissioner-designate for international partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen. Image: Roni Lehti / Lehtikuva

Jutta Urpilainen, a former finance minister in the Jyrki Katainen administration, has been nominated for a European Commission post as commissioner responsible for international partnerships. The portfolio is a new position created by EU Commission president-designate Ursula von der Leyen.

Commenting on the appointment, Prime Minister Antti Rinne said that Urpilainen’s position is "extremely important in the current global situation."

"In a situation in which a rule-based world is being challenged, trade wars are ongoing and when peace must be brokered, then I think this portfolio is extremely important. It is also important from an economic perspective," Rinne noted.

Finland was vying for an influential post in development, training or defence and Rinne discussed the prospects with von der Leyen over the weekend.

"When I heard about the details of the position I was very satisfied. It’s right for Jutta and for Finland," the PM added.

Rime said that he was not disappointed that the role of economy commissioner went to the Italian Paolo Gentiloni and described the line-up of prospective commissioners as balanced.

Focus on Africa

Urpilainen was the first female chair of the Social Democratic Party, which she led from 2008 to 2014 before relinquishing her role as finance minister when she was toppled from the chairmanship by current party leader Rinne. Urpilainen told Yle that she was pleased with the nomination.

"I am very satisfied with the assignment. It involves both economic and external relations," she remarked, adding that she would leave it to others to assess the prestige of the post.

"I have the Commission’s largest division – foreign relations – at my disposal. As an administrative arm it is the third largest in the EU budget. The main focus is development issues, in other words where we can support reaching sustainable development goals by the year 2030," she commented.

The former school teacher said that developing a new "Africa strategy" would be an important part of her role.

"We must build a new strategic partnership with Africa in which the private sector is also actively involved in creating investments, jobs and permanent wellbeing."

The commissioner-in-waiting said that the international partnerships role will tackle major generational issues such as climate change, new security threats, the growth of inequality and a crisis of democracy. She noted that the challenge of immigration was that EU member states had not been able to implement agreed measures.

"What is essential is that we address the root causes of immigration and create a situation where people do not see their only hope as leaving their home countries," she declared.

New Commission portfolio

Commission president-designate Ursula von der Leyen said that it is important for the EU to invest in neighbouring territories. She referred to Urpilainen’s work as finance minister, as a member of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and as a special peace envoy, a role that she performed between 2017 and 2019 during her term as an SDP MP. At the time she visited countries such as Ethiopia.

The current EU Commission doesn’t have a separate portfolio for international partnerships and the new role will place special emphasis on relations with Africa. According to von der Leyen, one aspect Urpilainen’s mission will be to broker partnership agreements with migrants’ countries of origin as well as transit countries as part of the new Africa strategy she will design.

"By this von der Leyen is sending the message that there is a crucial connection between Africa and Europe. To influence migration so that it’s on a sustainable level in the future we must be able to improve living conditions in countries of origin," Urpilainen declared.

The incoming commissioner said that this approach would include conflict resolution as well as investment and job creation.

Von der Leyen noted that a separate portfolio with responsibility for Africa had been proposed at some point, but it had been set aside because the African Union, an organisation comprising 55 continental member states, would have seen it as a problem.

The commissioner nominees will next face scrutiny by the relevant committees of the European Parliament before the body greenlights the appointments. Once that happens, the European Council will formally appoint the next European Commission, including the president (von der Leyen) as well as all of the vice presidents and commissioners.

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