Anne Applebaum in Naantali: A wake-up call for the EU

Addressing Naantali 24h, a new kind of societal forum held for the second time in Naantali, Finland, an acclaimed historian and author, Anne Applebaum, had some strong words to say about the European project: “The EU has become a victim of its own success.”

In this blog series, we visit the world-famous Nordic societal platforms and join the debate on our societies’ future. Miltton experts will report from Naantali 24h, Almedalsveckan, SuomiAreena and the Arvamus Festival.


We were waiting for some thoughtful opening remarks… and got a powerful wake-up call instead. Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, journalist and historian, didn’t hold back when addressing the Naantali 24h forum on June 12th, 2019.

The audience – 160 invited guests – listened silently as Applebaum painted her somewhat pessimistic vision of the European Union in her keynote speech. The second decade of the twenty-first century, she argued, may well be remembered as the moment when the European Union finally turned the corner and began to die – a victim, ironically, of its own success.

“To put it bluntly, Europe has now become so prosperous and so safe that it has decided it doesn’t need a foreign policy or a defence strategy of any seriousness. Europe has decided that it can hide its collective head in the sand while China comes to dominate Asia and the United States loses interests in its old European allies. Europe has decided, above all, that it can’t play a role in policing or ending the turmoil on its southern and eastern borders.”


Naantali 24h is a new kind of societal forum, where thinkers and doers from politics and business, academia and the arts, come together to discuss the big, tricky questions of our time for 24 intensive hours. The forum in June 2019 was the second annual event, and due to Finland’s upcoming EU presidency, decided to take it’s debates from the national to the European level. As a result, we desired some input from Applebaum, an expert on the development of European civil societies, and Professor of Practice at the London School of Economics.

Applebaum’s main message, and worry, was: Europe has no foreign policy to speak of.

“In theory, Europe has an External Action Service, a ‘foreign ministry’ with diplomats and embassies. In practice, the job of EU foreign minister has twice gone to women with no international reputation or experience. Once in office, they were politely ignored. None of the larger European countries take these institutions seriously, and most of the smaller countries don’t care.”

She pointed out how the Kremlin seems to be supporting anti-European movements across the continent, throwing its financial and moral support to parties of the far-left and the far-right, “… or anyone else whose success might weaken the European Union and Nato.”

“If that sounds bad to many in this audience, it doesn’t sound bad to everyone,” Applebaum noted.


What to do then? After the blunt start, Applebaum actually offered some concrete ideas on how to strengthen the EU.

“I don’t believe that people are frustrated with Europe because it is overbearing, or because there is too much of it. I believe they are suspicious of Europe because it seems weak,” she said. “There are a lot of institutions and they make a lot of noise, but they don’t protect Europeans, and their voice in the world seems to be diminishing. What is needed, therefore, is not less Europe, but more.”

What then would this mean in practice? Stricter border control? Joint European defence forces? No – Applebaum has a more dexterous idea.

“Create a European Legion, along the lines of the French Foreign Legion, that any European can join. Belgians, Austrians, Italians and Croats would all work together, voluntarily; we can even let the French run it, since they have been running multi-national armies for decades.”

The list then went on to strengthening Frontex, and the political institutions.

After the opening keynotes – Applebaum was joined by archbishop Tapio Luoma and newly appointed Finnish Prime Minister, Antti Rinne – and all the Naantali 24h participants were divided into twelve workshops where the discussion continued under specific topics. One of the groups was assigned to tackle the future of the EU. Following Applebaum’s send-off, the group ended up proposing (or demanding) a whole new vision for the Union.

The group stated that the EU project would need a new European story – a vision all Europeans could relate to. The post-war EU had a compelling mission: to tie the continent together so that a war between member states would never be an option. The last decades of the twentieth century provided another inspiring project: to build a joint, successful economy.

But now what? The Union’s ability to keep war, terrorism and other threats outside its borders has been challenged, and in many member states citizens fail to see the benefits of belonging to the European Union. As Anne Applebaum put it: “We need to deepen the sense of ordinary Europeans that they belong to Europe, and that Europe fights for them.”

“Give people in Finland, in Europe, and around the world, reasons to have faith in European leadership again,” Applebaum concluded.


Ville Blåfield, Director, earned media, Miltton

The everlasting light of the Nordic summer nights inspire us – politicians, journalists, civil servants, activists and business representatives – to discuss where our societies are going, via the world-famous Nordic societal platforms.

Being part of this debate has always been at the core of Miltton. This summer, we want to share the insights, issues and ideas with all our stakeholders.

Tune in for blogs from Naantali 24h, Almedalensvecka, SuomiAreena and the Arvamus Festival to learn about the debate that will shape our societies’ future. Is this summer the defining moment for Europe? We are here to find out.