I have always been a keen supporter of the European Union and of the UK’s membership of it. The EU has without doubt helped to keep the peace in Europe since it was established (a major achievement in itself after two major wars during the 20th century), and the economies of member countries have generally prospered, not least those of the countries including the UK that joined after the six founding members.
The EU faces debilitating problems
Nonetheless the EU is currently at a major crossroads, beset by a number of serious problems that could seriously weaken or even destroy it if they are mishandled:
- The ongoing problems of the Eurozone, including the possibility of Grexit.
- The rise of extremist parties in several member states, including Greece, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden.
- Increasing pressure from Russia which may soon threaten the Baltic member states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Any of these problems would be very serious on its own, but together they pose a tremendous challenge to the EU and to those who lead it. And that is the key issue. Most countries with serious problems either already have or manage to identify capable leaders who are able to confront them. Think of De Gaulle in France, Adenauer and Kohl in Germany and Churchill and Thatcher in the UK. They were all able to shake up the established order and implement needed reforms to secure the future of their countries.
Leadership vacuum in the EU
However, in the case of the EU, there is a leadership vacuum. It is not that the EU lacks leadership positions, or procedures for filling them. At present, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is led by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, aided by 27 other Commissioners who are largely unknown outside their own countries. How many citizens of member states could name more than one or two of them? They may have been stars in their home countries, or highly competent bureaucrats, but they are little known outside the Brussels bubble. And almost without exception, none of them has risen to the challenge of playing a major leadership role in dealing with the EU’s most serious problems. One possible exception is Catherine Ashton, who was remarkably effective in her role as High Representative for External Relations, in which she represented the EU in successful negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, and in the P5+1 talks with Iran.
Excessive reliance on national leaders raises conflicts of interest
Instead, member states have increasingly looked to leaders of individual countries to provide the leadership that is lacking in the EU itself. In particular, this has resulted in Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, becoming the de facto leader of the EU and of the Eurozone. She has become the ‘go to’ person in relation to all the key problems that the EU faces. In addition to leading her own country, she is expected to represent the EU in its increasingly fraught dealings with Russia, to resolve the Eurozone’s problems and to deal with countries like the UK that are seeking to redefine their relationship with the EU.
There is no question that Angela Merkel is a remarkably capable politician and a highly effective leader of Germany. However, expecting her to lead the EU as well is raising serious conflicts of interest between her position as the leader of Germany and her position as de facto head of the EU.
In the case of Greece, the German public is understandably impatient with what they perceive as excessive generosity to Greece. Their concerns are shared by many people in the Netherlands, Finland and Austria. The Greek public see it very differently, however, as do many people in Spain, Portugal and Ireland. In the case of Russia, German business leaders are concerned about the impact of sanctions on their exports to Russia, while the public in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are terrified that Russia will turns its attentions to them once it is finished with the Ukraine. As for the governance of the EU, many nationals of EU member states are happy with the current structure of the EU, whereas many people in the UK are anxious to make far-reaching reforms to the rules by which it currently operates.
Angela Merkel as dual leader of Germany and the EU/Eurozone
In all of these cases, Angela Merkel, as de facto leader of the EU, is subject to one set of pressures in Germany, and to quite different pressures at the EU level. As for Greece, she is expected to modify Germany’s negotiating position in the interests of the Eurozone as a whole, and to keep Greece well anchored in the EU so that it will not ’tilt’ to Russia. Europeans of all stripes expect her to face down Russia on their behalf, whatever the implications may be for Germany’s economy. As for the UK, David Cameron expects her to ‘deliver’ the changes in EU governance that he is seeking to satisfy the Eurosceptics in his own party. People outside Germany seem to forget that Angela Merkel’s first duty is to her own people, whose interests are in many cases different from their own. She is being put in an impossible position.
The EU needs to have its own leaders
The serious problems that the EU (and Eurozone) face can be successfully resolved only if the conflicting views of the citizens of the different members states are addressed by leaders who represent the EU as such, and not by leaders of individual states, however competent they may be. The EU is a distinct political entity, with a variety of powers and responsibilities to citizens of all the member states. It needs leaders who can act on behalf of all of those citizens. This does not involve doing the bidding of any single national group or state, or indeed any faction of national groups. It must involve heeding the different views of the citizens of each member state and forging solutions to EU level problems that will benefit the EU as a whole, rather than any particular group.
Obviously it will not be possible for any EU leader to satisfy all of the citizens of every member state – compromises and disappointments will be inevitable, as has always been the case at the individual state level. There is no future for the EU, however, in continuing to expect national leaders such as Angela Merkel to represent both their own nationals and those of the EU member states as a whole. Policies championed by such leaders will never gain EU wide acceptance and will simply lead to increasing resentment of solutions ‘imposed’ from Brussels, or from particular member states such as Germany.
Identifying leaders for the EU
Finding leaders for the EU who can secure EU wide acceptance for their policies will not be easy. Such leaders must be seen as genuinely representing the interests of citizens of all EU member states, not of just one state or a small grouping of states. Ideally the President of the Commission would be selected by direct EU wide voting. This would require changes to the EU Treaties, as the President of the Commission is currently elected by the European Parliament, and that will take time. In the meantime, however, member states must seek to identify future leaders for the EU who will not be seen as representing a single country. One possibility would be Christine Lagarde, currently head of the IMF, a leader with sufficient competence, charisma and experience of leading a key international body, to impress citizens of all EU member states, but who would not be seen as the ‘poodle’ of France.