Searching for a charismatic leader in the grey halls of Europe

January 15, 2013

In today’s Europe, no political leader is charismatic. Not one.

Francois Hollande ascended to the French presidency by deliberately proposing himself as “Mr. Normal” after the excitements of Nicolas Sarkozy. Mario Monti was persuaded to take the post-Berlusconi premiership because he was one of the cleverest and most responsible men in Italy. He proves it, by giving press conferences that last for hours, to the exhaustion of the Italian press corps, laying out fact upon fact. Mariano Rajoy of Spain prefers to be as near to invisible as a prime minister can be: a portrait of him last month in the left-leaning El Pais described him as “keeping as low a profile as possible.” Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland, is popular and a feisty debater: but he’s generally described as a “pragmatic centrist,” and is out-charmed and out-looked by his foreign minister, the British-educated Radoslaw Sikorski.

David Cameron manifests an occasional flash of raffish charm. But these are austere times, and the champagne lifestyle in which he indulged at Oxford’s Bullingdon Club for the Well-Heeled Drinking Man is never on show.

The capstone of this band of modest men is a woman, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, one for whom the grand rhetorical gesture, the striking phrase, the public display of temperament, seem alien – a legacy, perhaps, of her upbringing as a Lutheran pastor’s daughter in the dourly Communist state of East Germany, where the lower the profile, the better. As the de facto leader of Europe, Merkel relies on her country’s power and her own, so far excellent, political instincts and maneuvers.

All this grey almost makes you wish for Silvio Berlusconi to return, to lighten the mood – which is, I guess, his campaign model in next month’s Italian election: Hey! At least I was fun!

At times it seems that Europe, both in its national leaders and in the little-known men who are presidents of one EU institution or another, chooses obscurity deliberately. The institutions and their presidents are the European Council (Herman van Rompuy), the European Commission (Jose Manuel Barroso), the European Parliament (Martin Schulz) and the (rotating) Presidency of the Council of the European Union (different, of course, from the European Council), presently the Republic of Ireland. That no “President” is allowed to propose himself as the primus inter pares ensures that none can make a public splash: all must be strictly pares. 

These men and woman defy the rule developed by the 19th century political writer Walter Bagehot, who argued that citizens in a democracy are most attracted, and defer, to the “theatrical show of society.” In choosing to be so extraordinarily dreary, the European chiefs may intend an implicit critique of charismatic leadership itself. It’s perhaps a wish to replace that with figures who lead by reason and dedication to the common good.

But reason does not sum up the exercise of politics. Especially when something new, unfamiliar, and (for many) alarming and alien is being proposed. The way to a more integrated European Union must not merely be paved with good intentions, but pointed out by large figures who extol its virtues and talk up its advantages.

This is necessary because the real crisis of Europe, lying unsolved under the more salient economic turmoil, is the absence of democratic assent. Fritz Scharpf, one of Germany’s most prominent political thinkers and a former director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, argues that the distance between European citizens and the multitude of confusing European institutions is harmful. Having no readily identifiable – and thus accountable – leader, coupled with the politics of austerity enjoined by “Brussels” or “Berlin,” could “create the conditions for anti-European political mobilization from the extremes of the political spectrum… [and] undermine democracy in EU member states as well as endanger European integration itself.” 

The most important speech about Europe in this first month of the new year will come from the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, now appearing more frayed than raffish, as the pressures of government – especially a coalition government, to which the British and their politicians are quite unaccustomed – and the harshness of the choices he must make bear ever more heavily upon him. It’s important because he’s expected to say something large, about Britain’s place in the Union, about the possibility of a re-negotiation of the treaty to allow Britain (and thus others) to have a looser relationship with it, about the nature and worth of the Union in today’s world. He’s scheduled to speak this Friday – and not in the UK, but in the Netherlands, to underscore his claim that this is not a Little British speech, but one with resonance everywhere in Europe.

He’s been deluged in the past weeks by advice, much of it calling him not to distance Britain further from the EU. Perhaps most influentially, Philip Gordon, the U.S. assistant secretary of European Affairs, said on a visit to London last week that:

“We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU. That is in America’s interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.” 

Business leaders, Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners, and the Europhiles in his own party have added their voices to the American pressure. But Cameron, no great Euro-lover himself and worried by the rise of the UK Independence Party that advocates an exit, has a thin rope to walk.

As the German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas, has said: the Union is a rational response to the need for a sizeable political power to countervail against the pressures and flows of globalization that are too strong for middle-sized states. But Scharpf is also right: representative democracy, already weakened in the national context, could be deeply, even irreparably, damaged if the Union is integrated without assent across the old continent.

Bagehot’s law has not been repealed. Electorates, busy for the most part with life lived outside of politics and usually ignorant of its world, still require a show with stars. Europe’s choice to dispense with them is a sign not of its maturity, but a lack of belief in its own united future. Assent from the governed, the bedrock of politics in free societies for two centuries, can’t be suspended in Europe. If it wishes to be a power in the world, it had better start casting some large figures who can dominate a stage which, so far, hasn’t attracted much of an audience.

PHOTO: (L row front to back): French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, (R row back to front): Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, U.S. President Barack Obama and European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso meet on the second day of the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, June 19, 2012. REUTERS/Mexico Presidency/Handout


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“Searching for a charismatic leader in the grey halls of Europe”

The article excludes Hollande and Merkel from the ranks of the charismatic leaders of history. Get serious. It doesn’t get much more charismatic than that pair, does it?

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

I think we have had enough of charismatic leaders to last for generations (if we survive these people).

I would settle for someone who is at least intelligent.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

I don’t like that America is pushing England into the EU. We should not be telling Britain what to do. I’m an American, and I believe states should be friendly but free, sovereign, and independent. If I was a Brit, I’d be fighting EU integration tooth and nail. These faceless global super-governments like the EU and the UN are creepy. People you didn’t vote for who aren’t even from your country are making policy your country has to follow. It’s not right and subverts democracy in a big way. Not that democracy is so wonderful; it’s just the least ugly girl in the room, and only after a few beers.

Posted by ShiroiKarasu | Report as abusive

@ shiroi:
The Americans are not “pushing England into the EU”. In case you forgot, Britain is already in the EU. America has little interest in the EU, and does not wish to be drawn again into yet another European conflict. That is precisely why they would prefer Britain to remain in the EU.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive