Opinion

John Lloyd

Searching for a charismatic leader in the grey halls of Europe

John Lloyd
Jan 15, 2013 15:07 UTC

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

Is there a Merkel alternative?

John Lloyd
Jan 8, 2013 21:06 UTC

Germany is the economic hegemon of Europe ‑ not a position it has sought, but a greatness thrust upon it by its own industrial efficiency and cautious financial policies. The weakness of (especially) the southern European states also helped, as did those states’ years’ long binge fueled by cheap credit that Germany, among other states, provided. Now, as with all binges, there is regret, huge headaches and New Year’s resolutions never to be much better in the future.

Angela Merkel, the careful, modest first-woman chancellor is the most obvious symbol of the new hegemon. In Europe, newspapers and some politicians of the left and right stoop so low as to lard their journalism and allusions to her with increasingly overt reference to “Panzers” and “Third Reich.” In her own country, presently, the reverse: She rides high in the polls, far above any other figure, so much so that it seems as if there is no alternative – a phrase once used by that other first-woman leader, Margaret Thatcher.

Merkel’s stature has grown in a way that is rare for leaders other than U.S. presidents. She’s powerful because of what she does beyond her country’s borders. She has ridden the waves and storms of the past two years and has struck a middle course – pressing radical change on the debtor countries, largely in Europe’s south, but supporting them (crucially, the ailing Greece) when required. She has reminded the electorate at home that Europe must be saved if Germany is to prosper but has appeared hard enough in her demands for restructuring of the economies of debtor states to deserve the soubriquet of the Iron Chancellor. Her Christian Democratic Union party is also far ahead of the Social Democratic Party, at some 41 percent.

Italy’s unelected democrat

John Lloyd
Aug 31, 2012 16:54 UTC

The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica last week, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colors, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”

This in a left-of-center daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich.” The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable. Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the 2-euro mark for a liter, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun. It was little problem to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled, daily, the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.

Italy’s unelected democrat

John Lloyd
Aug 28, 2012 15:12 UTC

The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica last week, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colors, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”

This in a left-of-center daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich.” The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable. Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the 2-euro mark for a liter, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun. It was little problem to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled, daily, the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.

Where is the Paul Ryan of Europe?

John Lloyd
Aug 22, 2012 12:30 UTC

“European” is Representative Paul Ryan’s insult of choice for President Barack Obama, and for his policies. Yet the influences Ryan cites, and the thoughts behind his plan for debt reduction, were offered by Europeans of the 20th century. Their ideas, the foundations of which were laid in Europe’s turbulent twenties and thirties, have nearly a century later found an influential apostle in the United States.

Like his European precedents, Ryan the savior-theorist has appeared at another turbulent time. The near-century-old politico-economic school he embraces now seeks to prove itself on ground made fertile by the fearful debt that hangs over the world’s greatest power.

The first of these influences, and the one on which his enemies have most eagerly seized, is the controversial capitalist-individualist Ayn Rand. Rand was born, raised and educated in Russia, during the period spanning the revolution that ruined Rand’s comfortably off family. Although many consider Russians to be non-European, Rand was raised in a secular Jewish family in Russia’s avowedly European city, St. Petersburg, and her educational influences were all European.

Europe’s impossible dream

John Lloyd
Jul 23, 2012 20:41 UTC

The economic logic of European integration is now directly confronting nationalistic sentiments in the hearts and souls of Europeans. It’s becoming clear that nationalism resonates more deeply. That is the stuff of our patriotic life, fragments from our history that we use to shore up our present and point to our future. To discard them is to discard part of our mental and moral makeup.

For much of the last 60 years the Union has been Good, scattering tangible and intangible blessings upon its growing group of member states. It brought investment to the poorer countries that joined. It broke down physical and psychological barriers between states, so that their citizens now pass casually into and through countries that once required major preparation. It gave the former Communist states of Central Europe an ideal to which to aspire and templates by which aspirations could become routine. And it made inter-European war so unthinkable that its possibility ceased to be thought about at all.

The dream of the founders was an ever-closer union transforming itself into something like a federal state. They thought it could exist in idealistic form while the practical changes were put – with much labor, compromise and argument – into place. One of these founders, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, called up the ideal in a speech in 1948:

Progressives are progressing toward what, exactly?

John Lloyd
Jul 9, 2012 21:26 UTC

Liberals and leftists all over the democratic world have often called themselves progressives, because it seems, in a word, to put you on the tide of a better future. (Also because in some countries, the United States most of all, to call yourself any kind of socialist was a route to permanent marginalization.) Progress doesn’t just mean going forward: It means going forward to a better place.

But a better place isn’t currently available, not for the right, and not for the left.

In the past two decades, progressives hitched their wagons to several charismatic individuals who were generally successful, both in gaining and retaining power. Luiz da Silva (Lula) in Brazil; Gerhard Schroeder in Germany; Tony Blair in the UK; and Bill Clinton in the U.S. They improved the lot of the poor somewhat, and, social liberals all, worked to bring in women, gays and ethnic minorities from the cold of discrimination and inequality.

Europe’s reckoning is delayed…but for how long?

John Lloyd
Jun 18, 2012 18:33 UTC

Everything in Europe has a ‘but’ attached to it these days. Spain got a bank bailout last week, but it hasn’t convinced the markets. Mario Monti is a great economist and wise man, but he’s losing support for his premiership of Italy. Angela Merkel is listening to the voices that try to persuade her that Germany should bankroll growth, but she hasn’t done anything yet.

The New Democracy party, a grouping that, broadly, wants Greece to stick with the euro and bear more austerity (though it will bargain hard for less) has won… but what its leader, Antonis Samaras, has just got for himself is the worst political job on the continent, and may not be able to deliver. If, in democracy’s cradle, he can forge a coalition, keep to the terms of the bailout his country has received, enact rapid and deep reforms, and preserve democratic rule, he will deserve a place in the pantheon – a Greek word, after all, meaning a temple for the gods.

And so far, he’s been no god. A fellow countryman, the Yale political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, wrote in Foreign Affairs in June that Samaras “is widely seen as representing the corrupt and ineffective Athens political establishment that led the country to ruin”. Yet it’s this man, with all of his history, faults and frailties, on whom the future of Greece – and by many measures, the future of the European Union – depends.

A sinking Italy is grasping for direction

John Lloyd
Jun 12, 2012 19:02 UTC

Italy, one of the founders of the European Union, is now in the most critical of situations. If many different things do not go well for the bel paese in the next year, it may attract the use of the word “founder” in its other, more sinister meaning: to sink.

As the euro zone crisis – which has traumatized Greece, put painful squeezes on Ireland and Portugal, and now engulfs the banks and the economy of Spain – laps around the beaches of Italy’s peninsula, the mood has soured.

In the past week, interviewing some of Italy’s leading journalists for a book on journalism in Berlusconi’s Italy, the country I found was one of profound doubt. Italian journalists are not the least cynical of their profession and often greet new events with a we’ve-seen-it-all-before shrug. Not now. Now they follow and record and comment on the news with journalism’s customary hyperactivity. But they admit they have no notion of what will come – or even how their country will be governed. What might come is, by large consent, possibly, even probably, bad.

The hard challenges for Europe, an overly soft continent

John Lloyd
May 29, 2012 19:22 UTC

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, gave an interview to the Guardian last Friday. In it, she offered some advice to the people of Greece. A succinct summation: “Stop whining.”

She says that when she thinks of the Greeks, she has sympathy for their plight, but: “Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all these people who are trying to escape tax all the time.” And there is greater sympathy for the absolutely poor: “I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time.”

Lagarde does not in the least resemble my mother, except in one thing: When, as a child, I would whine “I don’t like it” about food she had prepared, she had a stock reply: “There’s some wee boy in Africa that would be glad of that!” (I would have been glad if he had had it – my mother was fond of tripe and couldn’t grasp my hatred of it.)

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