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.