realclearworld Newsletters: Europe Memo

Why Europe Can't Create Leaders
AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
Why Europe Can't Create Leaders
AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
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The European Council's presidency, which rotates among the Union's member states every six months, is not in any capacity an executive post. Nor, however, is it a merely ceremonial office. One of those strange administrative beasts that the European Union oversees, the presidency sits somewhere between a technocratic team-building exercise -- administrations and their staffs get a chance to put their hands on the inner irons of the Union machinery -- and a gentleman's handshake among the rotating member states, who use the office to make their priorities known and exchange insights during the handover process about the relative state of supranational affairs.

One thing it does give its directors is a slightly larger megaphone for six months. In steady times, the presiding state may use that megaphone to emphasise the important -- maybe Europe's putative energy union, or perhaps its digital market. Leading at a time of urgency, the Netherlands, which has held the office since January, has turned up the volume. Prime Minister Mark Rutte, addressing the refugee crisis, warned that Europe has until late winter to solve it, or a Plan B will be necessary. (As our analyst Kaj Leers cogently warns, it's hard to see what that Plan B could be.) Addressing a core priority for the rule-driven Dutch, Foreign Minister Bert Koenders last month issued a challenge to Poland, at the outset of a debate in the European Parliament on that country's controversial changes to its judiciary and public media, letting it be known that Warsaw will not join Budapest in undermining the rule of law across Europe without a challenge from its partner states. Koenders:

"It is no secret that my country the Netherlands, home to Grotius and host to many international tribunals, feels it must embed fundamental rights and the Rule of Law in its foreign and European policies.

"In 2013, together with Germany, Finland, and Denmark, we sent a letter to our partners arguing the need for a platform to debate the Rule of Law. If we can talk about fish and finance, why not also talk about fundamental rights and the Rule of Law?"

Koenders then introduced a Rule of Law Seminar, organized by the Dutch presidency and held in Strasbourg on Feb. 2. The message was clear: In the Netherlands' view, there is a rule-of-law crisis on the Continent that merits urgent attention, even amid the afflictions of the eurozone and the problems dealing with refugees. On all counts, then, the Dutch have been more vocal than previous presidencies in trying to guide the European agenda. There is more urgency to the office in Amsterdam; what there is not, however, is any more decision-making power.

Volatility in the eurolab

The above sketch helps illustrate a broader dynamic: Amid crisis, the nature of leadership across Europe is changing; it has become too elusive to grasp, and that elusiveness affects every office. The European Union was always a laboratory in governance. With the ingredient of crisis thrown in, the volatility of the experiment has undermined the emergence of clear leaders. Relationships are no longer linear, with electorates relating in a known way to the elected, with national leaders bearing a clear relationship to supranational structures, and with the main struggles existing in a battle for spheres of sovereignty, or in the simplicity of an electoral contest.

Author and political analyst Jay Ogilvy this week identifies the emergence of what he calls heterarchy in the system of global politics in an excellent essay for Stratfor. A few excerpts capture the core of what heterarchy means:

"While the flesh and blood realities of brains are a lot messier, the essential logical core could be captured in the ideal case of just six neurons arranged in a circular configuration such that A would stimulate B and inhibit C. B would stimulate C and inhibit A. C would stimulate A and inhibit B.


"Interestingly enough -- and here's where both problems and possibilities start popping up -- this circular logic is identical to what Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow described as the ‘Voter's Paradox.' The problem goes all the way back to the late 18th century when it was identified by Marquis de Condorcet. Consider the case in which one faction prefers candidate A over B and candidate B over C; a second, equal faction prefers B over C and C over A; and a third faction prefers, you guessed it, C over A and A over B.


"The problem with heterarchy, and the challenge to making it work, is not the lack of hierarchy, but too many competing hierarchies. And that's the reality we live in."

To the extent that Ogilvy's thesis represents an emerging reality, it is in no place more visible than Europe, nor in any place are the competing vectors -- take A to be the power of traditional mainstream national governments, B to be the supranational element, and C to be national electorates -- a bit more obvious, if still somewhat inscrutable. Examples abound of how the interplay impedes the rise of strong leadership, and they start at the very top, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's struggles to contain opposition to Germany's reception of refugees. Her power erodes due to German domestic opposition, just as Germany was assuming its role as Continental leader -- a role crucial to the German national interest, which requires an integral European trade bloc to absorb German exports.

It can be seen in Poland, where the electorate rewarded the populist Law and Justice party with what would appear to be a firm mandate to enforce an inward-looking, confrontational agenda. At the same time, the Polish population is heavily pro-EU, and Poland more than most states benefits from European largesse, placing considerable long-term constraints on what the administration can do. This is sure to undermine its clarity of action. Similar electoral constraints check the rise of France's Front National, as was seen in recent regional elections, where an increasingly euroskeptic electorate was nevertheless loath to reward a movement of political outsiders with a clear path to power.

Then there is the case of Italy's Matteo Renzi. Perhaps no European official has done more to triangulate between EU governance structures and domestic politics than the Italian prime minister. We expected the onetime Florentine mayor to make a politically motivated pivot to confrontation with Europe, after a period of introducing broad political and economic reforms and following the EU mandate for austerity. Renzi has done just that. He has touted his credentials as an emerging European leader, pointing to the votes his Democratic Party received at the last European election -- at 11.2 million, the most of any European party. Renzi benefits at home from a divided opposition characterized by cranks, has-beens, and secessionists, and through his willingness to cut deals with pliable center-right politicians, he is improvising a political corpus in some ways reminiscent of the defunct Christian Democrats -- a dominant party that oscillated across the mainstream political spectrum for five decades before falling apart, torn by scandal, in the early 1990s.

There are a couple of big problems for Renzi though: First, he has never won a national election, and in a country as politically erratic as Italy, the aforementioned domestic maneuvers, which are made necessary at least in part by European demands, continue to risk alienating elements of the left, which is Renzi's base. Second, as Geopolitical Futures points out here, Italy risks being ground zero of a potential banking crisis in the not-too-distant future. Considering the volatile elements already introduced into the European laboratory, that should provoke shudders across the Continent.

More on this:

Heterarchy: An Idea Finally Ripe for Its Time (£), Jay Ogilvy

The World in 2016 (£), Geopolitical Futures


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