Political leaders in the EU are incapable of leading us out of the current multiple crises we face. I think that’s generally understood. But what we’ve been incapable of explaining is why is leadership in such a bad way? Where is our Adenauer, Kohl or Delors when we need them?

First of all, our political context is markedly different from forty or even twenty years ago. The threat of war in Europe is no longer real, and the ending of the Cold War means the west has no convenient enemy any longer. The end of the Cold War also means capitalism won. The problems are more diffuse, longer term, more complicated, and harder to use to focus minds.

Then there is the changing nature of our political systems. The more politicians know, the more they follow. So daily polling and focus groups on anything and everything are used as a reason for not acting – it’s important to do what’s popular, not what’s right. Add to that the influence of 24 hour news with studios to fill, and the internet and social media, and proposals are picked over and taken apart before they have even been debated by parliaments. The leaders of the past – Kohl for example – would never have succeeded in modern politics. He would have been too brutish and fat for our current political culture. Yet we do not yet have any convincing leaders of the networked era – even Obama who used the net to get elected has been unable to effectively govern.

Our political parties are also sick, and good people arguably do not join parties, and if they do, they don’t lead them because their will to do so is killed off before then. Poor people and those that are ideologically flexible are instead understandably promoted – in the EU Günter Oettinger and Olli Rehn are cases in point. Better someone weak who will not cause offence than a dangerous but brilliant maverick.

The breakdown of traditional left-right ideology (partly due to the post-Cold War effect) has led to a multitude of parties, and by definition it is harder for complicated coalitions to take tough or long-term decisions. Even in countries like the UK or Spain without this multitude, declining turnout and extra-parliamentary movements pose a valid challenge to the status quo. I’m not quite as pessimistic as the outcomes of Bawn et al’s paper, but I’m getting there.

Throw into this the sheer complexity of our interdependent, multi-level, partially globalised political systems, and the battle of markets versus politics, with the latter seen to be subservient to the former. Then add a dose of ageing population, and scandals among political elites over the years and, hey presto, we are where we are…

Any way out of this?


  1. Perhaps a fair point Nils, but your argument is circular – if the nation state is the problem, how do we solve the problems there? With political leadership, surely?

  2. Nils Woerner

    I don’t think that the article hits the real problem. Some of the comments though relate to it: the nation states are not the proper vehicle anymore to govern societies. But politicians are bound to the theatre stages of their nations. On these stages they stand, poor actors playing powerful leaders while all real problems could only be solved on a supra-national level.

    All the arguments that you list, Jon, are symptons of this post nation state dilemma, not the cause. And the answers for this crisis can only be found if the diagnosis is right.

  3. french derek

    A further thought. The media effect that you mention impinges, of course, on the electorate, who make up the focus groups, etc. ergo, it’s the media what’s running things. Is this democratic? Of course not but Pandora’s box is opened. Democracy requires a (properly) informed public. Currently, it seems that the only information the EU electorate in general has to rely on is that purveyed by the media; mostly each source with its own political agenda.

    The one recent political figure who understood the need for the EU was Vaclav Havel: yet he was not, and did not want to be seen (remembered) as a politician.

  4. European Citizen

    Somewhat perversely, this might be a consequence of more democracy, not less. Now that we have more information through different sources, we find it easier to hold our leaders into account. I suppose the result is that they’ve become more responsive to perceived public opinion (that is, sometimes, to groups that purportedly represent it).

  5. french derek

    Oh, I forgot to add that, amongst the “here and now” problems are “the markets”. Not only are these now driven by now, now, now algorithms but they have become a focal point for too many EU leaders. ie short-term thinking (and action) all around.

  6. french derek

    An excellent, if depressing, article (tho’ the Baum et al paper was even worse). As you note, focus groups and such seem to over-dominarte policy-making. Yet policy-making surely requires that one takes the long view?

    Modern politicians, leaders or not, lack the long-term vision of such people as you mention. Surely, what marks out a “statesman” is someone with the ability to think beyond the “here and now” to the tomorrow and beyond. Which is what the founding fathers of the EU and many of their followers did.

    Sadly, the “here and now” concerns of European leaders is becoming more focussed on their own national issues (result of all these focus groups?) than on European issues.

  7. “battle of markets versus politics”

    Global markets can best be regulated by a global sovereign. We live in a multilateral world and now have to find mechanisms that will help us make decisions together. Why not globalize democracy? Why not make to global people the sovereign?

    Various studies have been written about this and a very feasible proposal has been made and is gaining support: the establishment of a united nations parliamentary assembly: http://en.unpacampaign.org

    Obviously that is a long term vision and it will not solve the current crisis, but if it takes so long to establish, then we should start now discussing it and building political support for it!

  8. We have an almost religious belief that democracy is preferable to autocracy, but at the end of the day, some of the most successful leaders of all time were competent people who had autocratic power.

    We need mavericks and old style leaders, but are too afraid of cults of personality and dictators to ever back a flawed human being with a broad vision. I don’t know what the solution is.

  9. Ron (Polscieu)

    I think “leadership” in the sense as it has been used in the past century/ies is outdated and might be replaced by “coordinatorship” and “opinion-leadership”.

    The new leaders are not those who have climbed up hierarchies to be be the new monarchs that represent the illusions of a collective (and thus collectivisable) will but those who manage to organise and co-ordinate similar interests to do what they think is necessary. They will be complemented by those who can use the new media landscape to shape opinions.

    For both, you do not need to be elected – and that is probably what is so problematic about this change. I think democracy needs be reorganised so that those who are good coordinators get public legitimacy to receive resources to effectively coordinate. So far, the focus is too much on opinion-leaders, but it needs to be understood that in the future there needs to be elected tandems of those who can communicate effectively, some to shape public opinion and some to coordinate society and societal change.

    And maybe, at rare occasions, we will find someone who can do both – but I doubt that as shaping opinions and organising practical issues rarely go together.

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