State of the Union 2021: Column by René Cuperus
30 Sep 2021 - 15:54

European leadership between populism and technocracy

Column by René Cuperus Senior Associate Fellow Clingendael

This panel is about leadership. European leadership. But how do we define European leadership? That’s is not so crystal clear.

Do we mean leadership by the European institutions? Or do we mean leadership by European personalities? Do we mean leadership by the European heads of state, especially the big ones, the Franco-German axis, or is European leadership executed by the ECB or the financial markets?

We can differentiate between three types of leadership:

  • Technocratic leadership
  • Populist leadership
  • Democratic leadership

In a way we just said goodbye to the embodiment of European leadership, and that was Bundeskanzler Angela Merkel. The Mutti of Europe. She was an example of European democratic leadership.

What made her so special is that she upheld her doctrine of Zusammenhalt, of keeping Europe together, in the midst of serious crises. She was the Krisenkanzler(in) who did not deepen the European divides by confrontation, but reconciled different interests and political traditions. Respecting smaller and bigger member states.

Merkel was both a nationally respected leader and a European leader.

Of course, one could criticize her so-called lack of visionary politics, her Merkel-method of strategic patience, but we will miss her dearly, just at the moment that more European leadership is asked for.

A lot depends on the way this European leadership will be executed and by whom.

We need European leaders that can renew the self-confidence and pride of Europe

I do believe in the course towards European strategic autonomy (unless this concept is more directed towards our ally the United States, then against our ‘authoritarian systemic rivals’, China and Russia).

I do believe in the notion that in the geopolitical wild-west-world we are living in today, the EU should be much stronger, less divided, slow and technocratic, and gets its act together in foreign policy and security politics.  

We need convincing European leaders for that task, because our continent, especially the young millennial generations, have a pacifist threat perception: they feel threatened by the climate crisis only (and for that you do not need an army, drones or nuclear deterrence).

We need European leaders that can renew the self-confidence and pride of Europe.

That can restore the notion that liberal democracies are the best guarantee for future prosperity, welfare and technological innovation. In this Chinese Century, given the authoritarian challenge, the notion of guaranteed future success for liberal democracies is contested. Codeword: decline of the West.

Europe is still the Quality of Life Superpower of the world. A Middle Class Paradise.

Europe, in sum, is a creative welfare democracy, based on egalitarian social market economies, rule of law and freedom of speech. But this is under pressure, both from the inside and the outside.

Let’s be realistic: Brussels watching is a minority sport in all member states

We need European leaders to make the European model world competitive again, especially in technological innovation. And to defend the European values and interests against external threats.

However, what is undermining European leadership is the complex multi-layered structure of the European Union. Many people in the streets have never heard about the State of the Union of Ursula von der Leyen or about Charles Michel. For them Spitzenkandidaten do not ring any bell. Let’s be realistic: Brussels watching is a minority sport in all member states.  

People see Angela Merkel or president Macron as the European leaders, who have to balance national and European interests and function under democratic and media-control.

What is undermining European leadership is that in Brussels there is only one narrative: more Europe, more integration, more centralisation as an TINA-answer to all problems.

Despite all the divides in Europe, despite the populist revolt, despite the fragmentation of the postwar-political systems in nearly all member states which seriously weakened the domestic mandate for national politicians: the greedy European institutions have not become more modest, selective, or cautious. On the contrary. Full speed ahead in all directions and in all dimensions!

The EU as a de facto post-democratic elite-project should be modest and selective

There is more deepening (foreign and defence policy, Green Deal), more integration (EMU), more enlargement (Western Balkans). More EU all over the place.  All at the same time.

That constitutes a big risk for national and European leadership. A big gamble with large parts of the European population who are not involved in European politics, whatsoever.

The EU as a de facto post-democratic elite-project should be modest and selective.

There is a danger that further European centralisation will deepen the divides and cleavages in Europe and will produce the forces of national-populism that the European Union was meant to overcome.  

Some measures could provoke populism in Southern Europe, other measures could provoke national-populist backlashes in Northern Europe. Look at the fragile political situation in France, where establishment and counter-establishment are nearly in balance.

Even more than national politics, European politics is a mega balancing act.

I have difficulties with Europe's carelessness, with the careless way in which Europe is dealt with. National populists are tearing the EU apart with their anti-EU stories as if there were no history. Technocratic Euro-federalists are tearing nation-states apart as if there were no history.

We need European leaders with a strong sensibility for both national democracy and European politics and who have the courage to stand up against both populism and technocracy.

Join us and register here for other sessions of the State of the Union Conference 2021.