Finally, a phone number

Nieuws | de redactie
14 april 2008 | "Europe is not short of leaders who want to show the way, but lacks an integrating face that can express its soul". Dit schrijven Yves Mény, president van het European University Institute en Thieu Besselink, doctoraal onderzoeker aldaar. "The Lisbon Treaty foresees a president, but the character of the office remains unclear". 

After several years of blood, sweat and tears spilled on a treaty that could give Europe a backbone for the future, there is now an unexpected opportunity to give Europe a face. The European Council, where the leaders of all member states define the policies and strategies related to European integration, will choose a European President this year. Hitherto, the Council has been alternately chaired by one of its members, but since the accession of new (mostly small) states, the visibility of the position is rather low. Who knows the name of the present Chair of the Council? That is why the Lisbon Treaty foresees a president, but the character of the office remains unclear. He or she should bring ‘composure and continuity’ to the task of governing, as Dominik Hierlemann of the Bertelsmann Stiftung called it, but how can a new, strong European leadership be reconciled with the self-confident heads of state? Paradoxically rather than a strong statesman, it might be someone of strong character who will best fit the bill.

The debate about what kind of person could represent Europe has not yet taken off. The reason is that Europe has not yet recognised this new office as an opportunity to separate what in constitutional law are called functional and dignified leadership roles. When British Foreign Secretary Jim Murphy suggested, as he did in Le Monde, that the President should be a charismatic man of great calibre, what does that mean? Whether or not we agree on the charisma of Blair, or Juncker for that matter, the desire to take Europe into a new future and the refusal of a mere figurehead would challenge the present distribution of power within the institutional triangle, the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the Parliament.

A catalyst, not a driver

There is no lack of leaders in the European corridors, either by function or by ambition. If the European President is a leader, how will he reconcile his role with, for instance, the President of the Commission?  How will he be able to exert a true influence which would not simply be the result of a contorted consensus between the national leaders of the large countries? On the other hand, if the European President acts as a diplomat, putting Europe on the world map, what is our Foreign Affairs High Representative going to do? And if he aims at being the driving force behind our economic development, or any other policy, what kind of tools could be available for such challenging missions? The Union would have finally a phone number to satisfy Henry Kissinger’s request, but we would still be confronted with Stalin’s awkward question about the Vatican –  how many divisions?  The worst scenario would be precisely to create these divisions under the authority of the Council duplicating the existing ones in the Commission.   

So rather than a driver, we need a catalyst, because Europe is not short of leaders who want to show the way, but lacks an integrating face that can express its soul. For the first time in history a continent has the chance to choose someone who can represent the ideals of the European culture, its diversity and cooperation, creativity and consciousness, its knowledge society and struggles for democracy.

Many of the campaigns and institutional modifications of the past few years have aimed at reaching out to the citizens of Europe. But very few people recognize themselves, or the splendour of their culture in a club for lawyers, bureaucrats, and bankers. The rest of the world cultivates great expectations of Europe as a mediating and civilizing cultural and economic force in the world, but is pessimistic about its capacity to find and express the common character, which would make that possible. The question is, what kind of person would appeal to new generations of Europeans, and to the rest of the world that has put its hopes on Europe as a source of social and cultural development?

The world is getting younger

He or she could be a splendid politician, but why not a playwright like Vaclav Havel, or a woman such as Simone Weil or Mary Robinson who embodied the fight for human dignity and fundamental rights? After all, Europe from its mythical inception up to the 20th century has always been represented in art by a female character.   Is it not time now to shift from imagination to reality and to choose a woman as leader of Europe?
The world is getting younger, and the old continent cannot afford to produce a “usual suspect” if it is to warm the hearts of the people. Especially if it wants to resonate with the younger generations who cherish great expectations of a creative European knowledge economy. But who will? And with what exactly will the people of Europe identify?

Apart from the thoughts and imagination which made Europe and contributed to the history of the world, the character of Europe was also shaped by the birth of the Community and then the Union. What kind of person could embody the force of will with which the member states sought to cooperate, by which dictatorships where over won and democracies established? The fear of war which was so instrumental in the initial construction of Europe is not a sufficient motivation for the present time. Now we need a positive statement about the character of Europe of tomorrow and a person capable of embodying it.

A face and heart

The Treaty of Lisbon forces Europe’s elites to demonstrate a new kind of leadership. As a symbol of cooperation and European governance, he or she would be able to chair the European Council. But we would like the discussion to go further than that. How does Europe show that it can speak with one voice? Who could personify the rich cultural and intellectual history, the creative and democratic spirit, the diversity and the social character of Europe? Moreover, what features should define our future Europe? And who could convincingly embody those values and unifying traditions?

Perhaps the European Presidency has arisen from typical European pragmatism, but it poses a danger if it is merely seen as an instrumental solution to logistical problems. Whereas it offers great new vistas if it is treated as a chance to put a face and heart to that entity all too often mistaken for a purely technical creature.

Thieu Besselink, doctoraal onderzoeker aan het European University Institute en directeur van het European Institute for Leadership and Social Innovation in oprichting
Yves Mény, President van het European University Institute

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