Beware of calls for strong and visionary European leadership

By October 16, 2017Uncategorized

By Femke van Esch, University of Utrecht

The multiple crises the European Union (EU) has faced over the past decade have triggered repeated calls for more strong and visionary EU leadership. Recently, such calls have been replaced by structural plans to fortify the EU’s internal leadership. In his recent State of the Union, for instance, Commission President Juncker proposed to merge the presidencies of the European Commission and European Council for the EU. According to Juncker, the EU would function better with one captain at the helm. In addition, French President Macron has been touring European capitals, advocating the creation of a European minister of finance for the Eurozone to help weather future crises. Irrespective of the details of these plans, both proposals aim to provide the EU with stronger and more centralised leadership.

The emergence of such plans should not come as a surprise. They fit a general pattern that occurs during times of crisis: When faced with an urgent threat and faltering decision making power, calls for strong visionary leadership are never far away. In the EU context, they are usually directed at the political leader of the most powerful state (‘Empress Merkel’), the Franco-German axis, or the President of the European Commission. Moreover, such calls are often accompanied by nostalgic reminiscing about particular historic European leaders who – according to legend – did have the resolve, personality and vision to provide ‘true’ leadership. According to such claims the EU would not be in such disarray, if only Chancellor Merkel had the European commitment of Helmut Kohl, if only Jacques Delors had still been at the helm, if only the current Franco-German axis was rooted in a personal bond as strong as that between Adenauer and De Gaulle.

Though somewhat naive, there is a certain logic to this perspective: when the institutions, the directives and the inter-institutional agreements fail, when political negotiations appear hopelessly deadlocked, agency and power are the only factors left to turn to. The idea that an institutional perspective explains stability, but a combination of agency, ideas and power is needed to understand change is well-rooted in the theoretical state of the art on (European) policy change. So, when faced with large-scale crises it is only logical that all eyes turn on the transformative potential embodied in key European leaders.

However, as a diagnosis of, and solution to the EU’s problems this view is one-sided, unrealistic and morally flawed. First, accounts of the leadership and achievements of supposedly great historical leaders are often simplified and a-historical. Critical in-depth analyses reveal that the French-German motor often faltered and that the successes of Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl were highly dependent on the broader political context.

Moreover, academic studies suggest that capable leadership only accounts for a fraction of a successful outcome. It is evident that the opportunity to learn from historical successes is limited for the simple reason that both the European political arena as well as the European electorate has undergone dramatic change. The enlargement of the EU to 28 (soon to be 27) states not only makes reliance on leadership by one (or a tandem of) member state(s) politically unlikely, it also severely limits the room for pan-European agreement.

In addition, recent years have seen a trend towards the polarisation of European politics and the euro crisis has shown that the EU has significant distributive consequences for its member states and people. This has not only led to a divergence of interests amongst the member states, but also contributed to the rise of the so-called ‘dismissive dissensus’ among the ever more critical and better-informed European people. In such an environment even the heroes of Europe’s past would be hard pressed to offer a solution to multiple crises the EU had to face in recent years.

More fundamentally, however, is the normative question of whether we truly want strong, visionary European leaders? I suspect not. In fact, many people would argue that there have been far too many strong visionaries in the history of the European Union. Moreover, when people talk about ‘vision’ in the European context, they often mean ever-closer union, but grand plans for federalisation or political unification of the EU no longer appeal to large sections of the European population.

Finally, strong visionary leadership often implies top-down leadership. The advantages of this type of leadership are clear as it promises determinate and effective action. However, top-down leadership is at odds with the democratic ideals of the EU as well as the sovereignty of its member states and their national parliaments. Moreover, if one takes the idea seriously that leadership is a relation between leader and follower, involving hierarchy and power, the question arises on what grounds is it legitimate for the leader(s) of the EU’s most powerful states, a Commission president or a pan-European minister of finance to exert leadership over the European people(s)?

It is precisely because of these reasons that the EU decision making structure was designed to prevent decision making dominated by a single strong leader, be it a person or a state. Division of power and democracy may hamper swift and efficient decision-making, but leadership is and should be inseparable from follower’s needs and goals and never be left unchecked. There are ample examples in history or even at the EU’s current borders that illustrate the vital importance of this point. So, as Europe struggles to find a way out of its economic, refugee, rule of law, Brexit and legitimacy crises, its first imperative is not to deepen the latter in name of the former.


For a more elaborate discussion of issues related to legitimate EU leadership, see: Van Esch, F.A.W.J. (2017), The nature of the European leadership crisis and how to solve it. European Political Science, 16(1): 34-47.

The author of this blog writes in a personal capacity and does not represent the TransCrisis project team as a whole.

One Comment

  • Fulvio Attina' says:

    People and the policy-makers of the member states never whole-hearted supported the grand plans for federalisation or political unification of the EU. But, in the Fifties and especially in the Eighties and Nineties, some European leaders – none of them very strong, a few of them visionary, most of them realist – realized that the wealth and peace of Europe rested on integration and a fraction of supra-nationalism. They, the leaders, under no pressure by the people except a small number of federalists, created the conditions for improving the living standards of the Europeans. The leaders, under no demand by the people, in the Eighties and the Nineties reformed the Treaties, created the monetary union, produced the many common policies that have made life in Europe easier and nicer than in the rest of the world. Leaders matter, and realist leaders made Europe and reformed the Union when they, persuaded by Jacque Delors, realized that globalization was on the verge of putting Europe of the periphery of the world!
    You are right. Strong, visionary leaders are a myth of the European integration narrative. The question is: are the opponents of that myth realist people? Are realist or visionary the leaders that negotiated and signed the Lisbon Treaty that completed the 50 years process (since the Summit of the Heads of state and government in The Hague, 1969) that has turned the European Council into the top policy-making institution of the EU in order to protect national interests and cancel the role of the Commission as supranational institution?
    The analysis and explanation of the present ‘dismissive dissensus’ of the people is the mission of the social scientists, as it was in the past the analysis of ‘permissive consensus’ towards the integration process. But it is their task also to say that scientific knowledge today supports the argument that it is visionary to rely on the heads of government in the European Council to solve the European problems since they have different (electoral) agendas. This is a problem that, according to the knowledge of political scientists and constitutional law experts, only a federal executive will solve. Since the people dissent from this knowledge and the federal solution, tell people not being visionary and to forget about easy solution to their economic and security problems, and stop dreaming about Europe and any European country playing as an effective actor in the global system.