On Leadership

I was recently sent an article written by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, former candidate for President of the European Council, which includes a couple of interesting comments on the vexed topic of Europe’s leadership – or lack thereof. Among these are the views that, first, the current crop of European leaders are little if at all worse than those of preceding generations, and second, that the purpose of the European Union ought to be to make the need for such ‘transformative leaders’ redundant, by replacing the rule of whim with the rule of law.

Such remarks are a breath of fresh air for those who have been inhaling (or in my case, exhaling) daily invectives against Europe’s supposed ‘leadership deficit’. For what, let us consider, would correcting such a deficit really require? Leadership requires that some degree of decision-making capacity be concentrated in the hands of a single individual, which is obviously not true of the European Union at present, with its two ‘presidents’ and all-powerful Council. Yet such a derogation would only be justified if we believed that there were certain individuals endowed with sufficient insight and knowledge to know better than a group of their peers; and that political institutions might exist which reliably place such individuals in power.  Presidential democracies are based precisely on such a faith. That faith is routinely betrayed, as incumbents inevitably reveal their human flaws and weaknesses.

In a well-ordered polity, it is not individuals, but rules, and organisations, which must govern. Rules, because in the absence of a beneficent leader whose informed whims prove consistently correct, it is upon tested principles that we must rely; and organisations, because a collective of individuals, serving in committee, is more consistently just than any single individual proves likely to be.

Yet this is oddly close to post-Lisbon Europe as it stands. Like the Swiss Federal Council, the European Council functions as an executive committee, to which the most important decisions must be referred, while the European Union’s routine decisional powers are intentionally split across specialised agencies, such as the European Central Bank or the European Court of Justice, whose judgements concerning human rights or monetary policy will not be improved by political interference. We have created strong institutions, so individuals need not be.

I know that some are finding this form of governance frustrating, and I share their frustration. It is slow moving, not particularly transparent, and the heroes and villains are impossible to identify; in short, it does not make for good news copy. But, in this regard the European Union is hardly alone in the world. Who, for example, can say much about the ‘leadership’ of China, Japan, or Singapore? They are no less opaque, consensual, or gradualist in style. Yet in these polities, it is fair to say that ruling committees, civil servants, and special agencies are perhaps able to develop more intelligent policies than a single ‘leader’, elected or otherwise, would have been likely to accomplish. Indeed, within living memory the Chinese and Japanese have learnt that lesson well.

More generally, we must be careful not to fetishise ‘leadership’, for the degree to which individual initiative is replaced by specialisation and the separation of functions is often a mark of the maturity of a polity. In well-functioning parliamentary systems, such as Sweden or the Netherlands, leadership is largely aesthetic, epiphenomenal, an after-effect. Prime ministers do not decide policy proposals, but receive these from think-tanks and advisers; they do not draft their own speeches, but have writers for this; they do not formulate policy implementation or the negotiating position of their country at international meetings, for these civil servants are tasked. Prime ministers act more as a chief spokesperson or press officer than a ‘leader’ as such, just as the monarch forms a symbolic figurehead for the nation as a whole. Such is the mark of a high quality of government, upon which the inhabitants of a France or Italy, for example, might regard with envy.

Meanwhile, where institutions give the possibility for real leadership, they typically lead to systemic policy failures. I do not wish to dwell excessively upon the problems of the United States, not least of all as in many respects the political system there does exhibit many positive attributes of specialisation and delegation – for example in the way the Federal Reserve is granted relative autonomy from executive or Congressional influence in order to execute its mandate. And yet, many areas, and notably foreign policy, remain the prerogative of the executive and his clique, and thus are subject to repeated diversion and error. This is not a coincidence, but an outcome of any political system where the objective of political participation is to elect a king, rather than assist in forming a government.

Why should Europe ever have sought to emulate the imperial presidency, for example by having a ‘presidential’ leader of the Council, when there are better models to be found in other parts of the world, not least within our own continent? And yet the charge is repeated, and repeated again, that Europe lacks leadership, and needs a stronger hand to guide it through. It is time to leave such delusions by the wayside. Politics, as Max Weber famously wrote, is a ‘slow boring of hard boards’. This may not be to the aesthetic taste of many, and it may not sell newspapers or inspire the imagination. Yet in the long run, it is, sadly, the only system we know that really works.

Posted in: EU