Europe’s Shaky Leadership

Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

Europe’s Shaky Leadership

The leaders of the European Union’s top four member nations face a rough year ahead.

The European Union’s four most powerful member nations all face a crisis of leadership as we move forward in the new year. Coming at a time of global economic and financial upheaval, not to mention foreign-policy challenges extending from Kosovo to Ukraine, from Darfur to Iran, added to the domestic political challenges that each faces, the big four could become substantially distracted from guiding their fellow EU member nations along a smooth path toward the EU goal of ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by this time next year.

The leaders of Germany, Italy, France and Britain, the big four members of the EU, have each started the new year on shaky ground. Two of these leaders, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, have seen their high popularity ratings of mid-2007 wane over the past six months. Italy’s Prime Minister Romano Prodi is ending January embattled, resigning his post after losing a no-confidence motion in the Italian Senate. Meanwhile, across the English Channel, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is facing criticism for his indecisive approach to leading the government he took over recently from Tony Blair.

All in all, the year has not started well for the heads of the leading nations within the European Union.

Coming at a time when the EU is gearing up for crucial discussions centered on preparing for ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the numerous issues distracting these leaders from their principal duties of governance could well reduce their influence on, and destabilize the whole process of, working toward unanimity on ratification of that treaty by the intended date in January 2009.

The continuity of the European Union vision has rested largely in the hands of the Franco-German alliance since its inception, supported in a more or less ad hoc way by Italy, the strength of that support depending on the orientation of whichever of the many postwar government leaders was at Italy’s helm. Britain, having traditionally played the role of spoiler, especially in the Thatcher government days, has increasingly supported the EU vision (to the progressive detriment of British sovereignty) with each successive government since—from John Major, to Tony Blair, to Gordon Brown.

But the whole game in Europe changed with the retirement of France’s President Chirac last year. His replacement, Nicolas Sarkozy, has proven to be less predictable in his behavior and much more cavalier in his approach to the office of president than were his predecessors. Since he assumed the presidency in May, he has already been offside with Chancellor Merkel on more than one occasion. His highly publicized divorce and subsequent romance with a local celebrity since coming to office has posed questions about his fitness to govern the nation. Reuters has reported, “French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s popularity fell sharply in the past month, especially among core conservative voters, following criticism of his economic record and private life, a poll released on Saturday showed” (January 21).

The EU game further changed when the charismatic Tony Blair packed up and left No. 10 Downing Street right on the eve of Britain’s most pressured moment yet since that country was misled into supporting its joining a uniting Europe under the Heath Conservative government in 1972. Gordon Brown, having long sulked in Tony Blair’s slipstream while awaiting his turn at leading Britain, is being reported as not proving to be up to the task. The Telegraph’s parliamentary sketch writer, Andrew Gimson, had this to say: “Here’s a prediction: Brown will be gone by the end of the year. For he is not just indecisive in himself, but the cause of indecision in all those around him. The ship of state is drifting because the captain cannot decide what course to steer” (January 16).

Concerning Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, she has just had added to her current basket of woes (not the least of which is her vice chancellor, Hans-Walter Steinmeier) yet another domestic crisis. Her continuing resistance to a challenge from her junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, in their bid to reverse labor market changes, is widening the increasing rift between factions in her coalition government.

As one observer claims, “The differences underline a deterioration in relations between the parties that analysts say will make it unlikely the coalition will be able to enact any major programs before national elections due next year. ‘There’s no doubt the atmosphere is cooling, and the closer we get to 2009, the harder attitudes will become,’ Matthias Jung, head of polling company FG Wahlen, said in an interview. ‘That’s not going to help the chances of compromise on whatever policy issues the coalition still plans’” (Bloomberg, January 24).

Then there’s the Prodi government’s fall in Italy. Prodi is one of the most influential Europhiles on the continent, well able to wheel and deal to influence member states in the process of massaging opinion into favoring ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. His present embattled status may harm his prestige within the EU and reduce his effectiveness as a negotiator in the Lisbon Treaty ratification process.

It would be detrimental for the progression of the European unity vision for just one or even two of the leaders of the big four to be distracted from their major task of driving that unity forward to its imperial goal. For the four leading nations of the EU to be suffering trauma at the head is bound to place a drag on the whole process and debate on the Lisbon Treaty ratification process slated for this year.

For all of these reasons we would tend to agree with Stratfor’s conclusion that the EU, for the term of the current year, will revert to a mere concert of powers, its individual national leaders distracted by pursuing the interests of their own nations to the detriment of any worthy degree of unity within the 27 nations as a whole. That’s the way it will continue to be in this unwieldy European Union until … until a crisis threatens to upset the relative peace and economic expansion that the union has progressively basked in over the past 50 years.

On balance, the continuance of the stability, security and growth of the European Union depends on how just one of the big four leading EU member nations handles itself. As Dr. Friedman of Stratfor puts it, “During the Cold War, German national interests were completely submerged in the idea of ‘Europe’ and, to be blunt, Germany was not allowed to have an independent military or foreign policy. Yet Germany is the natural leader of Europe because of its location, population and economic heft. Now that Germany is reunited, it is attempting to reprise this role, and to do so in a way that does not generate fear among its neighbors” (January 8).

Apart from certain states of the Balkan Peninsula, Germany has, so far, been able to keep the fear index reading low throughout Europe. It has done so by masking its motives underneath the European Union, nato and UN umbrellas, and it has done so quite admirably. With a woman chancellor at the helm, Germany, to many, appears more benign than ever. This image of a democratic, peace-loving Germany will hold up as long as Germany feels insulated from any external threat.

Ever with an eye to history and the geopolitical context, George Friedman observes, “The trick, ironically, is ensuring that Germany does not feel militarily threatened. So long as Germany is surrounded by nato states and Russia is relatively quiescent, Germany does not require a robust military. A largely disarmed Germany is still an economic powerhouse, but while it triggers concern, it does not trigger fear.” To that statement we would add—“YET!”

There are four distinct forces currently at play that could, either singly or in combination, tip the scale in Europe and radically alter the present balance of power. They are the threat of pan-Islamism, a resurgent Russia, insufficient access to energy sources, and the prospect of a drawdown of U.S. presence in the region. Any one of these factors could escalate a perception of high risk to Germany’s security and trigger a reaction by that nation.

Dr. Friedman’s opinion is that “German insecurity—and the military consequences that will come from a rearming Germany—will be a crisis for another year.” That, we distinctly believe, is very definitely the case. It won’t be this year, but it could follow very closely thereafter. And when that crisis does occur, it will demand from Germany and greater Europe a strength of leadership in response that is of a caliber far greater than the shaky leadership we see currently heading the big four nations presently dominating the European Union.

We believe that leadership is on the scene already, just biding its time for the right moment to assert itself.

If you are interested in discovering why we are convinced this is so, request your own copy, gratis, of our special sample edition, with the cover title “He Was Right!” or find it on our magazine archives page. When you have finished reading it, you may find yourself convinced as well!