Europe lacks a captain for its drifting ship of state

One of the things I have learned from my decades in the political risk business is that experts usually ignore the fact that specific people truly make policy.

It is easy, and intellectually correct, to focus on the grand historical forces of analysis: to look at things like the global macroeconomic situation, the overall geopolitical state of global power, the abiding ideology of the times. All of this is absolutely necessary to get right, and almost never makes it into the facile and simplistic column inches of the mainstream media, whose lack of genuine depth is increasingly becoming a global problem.

But there is another, historical level of analysis that eludes most of my political risk competitors, and explains their dire records on predicting what will come next in the world; they simply do not understand that specific people, with their individual strengths and weaknesses, are in charge of the world. Really understanding these specific people, as well as comprehending the general state of the planet, is absolutely necessary for getting political risk right.

US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes understood this perfectly when he said of Franklin Roosevelt that he had a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament. It is not that Holmes thought FDR was stupid; he did not, as Roosevelt was one of the smarter men ever to have been president. It is that Holmes correctly saw that the key to Roosevelt’s unparalleled political success lay instead in his character, his almost feline ability to sense, in any social situation, what others wanted, and to know what he was prepared to give. This specific attribute of a specific man is not studied by anyone other than historians (and not by enough of them, either) but it is a vital piece of the puzzle in making specific sense of perhaps the most important person of the 20th century.

All of which brings me to the present becalmed state of the declining great power that is Europe. Yes, there are a legion of structural reasons for the continent’s present malaise: It lacks a common army to matter in our increasingly rough-and-tumble geopolitical world (as well as, in its decadence, the will to have one); it lacks the economic dynamism to grow its way out of macroeconomic difficulties, with far too many entitlements and far too few working hours; it lacks an overarching country able to drive the European process forward, instead having a hodgepodge of great powers (Spain, Italy, France, and Germany) constantly vying for advantage.

All of this is true and all of this must be thought about far more often by a mainstream media that mindlessly cheerleads for Brussels, without wondering why the continent perpetually disappoints in great power terms. But there is also the historical, specific, personal level of assessing the continent’s present leaders that is hamstringing Europe, dooming it to decline even faster than all the more general factors would allow for.

Currently, perhaps only vainglorious, (overly) confident, bold French President Emmanuel Macron has the temperament to move the European project forward. However, his specific political problem is that the French people have just knobbled him in parliamentary elections, denying him a majority precisely because they feel he spends too much time swanning around the world making grand pronouncements and too little time governing France.

Nor is German Chancellor Olaf Scholz the answer. He won office precisely because he was inoffensive, cautious, and meek; in other words, he most resembled the suicidally beloved outgoing Angela Merkel. While having the qualities of your local branch bank manager might work in calmer times, in our age of perpetual crisis such attributes prove to be self-negating.

The other lesser European powers are also of little help. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez leads a rickety coalition government in Madrid, behind in the polls to his center-right People’s Party rivals. For these specific political reasons, his famously insular country, never keen to take center stage in Europe, can be of little help, even if it wanted to dramatically move the European project forward.

The same is even more true for Italy, where outgoing premier Mario Draghi’s unelected administration — parachuted in to somehow govern an increasingly ungovernable country —failed to provide Rome with the stability that had been confidently expected; it fell in just a year and a half. Instead, Italy’s new (and at least elected) government will come from the right, with populist Giorgia Meloni the putative new premier. While she is unlikely to bite the EU hand that is feeding her (with Brussels set to provide Rome with a gargantuan €200 billion in post-COVID aid), her basic euroskeptic ideology means she is more likely to block Brussels having a common approach (over immigration above all) than to champion the European project.

For all these specific historical and political reasons, as well as grand world historical forces, the easiest bet in the political risk world is to see Europe as an idea whose time has passed. The only way this downward trajectory would be altered is if Europe produced a leader with a first-class temperament, and a decisive political majority to match. In the world we actually live in, that simply won’t happen.

This piece was originally published in Arab News.

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