Europe | Charlemagne

Europe today is a case of lots of presidents yet nobody leading

Your cut-out-and-keep guide to people who no longer matter in the EU

A messy kitchen scene with the silhouette of lots of cooks through a window
Illustration: Peter Schrank
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For several years in the early 1990s Deng Xiaoping ran China despite having no formal title other than Most Honorary President of the Chinese Bridge Association. The European Union today is roughly the opposite: a place crawling with presidents, yet nobody in charge. An unexpected power vacuum has befallen the continent in the midst of ongoing war, a budding trade spat with China and a nerve-jangling election in America. Whether in Brussels or in national capitals, those on hand are otherwise engaged, usually with their own domestic difficulties. Can someone—anyone—step up to lead Europe?

It has long been hard to work out whom to call if you want to speak to Europe. But that is in fact one of its charms. In centuries gone by, establishing who had the upper hand on the continent used to involve gauging whose troops had made the furthest inroads into its neighbours’ territory (Germany, often). After the second world war, when fighting gave way to EU meetings convened to discuss the format of future EU meetings, the question of “Who runs Europe?” usually gave rise to a cacophonous answer. Federalists like to think it is the leaders of the bloc’s main institutions in Brussels. Brits always suspected it was the Franco-German axis, which they never managed to crack. The French think the EU is led by, naturellement, the French; Germans stand knowingly in the corner, happy to let them believe it. Nationalist types like Viktor Orban of Hungary or Giorgia Meloni of Italy are quite sure their time has come, given a recent rightward shift in European elections. Members of the European Parliament are adamant it should be them. The correct answer is in permanent flux, keeping Brussels-based journalists gainfully employed.

Alas, all the putative leaders are currently hobbled. The most swiftly debased leader of Europe is Emmanuel Macron. Upon re-election to the French presidency two years ago, he stood as the union’s standard-bearer. Here was a national leader from a large country proud to stand in front of an EU flag, always willing to opine (often at some length) about the future of Europe. That his fading popularity at home would dent his credibility in EU circles was always expected. But his calling of a snap parliamentary election due on June 30th and July 7th has raised the prospect of a messy “cohabitation” between Mr Macron and a prime minister from a rival party, quite possibly from the hard right. What then for Europe? Nobody is quite sure, given how much the EU has evolved since 1997-2002, when France last split its top jobs. Although the president would maintain his purview on foreign affairs and keep attending summits of European leaders, that is only part of the story. The nitty-gritty of EU legislation is hammered out at meetings of ministers, which would be attended by French representatives from that rival team. France seems likely to export its domestic gridlock to the continental level, even ahead of the presidential poll in 2027.

Who can pick up Mr Macron’s mantle? The German chancellor might usually be expected to step up. But the current one, Olaf Scholz, lacks his French counterpart’s visceral attachment to the EU. Overseeing a messy coalition in Berlin made it difficult to act decisively in Brussels. All three ruling parties got massacred in the recent European elections. A messy fight over budget cuts will further test the stability of the government in coming months. Soon enough the focus will turn to next year’s federal election.

Plenty of national leaders have tried to gatecrash the Franco-German axis; adding a third party to a squabbling couple has a certain European feel to it. Thus far nothing has worked. Poland, as the biggest central European country, was once expected to turn the Franco-German duo into a leadership triangle. But Donald Tusk, its newish leader, still has his work cut out reclaiming the state apparatus from his hard-right predecessors. The Dutch had a seasoned leader in the form of Mark Rutte, but he seems destined to take over as head of NATO. Ms Meloni has had a brief stint as putative “kingmaker” in the EU, whose support might be needed to install a new team of leaders for the bloc’s central institutions after the European elections on June 9th. As it turns out, political parties in the centre did well enough to (probably) do without her backing, reducing her importance.

When leadership seeps away from national capitals, the EU machine in Brussels can usually be trusted to attempt a power-grab. Not just now: the bosses of the bloc’s institutions, notably the European Commission that acts as its executive arm, are coming to the end of their terms. On June 17th the EU’s 27 national leaders convened for dinner to appoint three “presidents” (the term is used loosely in Brussels) to lead the commission, chair meetings of EU leaders and preside over the parliament. They were expected to give the nod to Ursula von der Leyen for another five-year term heading the commission. Yet agreement proved strangely elusive. Most probably she will be nominated when leaders meet again on June 27th. But even assuming the parliament backs her next month—which is not yet guaranteed—Mrs von der Leyen will spend much of the rest of the year haggling with national capitals and MEPs to build a team of commissioners.

Who you gonna call? Viktor Orban!

When all else fails, one last figurehead for the EU can be counted on: whoever leads the country holding the six-month rotating “presidency” of the council, where national governments haggle. As luck would have it, from July 1st the job falls to none other than Mr Orban. The cantankerous Hungarian prime minister is the EU’s bête noire, always on hand to succour Russia or champion Eurosceptic culture-warriors. On June 18th he unveiled the council’s new tagline: “Make Europe Great Again”. That sounds like a plan, if only anyone was on hand to implement it.

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This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Too many cooks, too little cooking”

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From the June 22nd 2024 edition

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