“Smile together, lead alone.” Vincent Venus accusess the European leaders of a lack of common vision. – European Council meeting 23 October 2011; Credit “The Council of the European Union”
I am angry. I am angry because the current generation of politicians is betraying my generation. How do I arrive at this conclusion? Let me go back a bit in history before I address the current situation.
Two Generations of Great Leadership
I was born in 1989, just some days before the Berlin wall came down. This event allowed the unification of Germany and ultimately of Europe. It was achieved by the people and by politicians. The latter did what they thought needed to be done, despite of not being sure of the consequences of their decisions. They were brave and my generation owes them a lot.
40 years beforehand there was another generation of politicians. They found a European continent burned to ashes, inhabited by people who fought against each other with no mercy. Instead of allowing national resentments to dominate the after-war years they decided to build up our continent and made the different nations cooperate instead of compete. They, most notably Monnet, were far-sighted, and again, my generation owes them a lot.
What do those two generations of leaders have in common? They both faced times of unrest and uncertainty. However, they were visionary and took risks to achieve their ideas, despite of a possible loss of personal power in case of failure. It is these two characteristics which I miss in the politicians who currently wield power.
Europe today: Crisis and no Vision
Europe is in a terrible state. We are witnessing rising unemployment, social upheaval, states crushed by market pressure, and most striking of all: mistrust. The markets do not trust the states, the states do not trust the banks, foreign countries do not trust the European Union and the people do not trust any of the above.
Of course the top politicians are not entirely responsible for this crisis and of course there are events beyond their control. Nevertheless, it is astounding how obvious they neglect their responsibility to lead, or rather, lead together. Some examples: President Sarkozy first tried everything to prevent French banks from taking over responsibility and is now already campaigning for the upcoming national elections. Chancellor Merkel is no better. In May she told the fairy tale of the lazy Greeks, in July she called for a “controllable process” and dismissed any bold steps, and in October she reassured to protect German tax-payers’ money – meanwhile demanding bigger sacrifices by the Greek people. Papandreou on the other hand decided to let the people speak but did so in a poorly timed manner and without any consultation. And Cameron? Well, he is simply getting on the nerves of everybody.
Thus the leaders of the nation-states are failing but what about those of the European Union? They try but it seems they are almost negligible in light of the Member States’ power play. Barroso argues for a new treaty, Van Rompuy is busy mediating between the Euro-zone members and the others, and the European Parliament has to witness how the intergovernmental actors are unable to reach consensus. The European Union is so far the biggest loser of this crisis – and this is precisely the worst failure of this generation of politicians.
Instead of proclaiming the EU as the way to overcome this crisis they do much to undermine the Union. As Martin Schultz (S&D) rightfully noticed: “In the EU, success is nationalised and failure is Europeanised.” Scholars of EU studies arrived at this conclusion already some years ago but today it is even more true than ever. Simply read the angry comments below any online newspaper article regarding the EU to see the result of this tactic.
It is almost ridiculous to come up with the following metaphor but just too many leading figures seem to have forgotten it: We all sit in the same boat (Europe), we all sail on the same ocean (planet earth), and we all have the same destination (peace, social cohesion, a free and enlightened society, quality of life, global cooperation to tackle the problems – the “European Dream” as Rifkin calls it). Just because some of our fellow seamen from Greece are temporarily too weak to do their duty on deck, this does not mean that we can simply throw them overboard. Europe, united in good and in bad times – and especially in future times. Next to those problems mentioned above, what about climate change, the failed integration of non-Europeans, the demographic change, energy security or the relative loss of influence of us Europeans on world stage? Do the national leaders really believe they are able to tackle these challenges on their own?
Power requires taking over Responsibility
Being in power equals taking over responsibility – everyone who was a student representative knows that. The European leaders in contrast, seem to have forgotten this. They stumble from one economic crisis to another, do not tackle other elementary problems, but seem to only administer the disaster.
Why is this the case? First of all, because of selfish power concerns. They prefer to be a big fish in a small waters, rather than to be a small fish in big waters. Secondly, because of the influence of multinational companies and banks on the politicians. Consequently, they try to appease the national electorate as well as the markets. The first group with short-sighted decisions, which will harm Europe in the long-run but keep them in power, and the second by avoiding the harsh but necessary reforms.
That is the wrong approach. In my eyes a politician should present her/his plan to the people, elaborate on the pros and cons and then ask the electorate if they want to follow her/him. This way contains of course the risk of not getting elected, but it provides orientation to the people. Orientation leads to trust, a feeling so bitterly needed in times like ours.
I can only hope that my generation does it better. We are equipped: educated at much more demanding universities, transnationally orientated thanks to English and Erasmus, and connected via the internet. Of course, this only applies to a certain share of my generation, but if this share is ready to face the challenge, we can and we will get our future back.