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The Shadow of Doubt About Europe's New Leaders

The Shadow of Doubt About Europe's New Leaders
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

European leaders have managed to avoid the worst with appointments to key positions in the European Union. But their choice does not dispel concerns about Europe's place in the world.

"It's a good thing to follow one's inclination, provided it leads uphill" wrote André Gide in Les Faux-Monnayeurs ("The  Counterfeiters"). Will the creative compromise found by the Europeans meet the writer's demands? It is far too early to say. Only time and experience will let us know whether Europe has been able to build a good team to deal with the ever-increasing challenges it faces.

If we continue to believe in the European project, how can we not be divided between relief and frustration – tainted by a certain anxiety - with regards to the "European team" members?

Relief should prevail, as we escaped the worst. At the end of last week, Europe let the world see its internal divisions and deadlocks, shamelessly and pathetically, as if Europe’s sole ambition was to demonstrate its non-existence.

Risk of marginalization

In Brussels, where I was that day, I regularly consulted the BBC World to find out if "white smoke" was coming out of the neighbouring buildings. Unfortunately, not only were Europeans still hesitating, they were simply ignored by the British news channel, which focused exclusively on the events in Hong Kong: a perfect symbol of the risk of Europe's growing marginalization in the eyes of the world, and of the British themselves in this post-Brexit phase. Between the fate of a part of their former empire and that of Europe, there was no hesitation.

On Tuesday, in the middle of the day, the worst was avoided. The Franco-German engine had restarted, and even in an original and creative way.

And yet, on Tuesday, in the middle of the day, the worst was avoided. The Franco-German engine had restarted, and even in an original and creative way.  Two women inherited the two most important positions, both for the first time.The head of the Commission goes to Germany, a first since the 1950s and 1960s and Walter Hallstein, who was its first president. The presidency of the Central Bank goes to France, less than a decade after Jean-Claude Trichet.

This is a "modern" and, on paper, judicious choice. A specialist in defense and security matters, on the one hand, and an experienced woman who has succeeded in all the positions she has held, on the other. This is good news for Emmanuel Macron, for Angela Merkel and for the Franco-German relationship, which was said to have weakened, and be even at risk.

Frustration in Paris and Berlin

However, this legitimate relief comes with some frustration. In Paris, the President’s entourage would say, before this compromise, that only one consideration would prevail in the selection of men and women for key positions in the EU: "To take the best, regardless of their nationality or political affiliation, with a marked preference for women". This requirement aimed at backing a strong personality to move the European project forward. Is it reflected in the choices made? Or have we, once again, resigned ourselves to reach only the smallest common denominator and favoured only what was possible instead of what was desirable? 

Ursula von der Leyen may prove to be an excellent surprise. Contested in Germany, even in her own political party, if not her own ministry, she does not have Margrethe Vestager’s charisma, one of her two vice-presidents with Frans Timmermans. The Danish woman "inspired dreams" to many Europeans, including, it is said, Emmanuel Macron. She had been able to resist GAFA and Donald Trump’s declared enmity for her added to a prestige that none of her rivals had.

Christine Lagarde falls into a completely different category than the former German Defence Minister. Energetic, brilliant, full of authority, the markets welcomed her designation by a rise. No one doubts her seriousness, her political intelligence, or the scale and quality of her networks at the highest global level. But, in the face of a possible major euro crisis, will she be able to demonstrate the "technical" intelligence necessary to provide urgently the right answers? Having a quality chief economist, as Philip Lane, is one thing. Having, personally, the right economic instinct is another.

But Charles Michel is not the "qualitative leap" that some dreamed of, seeing Angela Merkel as the moral authority and "wisdom" that the EU symbolically needed.

As for the other appointments, Charles Michel becomes President of the Council of the European Union, in a reassuring continuity with his predecessors. The former Belgian Prime Minister is also sympathetic and will be able to show a warm face to Europe. But it is not the "qualitative leap" that some dreamed of, seeing Angela Merkel as the moral authority and "wisdom" that the EU symbolically needed.

As the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, who was Spain's Minister of Foreign Affairs, brings together many qualities that will be useful to the EU, from experience to firmness. Finally, as President of Parliament, David Sassoli, an Italian Social Democratic MEP, is welcome. He will embody the other face of Italy.

The banality of ignorance and contempt

On the opening day of the first session of the new Parliament, British MPs from Nigel Farage's Brexit party engaged in a particularly "regressive" provocation. They deliberately turned their backs when the first notes of Beethoven's European anthem, the "Ode to Joy", played. Members of the National Rally chose to remain seated.

It is precisely because this form of "banality of ignorance and contempt" is developing within the European Union that the choice of "the European team" is essential. In this respect, the "apprentice" Europe - after passing very close to disaster - has made commendable efforts. But can it do even better with the "masters" it has chosen?


With the permission of  Les Echos (publié le 05/07/2019)


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