Leading the EU from Below

Finally, some praise for the EU’s choice of President and Foreign Minister of the EU.  The New York Times article on The EU’s New Leaders acknowledges that the choice of a Haiku-writing Belgian Prime Minister and a British baroness and EU Trade Commissioner was smart.

Why so smart? Well, because governance of a network cannot be based on pure hierarchical principles. For starters, because there is no clear hierarchy. Everything is alliances, soft power, give and take, symbolic gestures and horse trading.  Secondly, because hierarchy is not wanted. The EU is composed of 27 Member States each with their own idea of leadership. What they want is a negotiator, someone who can make the most of a near impossible situation.

Needless to say, this does not mean that top-down power will not be involved. The wonderfully strange thing about even such a surprising appointment is that it becomes power. In that sense, leadership from below is a very precarious state of affairs. It seldom happens, or rather, it happens quite often, but once it is recognized as such, it ceases to exist. Plain old leadership takes over. The disciple becomes the leader.

Another thing is that to Belgians, of course, the notion of their Prime Minister being an unknown figure is hard to fathom. This is another very interesting facet of leadership. It can actually be very local. Nobody is felt as more powerful than a tribal leader in a small community. Yet, his or her power seldom extends beyond a few hundred people and beyond a small physical territory. But to the locals, this does not matter.

The challenge with the EU has always been that its actions are slow to seep down to individuals. Even though the European policy debates are much more consequential than national policy debates, they are less talked about. The sociology of the whole thing is relatively straight forward. Whatever people think is real becomes real in its consequences. People refuse to believe that an organizational structure they do not understand and politicians and bureaucrats they do not know can have any power at all over themselves. However, if you have seen someone on TV, shaken their hand in a parade, and they talk about your top ten concerns (taxes, the economy, social benefits, safety, culture etc.), then you believe they really can affect change. Little do we consider the fact that politicians may well talk of things they cannot really deliver…

So, in a situation where the national scene is where heroes and villains are created, there is little scope for big Europe. And maybe that is the price we have to pay for real progress on policy issues.

The next few years will show whether this strategy works. I, for one, think that there is much to gain by testing the waters of networked leadership. The EU is the best example we have. The laboratory is a bunch of very much alive Europeans who are slowly recovering from a financial crisis. So, the stakes are high, but the results could be good, if not great. Not bad at all.

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