Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, survived the confidence vote requested by conservative party members of parliament challenging her leadership. Charles Michel, the Belgian Prime Minister, won a vote to support his government’s decision to endorse the Global Pact on Migration recently adopted by members of the United Nations. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, seems to have regained some momentum in the ongoing social contestation after delivering a key message to the nation. But no one could be fooled: for the three of them it is Mayday! Mayday! Their respective political future looks grim and their capacity to lead has never looked so weak.
Beyond the specificities of the three countries they are currently governing, the examples of May, Macron and Michel help highlight the vagaries of political leadership in Europe and beyond. For the sake of the discussion here, following Nannerl Keohane, leadership means a capacity to “determine or clarify goals for a group of individuals and bring together the energies of members of that group to accomplish those goals.” Even if leadership capacity is not evenly distributed among political actors in European democracies (and beyond), the failure of leaders is often caused by specific actions (or their absence), almost irrespective of their natural endowment in leadership potential.
Take the example of the UK. The current political chaos around the future relationship with the European Union stems from the explicit choice of not clarifying what Brexit would mean in the first place. If “Brexit means Brexit”, no wonder there has been an over-supply of populist gestures from all political horizons to determine what it means or would mean, creating a political madhouse with personal agendas superseding national ones. The situation has become so chaotic that the eviction of Theresa May, in the short or medium term, is unfortunately not going to bring much change. Political alternatives have indeed not given any assurance on their ability to determine and clarify goals!
In France, after decades of unwillingness to walk the talk of economic, social and political change, the election of Emmanuel Macron in May 2017 opened a window of hope. Macron was seen by a majority of voters as someone with a convincing plan to make the country more prosperous and socially less fragmented. Eighteen months later, it has become clear that the new President has not been able to bring together the energies of those who elected him to achieve this plan. Those with a malevolent spirit could argue that this is largely due to the fact that French citizens are notoriously famous for their aversion to change. The reality is that the current President is largely criticised for his inability to bring about the promised societal change that would have reconciled social action and economic liberalization. This may well be a fatal blow to his leadership capacity, raising deep concern about the political future of the country.
This is not to say that the recipe for political leadership is clear and depends only upon the decisions made by a dominant political incumbent. Take the current situation of the government of Charles Michel in Belgium that is now short of a political majority in the national Parliament. Leadership in a federal country that is deeply divided along differences of language, culture, and economic prosperity, seems an almost impossible task. The domestic political fabric is so fragile that any new spark may reignite political fire. Telling is the example of the hysteria around a UN non binding document aiming at bringing some order in global action on migration but leaving full national discretion on how to do this to countries. Leadership is not an individual feature but very much so a collective one, particularly in countries where political power is by design decentralized.
Political leadership is in crisis in Western Europe but also beyond. Coming to its rescue is going to be difficult given that in situation of chaos some are always tempted by political, and economic, plunder. But it is the duty of each of us, as human beings on a planet facing formidable ecological and social challenges, to start acting in fostering leadership at every possible scale. Defining goals and rallying the largest possible number of individuals behind them should not be reserved to a few on this planet. Let’s make progress on this in 2019!