Upon reading Robert Kagan’s commentary in the International Herald Tribune today (“Sliding toward irrelevance“), it’s tempting to quote the old adage that the people in democracies get the governments that they deserve.

Mr. Kagan, author of the well-argued book “Of Paradise and Power” in 2003, argues that petty nationalism and navel-gazing are undermining Europe’s chance of playing a bigger role on the world stage, and that the people of Europe don’t seem to mind.

The problem is, the people deserve better. And not just the people of Europe, but of the world.

Like it or not, Europe and the rest of the world are intertwined. European kings and clerics spent centuries trying to plunder, colonise, enslave and “civilise” their neighbors and overseas territories. France and the United Kingdom have seats in the United Nations Security Council. France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom are members of the group of eight major industrialised nations. Europe is the world’s largest donor of development aid and an inspiration to countries in Africa, Asia and South America that see advantages in sharing sovereignty with their neighbors. Europe and the United States are the world’s largest trading partners. Europe cannot escape responsibility. It can only botch the job.

This has been said before, but what Europe really needs are leaders who will stand before electorates and explain how the European Union adds value to what individual national governments are able to deliver, then rally support behind European initiatives.

Two decades observing the European Union both from Brussels and its member states has taught me that “Brussels” as an institution, or collection of them, can’t do this talking. The message has to be delivered in people’s own languages, by national leaders whom they respect. These could be members of the European Commission (one reason I think that returning to the notion of keeping one commissioner per member-state isn’t such a bad idea). They could be members of the European Parliament. They could be a future elected president of the European Council or a European foreign minister. But in the end nothing beats national leaders, the people that that European voters can most easily hold accountable at the ballot box. The fact of being directly elected confers upon them political responsibility and credibility that “Brussels” as a whole will never be able to replace–at least until EU leaders themselves are directly elected, a day that I hope to live to see.

The question is, how can national leaders be persuaded to sing the praises of the European Union?

For starters, I propose the creation of a European scoreboard of sorts, a means of keeping track of how often national leaders speak about Europe, what they say, and what they don’t, and awarding lashes and laurels accordingly.

If a national leader gives a speech on the environment, for example, and suggests that his or her country alone can solve a global problem, that merits a lash. If the added value of European cooperation in addressing climate change merits mention, that earns a laurel. And so on for all the priority subjects. An independent organisation, or group of organisations representing journalists and civil society, should keep score and announce the results at least once a year, as well as just before any national elections.

The European Commission used to contribute to this kind of “name and shame” exercise, but this particular Commission seems to have capitulated to powerful national interests to refrain from doing so, perhaps in exchange for future political favours. That is a shame, because the annual tally of infringement procedures is an obvious whip for member states that refuse to implement laws that they themselves have signed up to.

If the Commission won’t name and shame European leaders on European issues, someone else should.

Let’s stop talking about Europe being unaccountable.

Let’s hold our own national leaders accountable for what they do and say about Europe.


Author :


  1. EUvangelist,

    Even if your idea is constructive, it (if put into practice) covers only a fraction of your exhortation to stop talking about Europe being unaccountable.

    The ‘elite’ project has lost both its shared sense of direction and the support of the EU citizens.

    The European Union faces rather stark choices between immobility and irrelevance on the one hand, and progress and relevance on the other.

  2. the problem you touch upon is similar to the ‘chicken or egg’ dilemma.

    As long as the majority of citizens of a state in some way or another mistrust the EU their national leaders will seek to mention the EU as little as possible in order to prevent losing support.

    If the majority of citizens, on the other hand, agree with the EU or even support it then national leaders will speak about the EU because it will make them gain support.

    It all comes down to power. National leaders want to remain in power (of course they also are policy seeking as well). This quest for power can only be achieved through support from the electorate rather than support from say the Commission.

    Hence, if the citizens of Europe start valueing the EU more again then a positive discourse from sides of mainstream parties will follow. However, this support will probably have to be forged by people and groups who are not dependent on public support to remain in power.

  3. Dear Fabian,

    I respectfully disagree. One of the characteristics which distinguish leaders from followers is that they should LEAD their countries, not just slavishly follow the opinion polls. I’ve read your good post on the disgraceful Austrian referendum announcement, which is, as you rightly point out, an example of following the polls, or in this case the Neue Kronen Zeitung.

    I’m sure there are hundreds of good examples but I always admired Tony Blair for sticking up for Europe, and emotionally and powerfully defending the EU’s draft constitution from its detractors, despite the fact that Europe and the constitution are deeply unpopular in Britain–in large part because of the misinformation spread by a vehemently Euroskeptic press.

    I think the real issue is that too many national leaders (Silvio Berlusconi comes to mind, or certain Czech leaders and former Polish leaders) do not actually understand the added value that the European Union offers and therefore are unable to articulate its benefits.

    In addition to the name-and-shame campaign that I suggest above, a private “Why the EU matters” training for incoming EU presidents and prime ministers may be in order.


  4. Sorry, but I disagree with the part of this about national leaders – what incentive do they have to communcate the EU? None at all. It doesn’t win them elections.

    That’s different from politicians somehow at European level, or at least it should be. Their careers should be made or broken on the basis of their performance – at EU level. Do a good job, get re-elected. Emphasis on that sort of responsible leadership is what’s needed.

  5. Dear EUvangelist,

    You are right to point towards Tony Blair (a current example would also be Angela Merkel). Some leaders will behave like leaders and defend something they believe in. We must accept, however, that some leaders have different ideological leanings and therefore would not act in such a positive manner.

    If, for instance, David Cameron were the British PM then I don’t think a simple training session on why the EU matters would greatly change his stance on the EU.

    The Commissions task must be to somehow make national leaders more enthusiastic about promoting the EU but more importantly the Commission must promote the ideas within the population. If the people believe then their leaders will follow.

    We will have to accept that not all European leaders are so pro-European and enthusiastic that they can promote the ideals of the EU to their citizens. It would be nice but unfortunately I cannot see it happen.

Comments are closed.