Europe’s Case of ‘Chief Executive Envy’

By Steven Hill, March 19, 2010, Social Europe Journal

Every time Europe goes through one of its occasional crises, calls arise across the continent for ‘stronger leadership.’ The perception of having feeble leadership was a major factor in the push for the Lisbon Treaty, which went into effect late in 2009 and created a president for the European Council and a high representative for foreign affairs and security. That treaty and those two new offices were supposed to launch a new Europe that would cease ‘punching below its weight’, and finally provide an answer to Henry Kissinger’s bedevilling question: ‘Who do I call if I want to call Europe?’

Yet even after Lisbon, the Greek debt crisis has once again resulted in the usual hand wringing and public remonstrations over a perceived leadership gap. The undefined and overlapping duties and turf wars of the van Rompuy-Barroso-Zapatero triple rivalry has only added to this chief executive envy. Europeans seem to long for strong, unitary leadership and energetic executive authority, perhaps even a single president like in the United States who could project a muscular European presence in the world.

Yes, if only Europe could have a strong leader like Barack Obama, or Hu Jintao, or Wen Jiaboa. Or how about George W. Bush? That’s the problem with strong leaders. Sometimes they lead in the wrong direction.

America has a CEO model of political leadership. Presidents Bush and Obama essentially have been the CEOs of America Inc., looking bold, decisive, presidential, even as America continues to lag woefully behind Europe, struggling to catch up in so many areas. Compared to Europe, the US has vast inequality problem, double the poverty rates, and double the per capita carbon emissions. Europe has more Fortune 500 companies as well as small businesses – even a lower rate of unemployment. Forty-seven million Americans don’t have any health insurance (a new study found that one-quarter of Californians have no health care), nor do many have paid parental leave, sick leave, sufficient vacations or retirement pensions, affordable university education or other types of European supports for families or individuals.

Instead, the US continues to spend trillions for two wars that most Americans are ambivalent about. Despite their brawny facades of leadership, America’s chief executives, whether political, economic or financial, often have led in the wrong direction in recent years.

Or perhaps Europe would like to have strong executive leadership like that in China. China’s ‘enlightened dictatorship’, as some have called it, supposedly is ruling for the good of all, at least over the long term. A long term outlook is pretty necessary for most Chinese these days, since in the short term China suffers from even greater inequality than in the US, widespread environmental degradation, and its businesses are little more than subcontractors to the West. Young people, fresh off the farm and working in the cities, squeeze four into a bedroom, two into a bed, trying to make ends meet. A military-commercial class, which is fond of driving around Beijing and Shanghai in shiny vehicles with darkened windows, controls everything from major amounts of real estate to dealerships of ancient art and antiquities. And an amoral Chinese commercialism is ‘led’ by corrupt robber barons that have produced frequent food scares, including industrial toxins mixed into milk powder, pet food and cough syrup, and drywall tainted with highly toxic sulfur compounds.

Certainly, China’s leadership deserves some credit for having steered the country away from the precipice of the Mao years and abject poverty. But the rural areas, which is where most Chinese still live, lack modern conveniences and many must still gather firewood for heat, and plough their fields with water buffalos. Instead of developing the rural areas, or applying China’s growing wealth toward the betterment of the great majority of their fellow Chinese, the nation’s leaders pour their sizable budget surpluses into US Treasury bonds, financing the US deficit so Americans can buy from an obscenely wealthy Chinese exporter class. That also provides jobs for millions, but apparently not enough since China is plagued by 70,000 protests per year, many of them more like riots and quite violent (including occasional bombings), as well as 300,000 labour disputes in 2006, nearly double the number reported in 2001.

So strong leadership has its downsides. It’s important to ask what type of leadership does Europe want? US President John F. Kennedy perhaps provided a hint when he called for the ‘practical management of a modern economy’ in ‘keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead’. That involves adjusting and tinkering a steady state economy to grow not too fast but not too slow. That’s a rather technocratic, unglamorous job; one fit more for an engineer, a systems designer, or an economist than a charismatic political evangelist. Sure enough, that’s how many of Europe’s politicians come off – as some kind of bland technocrats, which do not exactly stir the public and lead to much griping about faceless government bureaucrats and their directives.

But those politicians, standing on the mighty shoulders of giants like Monnet, Churchill, and Adenauer, have produced the most successful human-centred political economy the world has ever seen. The United States set the original standard, giving birth in the post-World War II era to the middle class and the sunny prospect of an enjoyable life. People all around the world tried to follow America’s leadership. But today, the quality-of-life advances in the areas important to most people’s lives are taking place in Europe, not the United States. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the hope of tens of millions of Americans frozen out of the American dream lies in the adoption of an American version of the European Way.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Europe may discover that its own type of executive leadership provides the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried. That’s not to say that Europe shouldn’t look to streamline its van Rompuy-Barroso-Zapatero trifecta. But Europe really needs to begin an earnest, out-of-the-box conversation about what kind of leadership it needs. It shouldn’t assume that the American ‘CEO style’ will suit it. Just as the European Union itself is an unusual creation, perhaps its leadership structure also needs to be a new invention.

Switzerland, for example, instead of having a single executive authority figure has a seven-member executive council that serves as the Swiss collective head of state. Each Councillor heads one of the seven federal executive departments that cover the environment, transport, energy, communications, foreign affairs, finance, economics, justice, civil protection, defence and more.

Or perhaps look back into history for innovative examples. In early America, the Iroquois League was composed of six different Native American tribes led by a grand council of 50 sachems. The mothers of each clan chose the members of this grand council, and women held real power, including initiating legislation. Theirs wasn’t just a ‘triple presidency’, but more like a multi-headed hydra executive body. Lest this sound unwieldy, in their day the Iroquois were the fiercest and dominant confederacy of all the native peoples.

And remember that ‘Old Europe’ actually is comparatively young. The European Union’s current configuration of 27 nations and 500 million people dates only from 2004; the Lisbon Treaty was ratified just last year, and the Maastricht Treaty establishing the EU was signed in 1992. It took the United States about 90 years from the formation of its first government in 1790 – and a bloody civil war – to congeal from a collection of regions into a nation.

So Europe has time to get this right. Just as Europe has reinvented the nation-state and its relationship to the supra-state, Europe has a chance to creatively reinvent styles of executive leadership that are uniquely adapted to the challenges of this old-young continent.