24th Jan 2020


When trust is low, 'servant leadership' is the answer

What can the member states do to address the rampant lack of trust that reigns supreme between them?

I have argued in these pages that Europe is a structurally unstable continent in which nations have very little trust in each other.

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  • It's a fact that European leaders don't trust other European leaders with their money, their security or their borders (Photo: German Marshall Fund)

America's presence in Europe alleviated this for more than two generations which is why, since the late 1940s, the ever-present mistrust wasn't as blatantly on the surface of European affairs as it had been the norm during 2,000 years of history before that.

Also, since the 1950s, Europeans used the EU framework to integrate those policy fields that required hard compromise but never touched upon the core of the member states' sovereignty: defence, immigration, and money.

Today, the EU's success is measured against whether it can find solutions in exactly these fields. These solutions would require a level of cooperation and, yes, integration, hitherto unheard of.

The hard truth is: the EU needs to succeed in precisely those fields in which its classic integration approach is least likely to work.

As nation states will not disappear any time soon, two major obstacles stand in the way of that kind of success: first, the fact that many politicians believe that they can't sell more Europe to their electorates.

Second, the fact that European leaders don't trust other European leaders with their money, their security or their borders.

Poland does not trust Germany on defence, the Germans don't trust the Italians on money, and nobody trusts that France's nuclear weapons can become a pan-European deterrent.

German dominance in the eurozone is eyed with suspicion and has triggered bloc-building and counter-balancing. In turn, Germany fears that the European Interventon Initiative (E2I), introduced by France, or the Three Seas project, masterminded by Poland, could undermine the institutional framework regulating defence in Europe.

President Emmanuel Macron's overtures to Moscow have triggered fear and consternation in central Europe and Scandinavia.

So has Germany's fierce defence of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. After France's 'no' to enlargement, the Balkan region has lost all confidence in Western Europe's willingness to let them join the club.

Croatia won't accept North Macedonia's new name. Spain wants Gibraltar back. The Irish fear that they will eventually be thrown under the bus in that endless Brexit nightmare. And on goes the list of Europe bleeding trust wherever one casts the eye.

With America's old trust infusion slowly disappearing (and the chances of it ever returning unclear) who can supply the magic ingredient that could make Europe whole again?

The answer is as sobering as it is simple: only the Europeans can do so. Because if they don't, someone else will, and none of the non-American contenders, Russia and China, offer options that could possibly appeal to the Europeans.

So, whoever thought that Europe was a 'done deal', could not have erred more dramatically. The true historic task of Europe still lies ahead: to create enough trust that a structurally unstable continent can stay stable on the inside and secure on the outside without any offshore balancers or external protectors to bail them out.

Europe's historic track record of achieving this is...(drum roll) And yet it has to be done if we don't want a massive return of the kind of history Europeans know so well.

But how?

Servant leadership

The only feasible way is that the bigger member states exercise what I will call 'servant leadership'.

This is a concept my co-author and me used in a book published in Germany in 2017. It means that the richer, larger, more powerful member states have to be willing to accept their larger power and importance while not exploiting it.

They must be ready to compromise a bit earlier and pay a little more than the rules compel already them to do. They must credibly demonstrate to the smaller member states that they are in it it with them, and that giving up the small short-term gain will, in the long term, pay off handsomely for all.

This is an idealistic vision. But the entire European idea rests on ideals that are rooted in the bitter lessons from history that was very real.

You don't have to be a heart-bleeding idealist to be pro-European, you just have to remind yourself of a Europe without the European idea. Then the brutally realist core of European idealism becomes visible at once.

Very soon, the chance will come up for the bigger member states (and for those who aspire to be big) to prove that they understand the sheer size of the task they have been handed by history.

And it comes in the guise of the most boring, most technical issue the EU has to offer: the negotiations over its budget - the multiannual financial framework (MFF).

The MFF determines how much money can be spent by the EU over seven years, starting in 2021. But in reality, the MFF is much more than a budget plan. It is the living proof of how much aspiration and ambition the member states still have for the EU.

Nowhere become the real inclinations of governments clearer than it their budgets. The MFF is the chance for the bigger member states to demonstrate that they are ready to lead.

And it is the moment where the smaller ones must decide what leadership they want to follow. The MFF will tell all of us how much our leaders believe the EU is worth.

It will be a crucial indicator of how much our governments, i.e. we ourselves, are willing to pay to stabilise a structurally unstable continent. What sounds like a dull, technical issue is, in reality, a key indicator for how much value Europe's nations still attach to their "togetherness".

So far, the negotiations have been marred by jealousy, distrust and general small-mindedness.

But the moment has come to get serious about political trust, made in the EU. And the MFF lends itself in an ideal way to start production.

And mind you, there isn't too much time to waste if the EU wants to achieve what Europe, in all of its history, has never been able to accomplish: being a self-sustained peace machine.

Author bio

Jan Techau is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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