Pop quiz: Who is the president of the European Council?
Jose Manuel Barroso? No, he is the president of the European Commission.
The identity of the European Council president is a mystery to many people — and that is telling. It represents an opportunity missed by European policymakers and a lesson learned for anyone considering what traits to consider when looking for a leader.
The Treaty of Lisbon, signed in 2007, changed the nature of the European Council presidency. A position that had previously rotated every six months among the heads of state of various members became an elected office with a tenure lasting two and a half years. This change brought about a division in how policymakers viewed the presidency. Some thought the position called for someone happy to play a more administrative role, operating outside the spotlight. Others however, thought that if Europe was to be considered an equal to global powers such as the U.S. and China, the European Council president should be someone ready, willing and able to speak on behalf of the whole of Europe.
Name recognition and gravitas were important to those hoping the first European Council president would raise the profile of the position and make it one of global heavyweight. Though he hailed from outside the eurozone, early speculation on who would fill the role centered on Tony Blair. Blair’s run as British prime minister came to an end in 2007, so many thought his household name and experience made him an excellent choice to assume the first long-term presidency of the European Council in 2009.
In the lead-up to the election of the first European Council president, Blair remained a heavy favorite: Then politics came into play. A new line of thinking emerged that called for the European Council president to be from a smaller country. Smaller European nations needed to be given a means by which they could counter the power larger countries such as France and Germany already enjoyed. Detractors saw Blair as part of the “big country” power structure and feared he wasn’t the sort to be comfortable staying out of the limelight.
Fast-forward to the sovereign-debt crisis currently gripping Europe. While the drama has manifest itself in the financial markets, the failure to find a solution can rightfully be attributed to politics. An endless onslaught of stop-gap measures has failed to calm financial markets while many national leaders have appeared more keen to assign blame than fix the problem. A crisis that has claimed the scalps of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Greece’s George Papandreou has seen German Chancellor Angela Merkel and — to a lesser extent — French President Nicolas Sarkozy amass tremendous power. The euro is neck-deep in trouble, yet where is the European Council president? Where is the leader who could be speaking for all of Europe?
The name of the man seemingly missing in action is Herman Van Rompuy. As the prime minister of Belgium, Van Rompuy won election to the European Council presidency primarily because he fits the bill as an administrative type from a smaller European country. Unfortunately, he is also acting like an administrative type from a small country, failing to act as a counterweight to Merkel and Sarkozy. Van Rompuy certainly has been in attendance at all the important meetings, but perhaps The Economist characterized his involvement best when it labeled him a “fixer” for Merkel and Sarkozy.
Now, more than ever, Europe needs a leader with clout. A leader with the political savvy to bring debtor and creditor nations together to find a resolution that works. A leader, who despite his “outsider” origins, is devoted to the grand idea of Europe. A leader who is not afraid of telling the general populace some hard truths. In essence … a leader who is unafraid of being unpopular.
That sounds a lot like a certain former British prime minister.