UU Future of Europe #2: From moral battles to adaptive leadership

Handshake with European flag

70 years after the Schuman Declaration, we commemorate the construction of a united Europe. Europe now faces a crisis which makes the unprecedented debate surrounding the identity of Europe even more important and complex. By sharing different perspectives for grasping Europe’s history, core values and current fragility, we hope to shed a light on the possible scenarios for moving forward.  

In this second contribution to the blog series #UUFutureEurope, PhD candidates Marij Swinkels - who is doing research on the role of ideas of European political leaders in managing the Eurozone crisis - and Jorrit Steehouder - working on a dissertation about European economic cooperation between 1940 and 1950 - elaborate on the value of adaptive leadership in the European Union. 

In this Future of Europe blog series, researchers reflect on Europe’s future in relation to the current Covid-19 crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents European leaders with new challenges to portray ‘Europe’ as the project of shared norms, values and interests that it historically is. Nationally elected leaders are gauging each other’s commitment to the European project by mud-throwing and criticizing each other’s financial and economic policies. These moral battles expose a more fundamental problem in Europe that roots in the dynamics of European crisismanagement: how to generate a convergence of ideas among 27 European leaders to deal with the (economic) challenges resulting from the new Covid-19 crisis?

European crisis management

Crises often beget a centralization of decision-making authority. The formal structures of ‘business as usual’ in government are deemed too slow and disjointed; people look to their top political and organizational leaders to take charge. In the EU, this logic of crisis-induced centralization or ‘contracted’ authority does not exist, as leadership roles and responsibilities are highly dispersed, and centralized decision-making structures are rather absent. As such, effective crisismanagement in an EU-context results from leaders coming to shared ideas on both causes, effects and solutions to a crisis. The current crisis makes this struggle painfully visible again. For example, when some leaders tabled ‘Eurobonds’ as a potential solution to the economic challenges of Covid-19, nothing but a ‘war of ideas’ waged with moral arguments emerged.

Political leaders meet on Armistice Day
World leaders on Armistice Day 2018

A key challenge of European leadership in times of crises is to bring ideas together in a leaderful polity. In effect, what Europe currently needs in dealing with the consequences of Covid-19, is collaborative, adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership transcends the ‘fire-fighting’-mode in battling the current crisis, dares European leaders to step over their own shadow, and have them come up with new ideas for the future of Europe. Europe’s history, in that regard, can teach us some lessons. 

Competing narratives on solidarity

As Jean Monnet, originator of the European project, already said: the future of Europe may be determined by the outcomes of the crises it experiences. The legacies of past (economic) crises have led to repetitive competing narratives on the benefits of European integration in member states. Which led to EU leaders fighting conflicts in the EU public discourse, rather than seeking common ground.

One example of competing narratives in the current crisis is the Dutch narrative of rule-based solidarity and ‘Southern spenders’, as opposed to a narrative of unconditional solidarity that Southern Europe’s leaders tried to evoke in the wake of Covid-19, by calling for a new ‘Marshall Plan’. These kind of moralizing narratives on European economic policy have led to increased polarization of ideas within the EU, and constrains the EU’s leeway to fundamentally address the insecurities that the crisis instigates.

Moreover, it seems to result in failed EU crisismanagement and increases both the geopolitical risks for the future of the EU and the Eurozone. So how can Europe overcome this moral mud-throwing and determine the outcomes of the crisis?

The need for adaptive leadership

To determine the outcomes of this crisis, EU leaders need to focus on broader questions about how Europe wants to emerge from this crisis. That urges EU leaders to lead ‘adaptively’. In effect, they face the important task of ‘navigating fault lines’: managing conflicts rather than publicly fighting these conflicts and continue to present competing narratives on the morals of solidarity. Only when European leaders present the EU as a shared moral project – instead of the conflicting set of morals over economic policy that emerged over the past decade – can such challenges be truly addressed.

Failing to bridge competing narratives could mean that EU leaders stick to debates on solutions at the level of ready-to-use policy instruments and incentives. Such ‘technocratic leadership’ leads to short-sighted crises responses, and limits the debate on instruments that could be adopted to fight the potential devastating outcomes of this crisis.

How can Europe overcome the current moral mud-throwing?

Marshall Plan poster
Poster for Marshall Plan from the Economic Cooperation Administration

If the EU does not move away from such technical leadership, a chance for true reforms on the EU level will be unlikely. Merely ‘waving the scepter of morality’ will yet again show the European incapacities to manage a crisis and come to shared ideas. Dealing with the economic consequences of Covid-19 is not a question of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Eurobonds, it is not a ‘technical issue’ or a question of who’s morals are better, it is a question of adaptive leadership. In this regard, history has a lesson to teach.

A present day Marshall Plan?

In recent months, several leaders have called for a new Marshall Plan that might help save Europe – most notably Ursula von der Leyen. The original plan, initiated with a speech by Secretary of State George C. Marshall at Harvard University on 5 June 1947, hinged on U.S. leadership of the new international liberal order. Today, it still stands as an excellent model of adaptive leadership. This time, however, with the international liberal order of the late 1940s decaying, leadership to overcome the current crisis has to come from within Europe.

Some of Europe's key leaders seem to have understood the call for adaptive leadership.

In that sense, Von der Leyen was right to call for a contemporary European Marshall Plan. The original plan helped Europe to overcome the ‘fire-fighting’-mode of post-war economic reconstruction in the late 1940s. As such, Marshall Aid alleviated Europe’s immediate needs (in terms of food, raw materials, and industrial equipment) and it enabled Europe to examine and overcome its shared long-term economic problems. The most tangible result was a new intra-European payments mechanism (the European Payments Union, EPU), which allowed for increased intra-European trade and economic growth. Another key tenet of the original Marshall Plan was that economic aid was extended mostly as a grant, thus not burdening recipient-countries with large debts.

Towards a convergence of ideas among EU leaders

Like Von der Leyen, two of Europe’s key leaders, Merkel and Macron, seem to have understood the call for adaptive leadership. In the Merkel-Macron plan, the European Commission will establish a fund worth 500 billion euro’s – to be borrowed by the EU as a whole. The money will then be used to extend loans to countries in need. Merkel explicitly noted that in difficult times, you have to “stick up for an idea”, and in this case it was the “idea of Europe”. Merkel’s U-turn shows her capacity to move beyond competing narratives and make room for adaptive EU-leadership, daring to start the debate about this move in the Bundestag.

Von der Leyen’s recovery plan for the European economy goes even further than that. She wants to establish a 750 billion euro-fund, of which 500 billion euro will be extended as grants to the countries in need - just as under the original Marshall Plan.

The first signs of adaptive leadership automatically led to a wave of protest, most notably by the ‘frugal four’ group of countries. However, now that the first signs of adaptive leadership are visible, it may widen the scope of the debate on how the EU wants to emerge from the current crisis. Beyond a debate of competing morals, towards a convergence of ideas among EU leaders.

Rethinking Europe: exchanging ideas on Europe’s future

Following the European initiative for a conference on the future of the EU, more scholars from Utrecht University will share their thoughts on the Future of Europe in the following weeks, offering different perspectives and covering different fields of studies. 

Are you interested in sharing your (academic) perspective on the Future of Europe as well? You are more than welcome to contribute to our blog series, #UUFutureEurope.

Contact us about a contribution to this series