The governing structure of the European Union is undoubtedly the most complex in the history of the world. In his new book, Leadership in the European Union, Jean De Ruyt has done an outstanding job of explaining the evolution of the EU institutions from 1963 to the present, as well as what they now can and cannot do. At the same time, De Ruyt focuses specifically on leadership, past and present in the EU, and provides candid assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of many who have occupied the top positions.
De Ruyt is uniquely qualified to undertake this analysis. Throughout his long diplomatic career, he has been widely regarded as an expert on the intricacies of the European Union. Among his many governmental posts, De Ruyt was the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the EU between 2007 and 2011; and he has published texts on the European Union. Currently, he is a senior European Advisor for the law firm of Covington & Burling and is on the Board of Advisors of McLarty Associates.
On the matter of complexity, De Ruyt doesn’t pull any punches. He asserts that “very few people understand the complex workings of the European institutions.” And for good reason. There is an European Council which has a President; a European Commission with its own President; a Parliament; and a High Representative For Foreign Affairs and Security Policy with very extensive responsibilities “on paper.”
The core reason for this hodgepodge, as De Ruyt points out, is the reluctance of the individual members of the EU to cede power to the Union. According to De Ruyt, “Institutional leaders have only been given real power in a piecemeal, step-by-step fashion.” The EU members would like the benefits that cooperation can provide while retaining their sovereignty. Unfortunately, as estates law professor Clark of Yale once said, “You can’t both give it and keep it.”
For Americans, De Ruyt’s book comes at a timely moment. The hugely successful Broadway show, Hamilton, has focused attention on the formation of our political union. At the end of the day, Virginia, Massachusetts, and the other states were willing to yield their independence in ways that the European nations have thus far not been willing to do.
To some extent, leadership is a critical factor. We were fortunate to have individuals with powerful leadership abilities at the time that the institutions were still in the formative stage. The individuals were able to shape the institutions.
In Europe, in contrast, De Ruyt discusses some outstanding leaders such as Herman Von Rompuy. But they were limited in what they could accomplish because the institutional structure already in place was a virtual strait jacket. An exception is Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank who has acted far beyond the limits imposed on the ECB; and he has not been challenged in his exercise of power.
The reality is that Europe already has two presidents: the president of the council and the president of the commission. But on the other hand, as De Ruyt opines, “the institutional leadership in the Union would obviously be enhanced if there was a real ‘President of Europe.’” Similarly, the High Representative has responsibility for security and foreign affairs. Yet, in the refugee crisis, German Chancellor Merkel operated as the de facto European President and Foreign Minister. And rather than seeking joint EU action, “France did not hesitate to deploy troops unilaterally in Africa,” De Ruyt writes.
Jean De Ruyt’s book is even more remarkable because he is characterizing a Union in great flux. First, the fiscal austerity crisis and then the Middle Eastern refugee issue have threatened to rip the EU apart. Now Europe is confronting the looming vote on Brexit. Developments in Europe have a considerable impact on the United States. For this reason, Leadership in the European Union is essential reading.