Who’s Europe’s most powerful leader?

Macron continues thrusting himself forward, but neither his countrymen nor the rest of Europe appear to embrace his attempt at preeminence

By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli

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French President Emmanuel Macron. — AFP
French President Emmanuel Macron. — AFP

Published: Mon 21 Nov 2022, 10:12 PM

One European media outlet’s annual poll of readers on who is Europe’s most powerful leader used to be entirely predictable – it was clearly German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Many thought she filled a void left when the United States seemed to step back from its role as the leader of Western Democracies. Long a comforting, steady figure on the world stage, she retired last year, throwing the issue into question.

Grasping for a new figure to wear the crown of most powerful, the same publication selected Italy’s Mario Draghi at the start of this year, a choice instructive on many levels. Perhaps most of all it is an indication about how useful such lists are because Draghi didn’t last out the year as leader of Italy, let alone Europe. The selection also carried the inherent question of whether an appointed leader – Draghi led a “technocrat” government cobbled together using clauses in the Italian constitution – can be considered powerful if not affirmed by the direct support of the people.

This year could be even more fraught as Europe scrambles to deal with a range of pressing issues including an energy crisis, armed conflict on the continent, possible recession and the recurrent struggle with illegal immigration. There seems no reassuring figure, let alone one that could be charismatic or deeply respected enough to claim the title of most powerful.

Could it be French President Emmanuel Macron? He continues thrusting himself forward, but neither his countrymen nor the rest of Europe appear to embrace his attempt at preeminence. Germany has a new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, but Merkel’s shoes might be too big for him, at least at this point. The United Kingdom has been anything but steady as it attempts to recover from the shortest-serving government in its storied history, the tenure of Conservative Party leader Liz Truss, which lasted just six weeks.

A case could be made for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as well as European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde, but the former is constrained by national leaders of European member nations and the other has no military or diplomatic corps.

One criterion in the selection process could be how popular a leader is at home, support that could possibly translate to prestige or confidence in international leadership. If that consideration were the sole one used today the title would belong to Italy’s newly elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the only leader of a European country in the most recent Morning Consult Political Intelligence poll with an approval rating at home above 50 percent.

Macron of France is current polling at a 32 per cent approval rate while Scholz of Germany is even more dismal with a 29 per cent approval among those surveyed.

Then there is the consideration of what would actually constitute “power”. The biggest army? The most money? The most credible?

History is much easier to judge after the long-term impacts are evaluated. And consider just a partial list of truly powerful European leaders: Alexander the Great, Emperor Augustus, Emperor Constantine, Charlemagne, Isabella I of Castile, Napoleon Bonaparte, Vladimir Lenin, Winston Churchill.

With those names keeping it in perspective, a better criterion for today should be who has the most influence, and that opens the discussion up to those beyond the political sphere. According to Forbes magazine, Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is at present the most influential person in Western Europe as leader of the 1.3 billion Catholics living across the globe. And it is not just the numbers. The Pope has earned the respect of non-Catholics as well through his humanity, compassion and authenticity. When he has something to say, people worldwide listen.

On an entirely different front, a case for most influential right now could be made for Margrethe Vestager, who has the European commission job of Executive Vice President for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age.

The leader who has clearly had the biggest impact on Europe this year is Vladimir Putin of Russia. While technically part of Europe due to its contiguous landmass, Russia is often considered a distinct region, so the search for most powerful European leader could exclude him. Even so, his influence on the continent is unmistakable as conflict continues in Ukraine and Europe struggles with a subsequent energy crisis.

Yet in the end, are such titles useful or even relevant in the real world of today? They might be fun for pundits and help generate website clicks, but as Draghi’s ill-fated elevation as the “most powerful” last year shows, it’s largely a parlour game for debate amongst insiders.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy

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