Helmut Schmidt on (Lack of) Leadership

Last June, Helmut Schmidt – the chain-smoking almost 92-year-old former Chancellor of (then West) Germany in the 1970s – reminded everyone he was still alive by chastising European national leaders for choosing “Mr Nobody” and “Mrs Nobody” to implement the much-awaited Lisbon Treaty and boldly lead the Union into the 21st Century.

He recently gave another interview where he criticizes near everything and everyone in Europe, and in particular, a German political class he considers skittish and short-sighted. He begins, saying that “the present German government is composed of people who are learning their business on the job. They have no previous experience in world political affairs or in world economic affairs.” As for the dour officials at the Bundesbank, “[i]n their innermost heart they are reactionaries. They are against European integration.” More generally, German leaders “tend to act and react too much under the aspect of national interests and haven’t understood the strategic necessity of European integration.”

In addition, he bemoans the lack of visible leaders in European institutions as well, repeating the jibes at the European Council President and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy:

We have seen this complex Lisbon treaty, many things have happened and at the same time figures who could lead have become scarce. One very important figure was Jacques Delors. He has been replaced by people whose name one doesn’t really know. And the same goes for permanent secretaries and the chairmen of various commissions and for prime ministers and – what is his name – van Rompuy? And he has a so-called foreign secretary – a British lady, her name is not necessary to know either. The same goes, more or less, for the European Parliament. The only figure who sticks out in the European institutions is [Jean-Claude] Trichet. I’m not sure how strong he is inside the European Central Bank, but as far as I can see, he hasn’t made a major mistake so far.

I have a feeling this has more to do with time, place and the power of a position than the personalities themselves. Trichet and Delors, after all, started out about as colorless as a Barroso or a Van Rompuy. The difference, it seems to me, is the former two had important jobs – the one creating the Single Market and the Euro in the momentous years that were the end of the the Cold War, the other setting policy for a currency area second only to the U.S. economy in importance – while the latter two are mere “occupants”. The peoples of Europe cannot give them a mandate, the States have not given them one, so they manage rather than lead. Although WikiLeaks has also revealed the penchant to use Brussels to exile “lame duck” political colleagues, in this case Merkel’s choice of Gunther Oettinger as Energy Commissioner.

He predicts 51% chance of a “core Union” being formed with France, Germany and the Benelux countries, probably not many others, with perhaps even a common foreign policy. I’m rather skeptical, but Europe “à la carte” has been a reality for some time, with States picking and choosing what they want to be a part of, from membership of the Eurozone to the Schengen area. This trend is continuing. Just recently 11 States, refusing to be stalled by the others, are moving ahead to create a common European patent.

As to the British attitude towards Europe – and America – he answers that

Fundamentally I think de Gaulle was right […] I used to believe in British common sense and state rationale… I was brought up in a very Anglophile way. I was a great supporter of Edward Heath who brought Britain into the European community. But then we had Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, who didn’t always behave so sensibly. And then we had Tony Blair who brought himself into a position of far too great a dependence on America. You can’t have this dependence on America and at the same time play a responsible role in Europe. The British have always been good, though, at muddling through – and this is what we are doing now in Europe, muddling through.

I have a very similar feeling. There was a time when British Statesmen thought of themselves as Europeans. I am thinking here in particular of the Tories, who once upon a time, would take pride in cultivating their French and embraced a “One-Nation” conservatism quite close to Continental Christian Democratic tradition. No nonsense about society “not existing” or the demonization of government. Since then the Thatcher-Blair line has triumphed, involving total identification with whoever happens to be occupying the White House, without it ever being particularly obvious what benefits this brings to Britons. Reagan and Bush assiduously ignored Thatcher’s concerns – whether on Grenada, the Falklands or German reunification – while Blair has nothing to show from his relationship with Bush than a ruined personal legacy and lots of body bags.

A lot of rather grey prospects then. Also see Charlie Rose’s time-capsule interview with Schmidt from 1999. He discusses, in flawless English, German reunification, the Euro, forecasts (relatively accurate too) and so on. There’s a few quaintly retro elements, Schmidt can’t resist smoking inside the studio and Rose asks questions like “Do you know what Amazon dot com is? It’s an internet company that sells lots of books, lots of books.”

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