Mark Leonard: Europe’s “invisible hand”

Mark Leonard“Europe doesn’t change countries by threatening to invade them: its biggest threat is having nothing to do with them at all.”

Mark Leonard is the Executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a pan-European think tank set up in 2007. Leonard used to be the director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think thank where he focused on transatlantic relations, the Middle East and relations with China. Previously he was director of the Foreign Policy Centre, a think-tank he co-founded at age 24. His articles, published in many European and US media, can be accessed on his personal home page at

Mark Leonard’s book “Why Europe will run the 21st century” is a stimulating, concise, and well written work on the ascendancy of European (and the demise of American) power. Leonard reminds us that “in 1950 [US] GDP was twice the size of Western Europe’s and five time Japan’s; today its GDP is the same size as the EU’s and less than double that of Japan’s”). He looks at economic issues, at welfare, global diplomacy and warfare, and sees Europe in the front row. But he is also aware that his position is not mainstream:

“If you put the words ‘Europe’ and ‘crisis’ into the internet search engine Google, over four million entries come up. Newspapers have used the them together so often that they are almost interchangeable: on any day over the last fifty years there have been stories of divisions, failure to meet targets, diplomatic wrangles, a perpetual sense of failure. But historians tell a different story from journalists. They describe a continent with one of the most successful foreign policies in history. They tell us that, in just fifty years, war between European powers has become unthinkable; that European economies have caught up with America; and that Europe has brought successive waves of countries out of dictatorship and into democracy.

Because news is told by journalists rather than historians, European power is often confused with weakness.”

One of the key theses of Leonard’s book is that Europe’s power is intrinsically different from US power – and better fits the challenges of the 21st century. One reason for this is the way the EU (or rather its predecessors) was set up in the first place.

After the experience of World War II there was no wish for big charismatic leaders in Europe. One of the major contributions of Jean Monnet, one of the key architects of the new Europe, was “a vision of how not to have a vision.”

“He let the fear of conflict drive European unity and left its goal vague, allowing everyone to feel that Europe was going their way. To this day, Europe is a journey with no final destination, a political system that shies away from the grand plans and concrete certainties that define American politics. Its lack of vision is the key to its strength.

Monnet’s tactic was always to focus on technical details rather than the big political questions that attract headlines. He tried to tackle contentious issues by breaking them down into component parts – it is a lot easier to get agreement on coal and steel tariffs than war and peace. And once the governments of France and Germany were sucked into endless negotiations, they were less likely to go to war.

The best way to change the facts on the ground was through gradual change – what Monnet called engrenage. Each agreement to co-operate at a European level would lead inexorably to another agreement that deepened European integration.”

Borrowing Adam Smith’ famous concept of the “invisible hand of the market”, Leonard sees Monnet’s genius in having developed “a ‘European invisible hand’ that allows an orderly European society to emerge from each country’s national interest. And that is possibly the most powerful element of Monnet’s vision: he did not try to abolish the nation-state or nationalism – simply to change its nature by pooling sovereignty.”

For a visitor to the House of Commons in London, it might seem as if nothing in British politics has changed over the past few decades. However, as Leonard points out, an “invisible Europeanization of power” has taken place across the political spectrum in the UK. Up to a third of British legislation and two-thirds of economic and social legislation “are made by British ministers with their European colleagues in Brussels.”

Because national governments are the agents of European power carrying out European policies, the European Commission can remain small and discreet. The EC has barely half a civil servant per 10,000 citizens, compared to an average of one per 300 for national administrations.

“The European Union is about enhancing rather than destroying national identities. Brussels, the antithesis of an imperial capital, is in many ways a microcosm of Europe.”

The EU’s institutional legacy and its structure also render European power on the international arena different from the power of the United States – and, as Leonard argues – more powerful.

Describing the American engagement in Afghanistan as “power as spectacle”, Leonard concludes that “this kind of power is inefficient because it is always imposed on unwilling subjects from outside, rather than changing the wiring of society from the inside.”

Even in the US’ own neighbourhood, its policies have proved largely unsuccessful. “The United States has sent troops into its neighbours more than fifteen times over the last fifty years but many of the countries around it have barely changed.” More than three decades of America’s “war on drugs” and the $7.5 billion “Plan Colombia” have failed in producing the desired results.

“The overblown rhetoric directed at the ‘American Empire’ misses the fact that the US reach – militarily and diplomatically – is shallow and narrow. The lonely superpower can bribe, bully, or impose its will almost anywhere in the world, but when its back is turned, its potency wanes. The strength of the EU, conversely, is broad and deep: once sucked into its sphere of influence, countries are changed forever.”

The ex-communist countries of Eastern Europe are only the most recent and most dramatic example of such lasting change.

“Europe’s power is a ‘transformative power’ … The USA may have changed the regime in Afghanistan, but Europe is changing all of Polish society, from its economic policies and property laws to its treatment of minorities and what gets served on the nation’s tables.”

30 June 2009