Our Time is Not Over

An Interview with Romano Prodi on European Leadership

Mali: Holding elections in July difficult but desirable, Romano Prodi tells MEPs
Our Time is Not Over : An Interview with Romano Prodi on European Leadership - Mario Brataj, Valeria Calderoni, Maria Kalina Oroschakoff & John Ulrich


As president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi played a crucial role in the creation of a shared European currency and in the 2004 eastern enlargement of the European Union (EU). Twice prime minister of Italy, he set his country on the path toward adopting the euro. On February 15, 2011, he sat down with the Bologna Center Journal of International Affairs to explain why it is so difficult to lead Italy, why Europe lacks strong EU-level leaders and a “single voice,” and why Europe’s time as a global leader is not yet over.

This year’s Bologna Center Journal of International Affairs focuses on leadership. How do you define leadership in concept and practice?

Leadership is multifaceted, and it would be wrong to think of it as a single idea. I think it changes depending on the situation. I have seen leaders who speak little but yet recognize the right moment to act. On the other hand, I have seen leaders who hold press conferences three times a day but who are ineffective. 

I feel that there is one crucial feature of leadership that is often overlooked: the ability to simplify problems. You must boil complex issues down to a yes-or-no framework. You have to be understood, followed, and agreed with, and you must bring people to understand the issues a country is facing. This is at least true for politics, but I think it is the same in business.

Of course I assume that you are asking me how leadership is defined in the context of a democratic state. The basis for my answer became clear to me when I met former German chancellor Helmut kohl, who has an amazing ability to simplify complicated issues. On the euro, his message was, “This is for Europe, and it is good,” and he offered very simple reasons to back it up. He did not analyze the technical aspects, nor did he inject any doubts.

Is Italy experiencing a lack of leadership right now?

Based on the definition I have established, there is certainly no lack of leadership in the person or character of President Silvio Berlusconi. Although we are cut from a different cloth, he clearly shows leadership. He is quite good at simplifying messages and turning issues into clear-cut dichotomies. When Berlusconi speaks on television, he makes things simple, almost naive. For instance, when he talks about taxes, he never says that taxation is a nuanced issue with many dimensions. Instead, he is more likely to say, “Taxation is bad,” and then offer a straightforward ex- planation. But, clearly, leadership can also go in the wrong direction—as, I think, is true in this case.

The left-wing coalition in Italy has often experienced a lack of cohesion. Why do you think that is?

This is a problem that has nothing to do with leadership. In a loose coalition with diverging interests, no leader can unify the situation. In 2006, my coalition in government was composed of nine parties, and in the Senate we had only one more seat than the opposition. Add to that the presence of marginal members who are always tempted to move in another direction, and you are faced with a hundred different scenarios, each of which can end your government. In this environment, it is simply impossible to exercise simplification, the first necessity of leadership. You can be a very, very good general, but if you have no weapons, you lose the war.

Today we face the same boiling situation, but we are witnessing a reaction by civil society. I don’t see a top-down exercise of leadership, but I do see a very fertile, very promising people’s movement. In Italian, one would call it a stato nascente (nascent state), which is new and promising. However, they have yet to form a clear, unified voice and will face the same problems of diverging leaders and lack of simplified vision.

Leadership in large institutions typically proves to be an even more difficult task than in an individual country. What is your opinion of the state of leadership, or lack thereof, in the European union?

There are many strong leaders in Europe, but there are few at the pan-European, or specifically, at the EU, level. Leaders in the EU have neglected to position themselves on a “Europe first” plat- form. Why? For that, we need to look at the European electorate. For the past four to eight years, public opinion in Europe has been progressively dominated by fear. I would argue that it is mainly fear of immigrants and unemployment. This is a more tangible fear, more so than the fear of military threats. This inclines leaders—especially in the newer democracies—to follow opinion polls and forecasts. These are the elements guiding European democracy at the moment, and they can, for example, partially explain the German response to the Greek crisis. As a consequence of these developments, the state of leadership in Europe is what I would call barometric. Leaders follow public pressure instead of displaying leadership. They want to be strong in their own countries, and so they follow the fluctuating moods of their electorates. It is consequently impossible to have European leaders.

Do you think that the dream of a Europe with a single voice will ever materialize?

For now, simply, no. Europe’s progress is stalled because of the broader political situation. Again, take the Greek situation as an example. People understand that there is no alternative to “saving” Greece, so you have this fantastic contradiction that, first the Germans were against any bailout of Greece, and then only later after long negotiations was a fund made available to help solve the matter. In the context of Europe, as we say in Italian, hanno sbattuto la testa contro la parete (you need to hit your head against the wall), in order to make progress. But herein we also find one of the greatest European qualities: democracy. It moves slowly, but it moves in the right direction.

Do you think that the recent events in North Africa could provide an opportunity for the EU to assert itself in the region and on the world stage?

No, I do not. Europe’s self-limited role in the region makes me furious. Let us first consider the EU’s Mediterranean policy. The problem is that there is no money and no real will to engage on behalf of a common Mediterranean policy. While this is understandable in today’s economic cli- mate, I think there still needs to be some kind of policy.

When I was president of the European Commission, I made simple, relatively inexpensive proposals to strengthen the EU’s role in the region. For example, I supported the ideas of creating a Mediterranean Bank as a way to promote cooperation with the gulf countries or establishing twin universities in the north and South with an active, mixed exchange of university students and professors from both regions. Yet nobody wanted these kinds of institutions at the time. Perhaps the fear of immigration from the South will be the driver of a more active, cohesive, and serious engagement with the Mediterranean region. But, on a more pessimistic note, I do not see any real efforts for the creation of a tangible policy so far.

You spent some time at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). How do you assess Europe’s global role as the United States experiences a relative decline and China grows in power?

Drawing from my experience, China has always been in favor of the European union as a balance to the United States. In a way, they see Europe as an instrument for the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world. For example, when the euro was being introduced, the Chinese welcomed it, for very understandable reasons. I remember the Chinese president telling me at a summit that he wanted the euro because China wants to live in a world in which more than one country has power. Last year, a highly ranked Chinese official told me that he was disappointed because, he said, “We [the Chinese] hope for Europe to become a major actor on the international stage, but we don’t see it happening.” this may help explain why, for the Chinese, bilateral meetings with Germany have taken precedent over meetings with the EU.

China itself is already exercising a progressive political leadership. The Chinese prime minister once told me at a meeting, “I know the rules. No decision can be made at this table unless I am sitting at it.”

What about the role of Turkey and its relations with the EU?

Turkey is a special case because of the role that national public opinions and perceptions have played. There is a popular sentiment of unease towards Turkey in many EU countries, and perceptions do matter on the popular level. On the policy level, Turkey is very big, and so it was feared that all regional and agricultural funding would be allocated to Turkey. Meaningful political implications must be taken into account as well. For example, the moment Turkey enters the EU, it would have the most seats in the European Parliament.

Things have also changed recently on the Turkish side. Turkey emphasizes friendly relations with Europe over membership in the union. Negotiations will continue, but they are no longer a priority. This is because turkey seems to be growing as a regional power. Regarding foreign policy, it seeks to avoid being surrounded by enemies, which means that relations with Syria, Iran and other regional players take priority, and turkey’s influence with Europe increases as a result. But in any case, I hope that the negotiation for membership will go on.

Can you talk about the current state of the euro and EU economic policy?

The euro is by all means a necessity for euro-zone members, and economic integration is too far advanced to think of disintegration. For example, Germany might be inclined to think that it could per- form better outside of the EU and that Europe is a straitjacket. However, I have analyzed how important the euro has been to the German economy. When it comes to making real decisions, those with a stake in the economic development of their country, like Volkswagen executives and bankers, will always vote in favor of staying in the euro zone. They would be lost without it.

Still, when you have a monetary union and diverging fiscal behavior for each state, you need to reinforce the instruments of common economic policy in order to compel member states to converge. A European fiscal system is a necessity, and it will materialize eventually, but we cannot do it in a day. The digestive capacity of our people is limited, and our ability to adapt to change is limited. Not long after the institution of the euro, the mood changed, the leaders changed, and now we find ourselves in a situation in which we have a monetary union but no tax coordination. Europe will never be a federal state like the United States, but it is clear that we need to adjust diverging economies, and we need to work with a coordinated budget.

Do you think it takes a crisis for Europe to come together?

Certainly. We grow through crises. But then this is politics, the only language that leaders understand.

Do you envision a pro-EU leader emerging out of the current economic crisis?

If we continue to improve through crises, then yes, a leader could emerge. I think that we did improve this year: we are now at the negotiating table, attempting to avoid the destruction of the euro. If you want to put it in a positive context, the crisis has brought about some collective action. Europe has agreed to fund the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) with €440 million plus another €70 million available to the Commission, with more coming from the IMF. That’s a big pot. With so much money, you have real protection against demolition.

Romano Prodi is currently president of the Foundation for Worldwide Cooperation and chairman of the United Nations-African Union Panel for Peacekeeping in Africa. He was president of the European Commission from 1999-2005 and prime minister of Italy from 1996-1998 and 2006-2008. He is a long-standing member of the Bologna Center Advisory Council, and the Center is honored to welcome him as a perennial guest speaker. This interview was conducted and compiled by Mario Brataj, Valeria Calderoni, Maria Kalina Oroschakoff, and John Ulrich, all first-year M.A. candidates at SAIS Bologna Center.