Europe’s leaders have woken up to hard power

Janan Ganesh: It is voters, not politicians, who set the bounds of what is possible

Not enough is said about the other Donald T.

Having led Poland between 2007 and 2014, Donald Tusk can take some credit as his nation approaches western European standards of living. Now in his second stint, Ukraine has no more vociferous friend in the world. Talk of Poland as the eventual heir to Britain – a pro-market, pro-American and martial voice in the EU – seems rash. It has around half the population and less diplomatic clout. But Tusk’s ease in those institutions as a former Brussels grandee narrows the gap.

Whatever Europe lacks as it tries to become a hard power, it isn’t leadership. Even aside from Tusk, Ursula von der Leyen has been a strong wartime president of the European Commission. With the zeal of a convert, Emmanuel Macron now sees the Kremlin is implacable. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are so as one on Ukraine that the subject never arises in British politics. As an Italian populist, Giorgia Meloni could be a Russia apologist. She isn’t. Even Olaf Scholz, the alleged ditherer, has seen Germany become easily Europe’s largest donor of military aid to Ukraine on his watch.

The high politics aren’t perfect. There are always grounds for a tired metaphor about the Franco-German engine sputtering and so on. But these schisms add up to a rounding error next to the real problem, which is, I’m afraid, us.


To militarise as much as it needs to, Europe needs its citizens to bear higher taxes or a smaller welfare state. For a sense of how likely this is, consider that France’s largest protests this century were both against budget-tightening measures: a fuel tax in 2018, a raise in the public pension age in 2023.

The UK has a high tax burden by its own standards, and that is after 14 years of a right-of-centre government. As for Germany, its economic model, always a tad overpraised on Britain’s credulous left, turns out to have bet on Russian inputs and Chinese demand. Boxed-in financially like this – I haven’t mentioned the costs of the green transition – who thinks voters will prioritise rearmament?

To quote still a third Donald – Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary – there is a “new” Europe. In the Russia-exposed east and centre of the continent, electorates are willing to forgo other things for hard power. But the fate of Europe is still to a large extent set by that oligopoly of countries with populations of 60 million and above. There is little to suggest their electorates are willing to accept a rupture of the welfarist social contract in order to tool up.

In one sense, Europe has already implicitly conceded this. It could have done more to deny Russia revenue after the invasion of Ukraine. It could have clamped down on energy imports. But it was decided that voters wouldn’t bear the utility bills (or the deferred taxes to meet the cost of subsidising them). That judgment was accurate, no doubt. And that is the issue.

“Leaders must lead, not follow,” you will say, but that is always a dreamy view of politics. If I may digress into trade secrets for a moment, the hardest part of writing an unsigned newspaper editorial is the last third or so. Having set out a problem – migration, say – one has to suggest an answer. But these problems endure for a reason. Solutions are elusive. If one exists, it will be unpopular. And so all that is left is a call for more “leadership”.

This is the most overused word in politics. The extent to which the public are ever “led” against their preferences is overstated by romantics. Franklin Roosevelt was as close as it gets to a perfect politician, and he couldn’t coax Americans into the second World War until the Empire of Japan rather precipitated matters. It is voters who set the bounds of what is possible. Real-world events change their minds, not rhetoric from above. If Europe is to honour its great-power plans, something will have to happen that makes defence spending seem a truly existential matter to Brits and Germans, as it is does for Poles and Estonians.

There is good news to be had. Europe is well-led (compare its main figures with those of the US). In two years, the elite has made a near-total intellectual conversion from trade as the balm for all conflicts to the eternal verities of power politics.

The bad news is that leaders can only ever do so much against public sentiment. Scholz’s “historic turning point” took place in chancelleries. We don’t know if it took place in households. I can’t shake from my mind a quote attributed to another European leader, in another era, in another context. “We all know what to do. But we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024