Mario Draghi was not given the luxury of time to settle into his leadership of the European Central Bank (ECB). Presiding for the first time at a meeting of the ECB's governing council in November 2011, he cut interest rates. Rates were cut again the next month.
On 8 December, the governing council approved Draghi's dramatic plan to inject liquidity into Europe's banking system: the long-term refinancing operation (LTRO), which made three-year cheap loans available in December and February that together amounted to more than €1 trillion. It was an astonishing move, not least because Draghi was expected to be cautious. The impact of the LTRO measure was not at first appreciated, and its merits have since been much debated, but it undoubtedly bought the eurozone some welcome breathing space.
The president of the ECB is not elected to office, but appointed. Once appointed, he may make appearances before the European Parliament, and attend meetings of finance ministers, but he is independent of them. So his leadership is of a different kind from those of elected politicians. But in his brief time at the ECB, Draghi has already exerted considerable influence on events.
As chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel is the most powerful leader of the European Union's most powerful member state. How then does she use that power to exercise leadership in the EU? For observers of the EU's difficulties, Merkel's caution has been the most striking characteristic. She has seemed hamstrung both by domestic political considerations and by a fear of offending Germany's constitutional court. Yet she has maintained a dogged, persistent course, which culminated earlier this year in the conclusion of a fiscal compact treaty between 25 of the EU's 27 states. She had made this treaty on greater fiscal discipline her price for agreeing to a permanent bail-out fund for the eurozone.
The treaty requires member states to follow a German model of fiscal rigour, writing debt limits into primary law and agreeing to take tough corrective action.
Although at times during the eurozone debt crisis Merkel has risked imposing Germany's Weltanschauung on the entire EU and, in some parts of the EU, anti-German sentiment has flared, the eurozone has not broken apart and the EU has held together.
For that, Merkel's style of firm, soft-spoken leadership can take some credit. She has done just enough to sugar the pill, while administering the medicine.
Mario Monti is the accidental leader, albeit one whose leadership looks perfectly suited to the circumstances. The economics professor became prime minister of Italy only because the financial markets lost patience with Silvio Berlusconi, but he has established himself with astonishing sureness of touch.
His support for fiscal discipline is unsurprising. As a former European commissioner – for two terms – he is conditioned to know the rules of the European Union and to ensure that they are observed. What has been perhaps more striking is his political sensitivity. From very early on, he has shown awareness that austerity alone is not enough and that growth must be part of the eurozone's prescription.
At home, he has been pushing through reforms that would bring Italy into line with its obligations to its eurozone partners. On the European stage, he has restored Italy's standing in the European Council, though his strictures on fiscal rectitude have not been welcome in Spain. While the Franco-German axis has declined, Monti's premiership has offered the possibility of an alternative alliance at the heart of Europe.
Radoslaw Sikorski does not lead a government, but he has arguably shown greater qualities of European leadership than many members of the European Council.
Poland's foreign minister made a dramatic intervention during the course of the eurozone's debt crisis. In a speech in Berlin on 28 November 2011, Sikorski said: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”
He urged Germany to take more action to confront the eurozone debt crisis and prevent the collapse of the eurozone. “I demand of Germany that, for your own sake and ours, you help it survive and prosper.”
In announcing his readiness to let go of Poland's traditional suspicion of Germany, Sikorski was speaking truth not only to the German government, but also to Polish citizens. He showed a commendable concern for the eurozone and the European Union as well as a proper appraisal of Germany's doubts and strengths.
He said Germany should take responsibility for leadership of the eurozone. “You may not fail to lead. Not to dominate, but to lead in reform,” he said.
Herman Van Rompuy swapped one impossible job for another. He went from being prime minister of a fissiparous Belgium to being president of the European Council.
He was the first holder of the post, which was created by the Lisbon treaty, and was left to define its remit. But the unfolding eurozone debt crisis had a powerful effect: it dominated his first two and a half years in office, but it also gave him opportunities to define – and expand – his role.
Part of his achievement as a leader has been to equip the European Union and the eurozone with the rules and the mechanisms for greater economic and political union. He has done so gradually, aware of the limits on his power.
He cannot run far ahead of the Council and he cannot hope to countermand the big member states. When – as at December's European Council, when David Cameron and Angela Merkel were at odds – Van Rompuy cannot knock heads together. His style, which is understated and emollient, is well suited to the limits on his power. That the EU now has a greater degree of
fiscal union can be attributed to Van Rompuy's leadership skills.