The word “heartbroken” trended on my Facebook feed this Friday. The emotion with which Europeans, Brits included, reacted to the result of the British referendum was overwhelming. I too am profoundly heartbroken – I may have left it over a decade ago, but the UK remains my second home, in heart and mind. My British friends and family have contributed to building the individual I am today – the French girl with a British accent. But I am even more heartbroken by the fact that I couldn’t look my children in the eye that morning. Not only will they likely never know an EU 28, but I no longer know what their future holds.
Tempers run high in the European Parliament and EU leaders meet for the first time post Brexit this week. No-one has any real idea of what will happen next, but one thing’s for sure: in the UK or elsewhere in Europe, European leaders’ business-as-usual approach just ain’t gonna cut it. It is time for a new approach and for a new leadership. The pictures of Martin Schulz, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donal Tusk and the other white men deciding on how to deal with Brexit is worth a thousand words: let women in the room!
More women in leadership positions mean a different decision-making process. Certainly women are not angels– just look at Marine Le Pen– but their struggle over the years for voting rights, equal pay, the control of their bodies, and against domestic and gender-based violence have profoundly changed our societies for the better. Germany’s Angela Merkel has shone as the only true statesman, be it in Europe’s relations with Russia, dealing with the migration crisis, or Brexit.
So-called “female” leaderships skills, found in women and men, could be a game-changer in a time of crisis. The female leadership model, sometimes referred to as soft power, emphasises collaboration, the mobilising of communities, effective communication (and thus better access to information), self-improvement and encouraging feedback, a focus on results, and empathy. Just as gender-diverse executive teams perform better in the business world, with more innovative, better relations with customers and inclusive environments that motivate staff, so do gender-diverse public policy teams perform better.
Europe is in the eye of a perfect storm. The earth-shattering news of Brexit comes at the worst possible time. The mounting wave of populism across Europe, dangerously anti-democratic leaders in Poland and Hungary, the uncomfortably close defeat of Austrian nationalists, angry anti-establishment movements in Italy and Spain to name but a few are worrying in themselves.
Combine them with an unpredictable Russia to the East, instability to the South, violent extremism and terrorism in Europe, unpopular frontrunners and a national split in the United States, and an assertive China whose motives few in the West truly understand, and the uncertainty reaches new heights. Add a now likely recession and floods of refugees whose numbers will only keep rising, and it’s anyone’s guess what could happen. If or when the dominoes begin to fall, the world’s largest trading bloc which ensured 60 years of peace in Western Europe may crack. Edmund Burke’s words are relevant to this day: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
But this time we Europeans should know and might do better. Our world and our leaders are very different to those of the 1930s which led to the horrors of World War II: we are on average more educated and wealthier, the gap between rich and poor has shrunk (in spite of a recent reverse trend) and the advent of the internet has made information available to large numbers of citizens. Social media has led to shorter information cycles and radically changed the potential for citizen mobilisation. European leadership is increasingly more diverse, be it in gender or ethnic background.
If Federica Mogherini and Helga Schmid could bring home a deal with Iran, surely women can ensure continuing peace in Europe and in the world. Perhaps what Europe needs today is a Jeanne Monnet.
auline Massart is deputy director for security and geopolitics at Friends of Europe and vice president for outreach and operations at Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels.