In February of this year Liberia's ex-president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, won the Ibrahim prize for African Leadership. She was praised for her work rebuilding the nation after civil war and leading a process of reconciliation. She had, it was felt, shown exceptional leadership in difficult circumstances. The Ibrahim prize is not always awarded, however. On six occasions since 2007, no leader was considered worthy of it.
Looking at the EU today, where do we see leadership? I think on the big issue of the day - Brexit - we can find examples both within the European Parliament and Commission.
Michel Barnier’s handling of the Brexit negotiations has seen broad unity among EU Member States. He has, so far, managed to keep the other 27 countries in agreement about what Brexit means and what is acceptable as the UK exits the EU. The EU has agreed its lines, it has agreed the timetable, it has shown solidarity around the issue of the border in Northern Ireland and it has consistently turned up for negotiations in possession of facts, agreed-upon positions (not to mention actual documents!) and ready to negotiate.
On the British side, however, does anyone emerge as ‘an exceptional leader’? Quite the contrary I’d say. An in-fight within the Conservative Party led to a reckless referendum on EU membership that has thrown the country into turmoil, instability and increasing insignificance globally. The official opposition is little better.
Thanks to our first-past-the-post voting system, smaller parties such as the Greens who propose workable solutions are sidelined. It is not clear how the ordinary person in the UK is being considered in any of this. We find ourselves in the throes of a drastic leadership vacuum - just when the opposite is needed most.
One of the thorniest issues in the Brexit negotiations revolves around how closely Britain remains involved with the single market and customs union and if there is to be a complete rupture, how to treat the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There currently is an invisible border, allowing goods and people travel between the two countries seamlessly. If the UK is no longer part of the customs union, logically there need to be physical border and checks. With that the threat of a return to conflict in this region rears its ugly head.
On one hand, Theresa May and her more Remain-inclined colleagues favour a system whereby the UK collects customs duties on the EU’s behalf but refunds some traders whose goods are destined for the British market. However, ‘hard’ Brexiteers reject this as it involves participation in the customs union and call for ‘maximum facilitation’. This idea brings together a variety of technological solutions to avoid the need for customs checks at the border. However, while the Government tosses these ideas back and forth, the EU has already clearly stated neither option is workable or acceptable. This is farcical.
It increasingly appears that many from the Leave camp do not want to be associated with the exit deal that Britain eventually strikes with the EU, whatever its content. There are only so many times one can rubbish facts, independent studies and analyses. As it becomes clearer there can be no winners from Brexit, we are seeing many disowning their part in the fiasco.
Nigel Farage has all but disappeared from sight, peddling his wares State-side while continuing to take his European Parliament salary. In an article for Conservative Home arch-Brexiter Dan Hannan recently admitted it isn’t going as expected proclaiming ‘liberal Leavers don’t own this’. In the meantime, actual Government ministers behave like they want to be fired so as not to be associated with the final result. Take Boris Johnson's multiple statements, for example - most recently calling the Prime Minister’s customs plan ‘crazy’.
With such obvious contradictions and tensions within the Tory Party resulting in a clear inability to negotiate a sensible Brexit, one would expect the Labour party to take advantage. Not so however, as it is also deeply divided internally. There are arguably more (and louder) Remain voices within Labour than the Conservative Party, but Labour has also failed to agree upon a workable vision for Brexit. Meanwhile the opacity of Jeremy Corbyn’s own position has led to the incongruous situation whereby he has at times supported the Government, while many of his high-profile colleagues have voted contrary to him, and some are now even forming cross-party Remain groups to defy his strategy (whatever that might be) on Brexit.
Where does this leave Britain then at this crucial moment? If we judge leadership to mean a sense of vision, an ability to bring people together in the best interests of the country, openness, a willing to address difficult issues and then consider the current offerings, it is clear Britain is lacking a viable leader both in its current embodiment and the potential alternative.
However, there is one place where I'm seeing examples of exceptional leadership. That's in the emergence of a number of grassroots organisations from the Remain side.
As the establishment panders to the hard-line Brexiteers despite the closeness of the referendum result, the pro-Remain groups have had to engage every step of the way to defend rights and fill the void left by traditional policy makers and representatives.
The work of groups representing EU nationals in the UK such as The 3 Million, and organisations representing Britons in other EU countries such as British in Europe, Brexpats and Bremain has been inspiring. The emergence of youth-led groups like Our Future our Choice and MyLifeMySay, who are galvanising those who will be most affected by Brexit has also been refreshing to witness. I have had the pleasure and privilege of engaging with all these groups. They embody the leadership qualities that are sorely lacking elsewhere in British politics.
This new activism, borne out of necessity and a desire not to allow the UK descend to the worst version of itself, is a silver-lining to a very dark cloud. These activists need to be supported wholeheartedly. So long as those negotiating Brexit continue to prioritise their own careers and political parties over the interests of the people they govern, we're going to need them!
Is there anyone in Government or the official opposition who should be awarded a prize for showing exceptional leadership in these difficult times? Sadly, I think it would be fair to assume that this year, as with each year since the EU referendum, all would be walking away empty-handed.