The most fervent discussions of the European leaders gathered in Brussels on Friday, June 24, focused on riots in Athens, unruly parliamentarians in Berlin, disaffected youth in Madrid, and, perhaps, sexual crimes and misdemeanors in Rome. But they also found some time to ratify their choice for the next tenant of a modest office space in downtown Frankfurt, Germany. As expected, Mario Draghi, an Italian economist with a number of nicely tailored suits, but little evident charisma, received unanimous support to follow Jean-Claude Trichet in becoming the next president of the European Central Bank (ECB).
It's a less-than-pressing issue for most Europeans, to say the least. As long as countries are considering selling off their airports to make ends meet, the obscure, technical art of monetary policy is likely to escape popular notice. But austerity and riots and bunga-bunga parties notwithstanding, Draghi's appointment may be more important than anything else that's likely to happen in Europe this year.
Not that Draghi would give you any way of knowing. In typical fashion, Draghi not only failed to hold a news conference on Friday, he wasn't even in attendance in Brussels as the announcement of his appointment was made. Even when people try to praise him effusively, they end up underscoring this essential boringness. "Mario was never uncombed; he was always tidy," one former classmate from the rigorous Jesuit schools where Draghi was educated told Bloomberg. "Mario has always been very serious."
As one German newspaper put it, the no-nonsense Draghi is the "anti-Berlusconi," the polar opposite of the spotlight-seeking Italian prime minister. Indeed, compared with Draghi, even Trichet comes across as an unremitting dandy. The Frenchman was famous for indulging in extended recitations of poetry, as well as grandiose analogies between economic affairs and the worlds of arts and culture (as one journalist wrote of Trichet, "he could easily have ended up in a university declaiming the verses of Homer rather than at the helm of a monetary institution.") Draghi, meanwhile, rarely gives interviews, has no entourage, and famously carries his own bags when he goes on trips.
But Draghi will, in fact, soon wield more influence than any of the prime ministers who ratified his appointment. Brussels, as the capital of the European Union, still hosts the continent's symbolic grandeur, but it's sleepy Frankfurt -- a banker's town, a city of early nights and breakfast meetings -- that is now the de facto seat of European power. There's plenty of pathos invested in the question of whether Europe will survive its current travails, but it's obvious by now that the European Union doesn't have the reserves of fellow feeling, or the institutional mechanisms, to channel that urgency to much productive end. Indeed, the European Union has been striving toward "an ever closer union," a refrain from one of its founding documents, but European countries have been careful to preserve as much sovereignty as possible: institutionally, the countries of Europe aren't engaged in a bear hug so much as a skeptical handshake.
The ECB is among the few exceptions. Unlike the other forums through which Europe conducts its common affairs, the ECB is not a mere debating club, an opportunity to reach consensus -- it's an actual institution, a body with a mandate to protect the euro and the power to carry it out, even in the face of resistance. There are few equivalents elsewhere in the European Union of the ECB's unilateral authority to alter interest rates on the euro. The European Parliament can initiate legislation only to watch it choked off at any number of veto points; the EU foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton can chart a bold rhetorical course in international affairs, but she's required to follow up with exactly the sort of painstaking consensus-building among member states that her position was intended to minimize; Herman Van Rompuy himself might be hard-pressed to describe what his role as president of the European Council consists of.
And, as has often been lamented this year, there is no EU treasury department that can prepare a soft landing for the continent at times of economic crisis. Europeans have instead witnessed the unedifying spectacle of Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Nicolas Sarkozy performing ad hoc fiscal policy on behalf of the continent, trading historical analogies and sketching bailout scenarios -- thinking out loud, essentially. They have, predictably, not made nearly as much progress as Europe has needed.