3 Key Takeaways from Klaus Welle’s Visit to UCL

Elena Sofia Massacesi, a Student Ambassador with the European Institute, reflects on her interview with Mr. Welle and his insight on how management and European politics come together in the European Union’s leadership.

Klaus Welle, former Secretary General of the European Parliament, visited UCL on the 8th of March 2023 to speak with students about the European Parliament and Transnational Democracy. He served as Secretary General from 2009 until 2022, stepping down after serving for fourteen years, and is also known for spearheading the enlargement of the European People’s Party to become the most powerful party in the Parliament.

Sitting in the UCL Senior Common Room facing Klaus Welle was an enlightening, if unexpected, experience for a second-year undergraduate student like myself. Between sips of tea and during the lecture  that ensued, Welle reflected on his career and shared his advice for young people aspiring to a career in European politics. I gathered three key takeaways from a conversation with one of the key European strategists of our time.

1. Leadership and Management

When I asked Mr. Welle whether he had envisioned himself as the European Parliament’s Secretary General in his youth-activist days, he replied with a curt “no”. He advised that students interested in a career in European politics should focus on their passion for Europe rather than one particular goal, stressing the importance of pursuing an interest and committing to it. Specifically, having a leadership role in a volunteering organisation can help students deepen their understanding of specific topics and provide valuable management experience. The lack of a fixed hierarchy pushes leaders to develop the skills necessary to convince their peers of their vision: trust must be earned.

We also talked about two key requirements for leadership: listening and contributing. Mr. Welle contended that introverts tend to be better listeners, which helps them to develop a more cohesive view of a problem. Once the listening is done, the contribution of ideas and adopting a problem-solving approach are also important. For a team to function effectively, people must feel they can trust the leader to help solve problems; it must be clear what one brings to the table for others to truly recognise their value.

Students interested in a career in European politics should focus on their passion for Europe rather than one particular goal, stressing the importance of pursuing an interest and committing to it.

Mr. Welle studied economics at Witten-Herdecke University, so we also talked about how the theoretical framework of economics can provide an innovative approach to policymaking and management. For his diploma paper, Mr. Welle explored whether economics or social psychology was more successful in predicting human behaviour. Though he concluded that the former was more accurate, he nonetheless stressed that the finding does not apply in every situation. When managing people, sometimes the best solution requires seeing the problem from multiple perspectives, even if there is a clear majority opinion. On the other hand, though the 1% may provide a more creative perspective than the 99%, if a leader must maintain a majority, they may cede to the demands of the critical mass. Shifting incentives and environments yield different results, and different theoretical paradigms will yield different interpretations of those results. It remains up to the decision-maker to choose the best combination.

2. Shifting how we assess transnational European parties and promote European identity

Under Mr. Welle, the European institutions and in particular the new House of European History and its visitor centre, the Parlamentarium and the European Parliament Hemicycle, turned the European district into the third most visited in Brussels. The former Secretary-General is a strong advocate for fostering a sense of European identity. European Parliament elections are held over four days and differ by member state. As a result, most Europeans mainly pay attention only to their national MEPs’ election and remain largely unconcerned with the overall results, which are published in the early hours of the morning. Mr. Welle suggests that publishing EU election results simultaneously and at a highly visible time would make citizens feel more connected with the election process, encouraging them to look beyond their own countries to see the election for what it is – a European decision. 

European parties’ efficiency is traditionally assessed with reference to Maurice Duverger’s Law, i.e., their performance is evaluated against a set of criteria, but perhaps this approach misses the point of an efficient political party at European level. Mr Welle suggests that European political groups, rather than aiming to fulfil the same roles as national parties,  should aim to be doing what national parties are not doing already. Traditional performance criteria thus fail to recognise the plethora of cases in which European parties fulfil roles that national parties cannot: above all, the coordination of policy at European level; giving leaders from smaller member-states access to key decision makers – and credibility; or helping national parties overcome national deadlocks in defining their political programmes.

3. Ukraine and Europe: Consensus and Reframing

Broaching the subject of Ukraine’s possible accession to the EU, I asked Mr. Welle whether he agreed with worries that decisions may become more difficult to make with yet another member state at the table. Mr. Welle reminded me that having fewer parties involved does not always make it easier to reach a consensus -rather, having very few, strong members is more likely to quickly turn into a confrontational situation (think 2020 Belgium). Only when negotiating parties become more aware of their interdependence can the tone shift to become more constructive. Members must recognise their interdependence to act on it – a conclusion that perhaps requires a slight nudge from capable European strategists.  

Mr. Welle also suggested that the European Union should be more cognisant of Ukraine’s assets. The pathway to EU membership is long, and will require significant domestic reforms, not least to tackle widespread corruption. This path will inevitably require further sacrifice by Ukrainians, but the EU should not underestimate the country, nor the geostrategic importance of the outcome of the war. First, by protecting Europe from a foreign threat, the Ukrainian army is the closest the EU has come to having a European Army. Second, Europe stands to benefit from a stable Ukraine, not only because of its geographical proximity but also given its richness in raw materials and lithium, which is very attractive for the EU’s green transition. 

From his advice on focusing on one’s passion for Europe, to the importance of listening and creativity for leadership roles, Mr. Welle’s visit to UCL provided a unique opportunity for students to gain valuable insights into how management and European politics come together in the European Union’s leadership. His suggestions on Ukraine and transnational parties expands the collaborative management mindset to the EU as a whole, placing the values of interdependence and collaboration at the forefront of a hopeful future.

Elena Sofia Massacesi is a second-year undergraduate student in Politics and International Relations (PIR) at UCL. She is a Student Ambassador with the UCL European Institute.

Image credits: accessed via the European Parliament’s Multimedia Centre.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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