Leo Varadkar and the New Breed of Young Globalist Leaders
In recent years, the stalwarts of Western democracy seem to have taken a turn for the aged. The 71-year-old Donald Trump is the oldest person ever elected President in the U.S., and in Britain, 60-year-old Theresa May is carrying out the country’s Brexit mandate as the oldest Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. Both politicians have promised a return to a more glorious, bygone era.
But as quickly as a nostalgic political mood set in, a new one seems to be rising. This June, Leo Varadkar (No. 5 on this year’s 40 Under 40 list) became the Prime Minister of Ireland. And in May, France’s Emmanuel Macron (No. 1 on our list) swept aside decades of political precedent to ascend to power with an entirely new party. The two men may be separated by a few hundred miles and a language barrier, but they’re bound in one crucial respect. Both are drastically new politicians: Strikingly young, they have shattered not only the age floor, but the hidebound rules and assumptions to which previous generations have clung for decades.
At 38, Varadkar, is by far Ireland’s youngest-ever Prime Minister. But his age is only one notable attribute. In a country that has been devoutly Catholic for centuries, Varadkar is Ireland’s first openly gay leader; his coming out in 2015, when he was the country’s Minister for Health, was a key factor in clinching the law to legalize gay marriage. And after a century of mass Irish emigration, Varadkar, a doctor by training, is himself from immigrant stock: His father is a Hindu doctor from Mumbai. For all that, Varadkar says the best aspect of his rise is that Irish voters have focused on his ideas, not his identity. “I am not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician, or a gay politician,” he once told a journalist. “It does not define me.”
His victory followed that of Macron, who a month before had seized the presidency at age 39 despite never having previously run for office. Macron, a former economy minister, launched his new political party just months before the vote, exasperated at years of government dysfunction. His victory obliterated the Socialist-Republican duopoly that has governed France for 60 years. A month later, his party—including scores of amateur first-time lawmakers—crushed seasoned incumbents in legislative elections. That has handed Macron powerful leverage to drive through economic changes. Those include loosening watertight labor protections and cutting public spending. And if that were not enough, he strode on to the stage on election night not to the usual French anthem, “La Marseillaise,” but to the anthem of the 28-member EU: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” The message was clear: Europe’s new champion has arrived.
Varadkar and Macron’s victories have played out separately. Taken together, however, they could herald a sea change toward a dramatic a new style of politics. Much ink has been spilled about the global tide of nationalism, but these leaders, raised with the freedom to zip around Europe without passports, using a common euro currency, see their individual nations’ interests as inextricably bound to the state of the whole world.
And the state of the world seems precarious. Climate change, a quintessential global fight, has emerged as a signature issue for both Varadkar and Macron. So too have Europe’s migrant crisis and terrorist threats. And both leaders see joint action as essential, including within NATO and the EU—a stance that’s at odds with the “America First” message emanating from D.C.
See the full 40 Under 40 2017 list here.
It won’t be a smooth road, of course. Macron’s proposed budget cuts have already dented his approval ratings. And Varadkar must defend Ireland’s status as a low-tax destination for U.S. companies from an increasingly activist European Commission. Whether either man can shepherd a community of nations against the planet’s most pressing threats is still very much an open question.
But they aren’t the only ones trying. In Estonia, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, 39, has said he similarly is determined to boost global cooperation. “We value highly the EU and its unity,” Ratas said after his election last November. “Our commitment to NATO is steadfast.” And Varadkar hosted his Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, in Dublin, as his first official guest as Prime Minister. (At 45, Trudeau has aged out of Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list, though not by much.) Rather than meet in a pub, per longstanding Irish tradition, the two men laced up their sneakers and went for a run, a picture of youthful energy as they discussed shared concerns about climate change, NATO, and Europe. This generation’s politicians believe they can finally turn the page on the narrow nationalist interests of past eras, and tackle their problems together—a task that is as laudable as it is immense. The good news is that time, quite simply, is on their side.
A version of this article appears as part of our 40 Under 40 list in the Sept. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Youth Revolt.”