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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The curse of the POLITICO 28

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Stephan Faris is POLITICO’s Enterprise editor and the editor of the POLITICO 28 ranking of the most powerful people in Europe.

Mario Draghi better watch his back.

As with so many other venerable franchises, a place on POLITICO’s annual list of the most powerful people in Europe comes with considerable risk. Athletes featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated are famously vulnerable to injury. Politicians awarded the Nobel Peace Prize almost invariably disappoint. Winners of the Oscar for Best Actress will soon be unlucky in love. The career of any Best New Artist at the Grammys has already peaked.

Being included among the POLITICO 28 isn’t an award; it’s a reflection of influence, as judged by POLITICO journalists and the experts and power players they talk to. But it can also be a kiss of death.

Last year, then-Prime Minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte was tapped as Europe’s No. 1 Doer, his fortunes turbocharged by his country’s enormous share of the European Union’s coronavirus recovery fund. But by February he had lost his job, and now it’s up to Draghi to splash the cash. Star England footballer Marcus Rashford was the No. 7 “dreamer” for his campaign against child hunger. He’s still doing good work, but his missed penalty kick in the Euro 2020 final helped cost his team the trophy.

Parts of the previous year’s ranking, the Class of 2020, now read like a list of has-beens: Former Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s errant adviser Dominic Cummings; Italy’s two Matteos, Renzi and Salvini

To be clear, inclusion in the POLITICO 28 list isn’t a guarantee of failure. Many alumni have left their stamp on the EU: Think Viktor Orbán (No. 1, 2016), Emmanuel Macron (No. 1, 2020) or Olaf Scholz (No. 8 Dreamer, 2020, and this year’s No. 1 Doer).

But what the list gives, it can also take away. Sebastian Kurz swept into the Austrian chancellery after he made the Class of 2017. He’s now out, having been featured again in 2020. Christian Lindner is on track to pull off a reverse-Kurz: After a spell in the political wilderness following his top spot in the Class of 2018, the leader of the German liberals is on the list once again, almost certainly headed for his country’s powerful finance ministry (unless the list bites him once more).

There’s a certain class of pundit who likes nothing more than to debunk or dismiss jinxes like that of the Sports Illustrated cover or the Best Actress Academy Award. What they miss is that superstitions can sometimes hold concealed truths.

The curse of the POLITICO 28 reflects the limitations of our ability to predict the future, of course. It’s also an example of what statisticians call regression to the mean: the inevitable crash down to earth after an eye-catchingly exceptional performance.

In other words, it’s the rare individual — whether athlete, musician or politician — who can exceed expectations year after year. What might look like a curse is just a reflection of the cruelty and capriciousness of politics.

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