The results of the German election are in, and in one respect they’re clear. We won’t know for weeks or  months who the next German leader is, as the parties haggle over a coalition. During that time, outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel will keep minding day-to-day business as a caretaker. But her time in power is over. That also means the European Union has lost its de facto leader. Who could replace her?

One way of grasping the job description is to view leadership as the ancient Romans did. They saw it as an interplay of three different qualities: potestas, auctoritas and gravitas. Merkel, in her 16 years in office, accumulated all three in oodles. 

Potestas refers to the legal powers that come with high office — for Merkel, the strings she could pull just by dint of being chancellor. Auctoritas — the root of our word authority — transcends official powers and means something like clout, the ability to sway others, even through informal means. Gravitas is the subtlest dimension, something like dignity or weight. For example, it’s the aura Merkel had when she walked into a Brussels summit and everybody looked up.

This definition automatically rules out any of the EU’s nominal honchos in Brussels. That includes Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, which convenes the 27 national leaders. Both have limited potestas, and no auctoritas or gravitas to speak of.

The person who already has his hand up is, of course, French President Emmanuel Macron. If you ask him, he’s been the EU’s leader all along, carrying the banner of European “sovereignty” and “autonomy.” As president of the bloc’s strongest military power, with the EU’s only nuclear arsenal, he also commands impressive potestas.

But for him to be a leader, other Europeans would have to agree that they’re being led by him. And they just don’t, according to a survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Only 14% would have chosen Macron as Europe’s hypothetical “president,” compared to 41% who would have been fine with Merkel in that role before she bowed out. 

The default assumption throughout most of Europe is that Macron is ultimately out just to project French power, or even his own. His sulking after feeling snubbed by the U.S., Australia and the U.K. only reinforced that impression. In any case, he’s up for re-election in the spring and could soon be out. He has less auctoritas than he’d care to admit, and even less gravitas.

That leaves Mario Draghi, who became prime minister of Italy earlier this year. Normally, the potestas that comes with this office is limited. Its occupants aren’t known for their staying power — Merkel had eight Italian counterparts during her time in the chancellery. Besides, Italy has long been considered one of the EU’s basket cases — hyper-indebted, economically stagnant, unreformable.

But that was before Draghi came in. Respected almost throughout Italy’s fractious political spectrum, he’s already rescued the country’s vaccination drive and tackled one of the problems considered most urgent but also most difficult — the inefficiency of the court system.

What gives Draghi so much auctoritas is in part his technocratic and diplomatic manner, which is reminiscent of Merkel’s — both clearly have their egos firmly under control. But it’s also his prior career. He’s an economist whose PhD supervisor held a Nobel prize. As president of the European Central Bank, Draghi probably did more than anybody else to save the single currency from collapse when he indicated in 2012 that he’d do “whatever it takes.” When one phrase is enough to calm markets, that’s gravitas.

Since taking office, he’s taken the largest share of the EU’s stimulus program for Italy and topped it up with additional funds to ready the most sweeping fiscal injection in Europe by far. It seems to be bearing fruit — Italy’s recovery is now among the most dynamic in Europe. In that sense, Draghi has made himself a sort of anti-Merkel, an evangelist for muscular fiscal policy and European financial integration, where the chancellor only emphasized austerity. 

Even on the world stage, Draghi has already left a mark. He’s positioned his country more clearly against China and Russia, and thereby with the U.S., than either Merkel or Macron have done. 

As ever in Italy, there’s no guarantee his governing coalition will hold. There’s also a risk that Draghi is promoted up to the senior, but less hands-on, role of president rather than prime minister. Still, as of today, Draghi is the only European leader who’s even close to matching Merkel in stature. He could potentially hold the EU together as she did, and move it forward as she didn’t.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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