When German President Joachim Gauck spoke at Schloss Bellevue on 22 February 2013, he encouraged pro-Europeans to engage actively in shaping a “better Europe”. He also observed that “there is no overarching narrative to give Europe its identity”. This claim raises some interrelated questions. What could such a narrative be? Who would be the characters in it? What might motivate them?
“Shared history” or “founding myth”?
At stake is the very possibility of a “European narrative”, by which I mean a narrative expressing confidence in and commitment to a strong EU – whether or not this strength is seen to lie in economic integration, legal harmonization, and so forth. President Gauck’s speech shows how difficult it is to answer these questions and, as a result, to formulate a persuasive European narrative. For President Gauck, a European narrative would bind people together through a “shared history” or “founding myth”. Two assumptions are at work here.
First, it’s assumed that a shared history could be told and could unite Europe’s citizens, if only the relevant facts existed. However, in this centenary year of the outbreak of World War I, historians are re-evaluating what we thought we knew about the war – and showing that it’s impossible to identify a common history or founding myth for any society without grossly distorting a historical reality that was much more variegated. If that’s the price of a shared narrative, we’re entitled to wonder if it’s worth it.
Second, it’s assumed that a European narrative must be grounded in past events. Yet a narrative needn’t tell what did happen. It can also tell what might happen; and this is the basis for perhaps the most influential political narrative of all, the American Dream, as first formulated by James Truslow Adams: “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”.
Emotional pull comparable to the American Dream
The success of the American Dream narrative should give pro-Europeans pause for thought, as the stories they like to tell are almost entirely different. In the first place, European narratives appeal mainly to citizens’ reason, to the enlightened self-interest that economic and political convergence ostensibly serves. President Gauck’s account of the EU’s origins and development is a classic example, bookended by Jean Monnet’s goal of “a community which would benefit the member states rationally” and by the globalized 21st-century economy in which “only a united Europe has any chance of holding its own as a global player”.
In political argument, however, George Lakoff and others have pointed out that rationality comes in a poor second to emotion in winning converts. Very few people would buy into the American Dream if they rationally calculated the odds of their own success, but that isn’t the point – the point is that the narrative articulates hope. The challenge for pro-Europeans is to formulate a narrative with emotional pull comparable to that of the American Dream, or indeed to nationalist Eurosceptic narratives.
In the second place, when European narratives do appeal to the emotions, they typically do so by looking backwards. Again, President Gauck exemplifies this tendency when recalling the aftermath of World War II: “We’ll never forget that the most strongly held conviction for politicians and ordinary people after the war could be expressed in two words: ‘never again!’” This is what we might call a “backward-facing” narrative: it invites us to move away from undesirable past situations. The American Dream, by contrast, is a “forward-facing” narrative: it invites us to move towards desirable future outcomes.
Appealing primarily to individual aspirations
We might suppose that forward-facing narratives are more powerful, not least because the emotional impact of a backward-facing narrative may weaken over time: “never again” may not have the same force for as many Europeans in 2014 as it did in 1950. Forward-facing European narratives, however, are normally rational: they argue the importance of a global trading bloc for prosperity and security, for instance, without engaging the emotions. How, then, could a European narrative be both forward-facing and emotionally compelling?
Finally, European narratives tend to subsume the individual into the collective. President Gauck comes closest to considering individuals when he envisages a future Europe “which allays the fears of citizens and gives them scope for action”. Here, individual action depends on larger political frameworks. Although the American Dream involves the collective as well as the individual, its popularity surely lies in the possibilities it offers to “each” rather than “everyone”. On this evidence, an effective political narrative must appeal primarily to individual aspirations, while also promising a larger political context that allows them to be realized. This isn’t easy at the level of national politics; it’s exponentially more difficult when 28 countries are involved.
Is it, then, impossible to formulate a European narrative that speaks to the hopes of individuals across a continent? Perhaps. But is that the right question to ask? Europeans have formed their values in relation to identities that are multiple and often competing: nation, region, generation, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, sexuality. A single story may touch only a small sector of these; pro-Europeans may need to devise a whole anthology.