A narrative for Europe can either be drawn from the past or directed towards the future. A founding myth reconstitutes the past; a utopian vision describes the future. But both narratives are necessarily intertwined: The present – of an institution, a society, or a continent – acquires meaning through the connection of past to future.
When German President Joachim Gauck gave a landmark address on Europe in February 2013, he noted the absence of a coherent foundational myth that could condense the idea of Europe into a viable narrative:
It is of course true what people say: there is no overarching narrative to give Europe its identity. We do not have the sort of shared narrative for Europe that might unite the EU’s more than 500 million people in a shared history, have a place in their hearts and spur them to build on it. That is a fact. We Europeans have no founding myth, like a decisive battle where we would face a common enemy and, win or lose, at least defend our identity. A successful revolution might have provided a founding myth too, with the people of our continent achieving some act of political or social emancipation together – but we have not had one of those either. There is no single European identity, just as there is no such thing as a European demos, a single European people or one European nation.
A utopian vision
President Gauck’s analysis isn’t entirely accurate: Europe’s history has had its fair share of decisive battles and revolutions: for instance, the defense of Vienna against the Ottoman army, the French Revolution, or the international association “Young Europe”, which drew its members from Italy, Poland and Germany during the tumultuous 1840s and fought for liberty, equality, and humanitarian ideals. Some even see the Holocaust as Europe’s foundational event. But none of those hopeful and tragic historical landmarks can be generalized sufficiently to serve as the founding myth for all European countries across time and national borders. Europe’s history and Europe’s memory are too diverse for a single coherent narrative.
Still, the desire for such a founding myth remains strong. Jean-Claude Juncker, the former president of the Eurogroup, argued in 2012 that the credo “no more war” – a shorthand for the European legacy of peaceful integration since the end of World War II – had become insufficient to motivate young Europeans. Juncker stated that the defense of the European idea required a new narrative, but he merely hinted at its content: It had to “describe the future”. In short, Juncker called for a utopian vision.
We live in prosperity and peace
Unfortunately, the end of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain seem to have brought about the end of overtly utopian thinking in international politics. Prosperity and peace have reduced mankind’s utopian aspirations to a factual description of the status quo. We have grown skeptical of sweeping promises, and often prefer incremental change in the “here and now”.
Two consequences of this trend are now becoming increasingly evident. First, the absence of a European narrative has prepared the ground for radical thoughts and populist ideas. The European project of permanent expansion has awakened desires for a final destination, for the reaffirmation of borders and the careful management of change. Second, the lack of a narrative can be read positively as the consequence of sweeping success. Europe has largely realized the grand political and economic goals that were formulated in the postwar years. We live in prosperity and peace. Our challenge is boredom rather than destitution. It’s a challenge we should welcome with open arms, and it’s a much better alternative to crisis and war.
A general European narrative remains elusive, and we have not succeeded in distilling our desires into a comprehensive utopian vision. The German playwright Bodo Strauß has rightly called the current state of affairs an “eschatology of now”.
It’s not a big narrative
But does the absence of founding myths and utopian visions mean that we have nothing to say to each other? No. Europe is diverse enough to sustain a multitude of narratives. Not all of them will become historically efficacious; their power depends on temporally and regionally specific conditions of change. Grand narratives are forged in Afghanistan, in Egypt, in Iraq, in Russia. Europe can safely rely on small and useful narratives. For example, the Italian writer Umberto Eco has proposed printing portraits of important Europeans on the bills of the common European currency: the faces of Claude Chabrol, Roberto Rossellini, or Thomas Mann. Our continental identities are shaped not only by events and revolutions, but by the lives of exemplary Europeans. Their ideas inspire, and their biographies spawn stories large and small.
We might not return to a single European narrative, but we should not lose sight of the depth of the European idea: Europe is more than a currency union or a space of shared values. Europe is also a cultural union with a long tradition: Our conception of the law draws on ancient Greek mythology, which posited Metis (wisdom) and Themis (order) as the two wives of the god Zeus. They form the two pillars upon which social organization can rest. It’s not a big narrative, but is one that we should strive to remember.
Translated from German.