By Jean-Christopher Mittelstaedt
Question: “What could serve as a new narrative to foster cohesion in the EU and what strategy should be used to implement this narrative?”
- Divisions within Europe are caused by internal turmoil and the on-going onslaught of globalization.
- The EU is in need of a hardened European identity. This identity must be rooted in a narrative with which citizens identify themselves. European values should make out the core of this new narrative: freedom, democracy, and human rights.
- This proposal suggests fostering these values through cultural governance. Proposed measures include town placards, a European public holiday, school textbooks, and back-filling concepts.
The vision that bound Europe together has eroded. After World War II, the primary goal of the EU’s predecessor was to institutionalise a peace between France and Germany through industrial cooperation and the integration of their economies. This objective was complemented by the political, social, and security competition between capitalist and socialist camps. Europe’s internal willingness to integrate its economies, its willingness to overcome past grievances, and the occupation and division of Germany, were supplemented by an external force for integration: the growing threat radiating from the Soviet Union. Together, internal and external factors sharpened the narrative of the European project as everything the Soviet Union was not: free, democratic, prosperous, peaceful, and built on a strong fundament of human rights. Post-1989, with the external factor vanishing, the European project’s values were well institutionalised. However, in the 2000s the internal problems the onslaught of globalization caused such as massive debts and high unemployment, internal and external migration, a perceived lack of democracy and transparency on both national and European levels have led to the resurgence of populism and nationalism in various European countries, breaking down or undermining core European values.
How can Europe revive its narrative and rebuild its values? The European Union should not abandon its ideals. Rather, it is necessary to better communicate its ideals to sceptic strata through more effectively penetrating European societies. While cities and higher educated people are generally more EU-friendly, the main thrust of EU-scepticism emanates from rural areas and lower educated classes. Penetrating this stratum can be achieved through a comprehensive view of cultural governance: the introduction of practices, scripture in documents, histories, commentaries and other texts. For example, establishing a town’s historical significance not only for its nation but also for Europe, a placard put up in town centres could address its connections with the wider Europe. These connections could then be revived through partnerships of social groups, joint festivities or mutual exchanges. On the national level, the establishment of a European National Day that falls on the defeat of Germany on May 8th sharpens the dichotomy between the dangers of populism and nationalism and post-WWII peace and prosperity. The shared development of history textbooks or subsidies for the voluntary use of certain teaching materials, for example by developing an inclusive European history textbook for primary and middle schools also could foster European ideals. Another method to enhance these ideals is through back-filling concepts. For example, the “China Dream” has become a critical notion in Chinese governance. It is hollow and without an easily definable meaning. To remedy this shortcoming, the Chinese central government has incentivised actors such as the media, schools, universities, private and state-owned companies, provincial authorities, and ordinary citizens to “fill” it with their own understanding of the China Dream. Using a similar technique, the EU could invent a concept and incentivise actors such as artists, writers, schools, universities and even government departments throughout the European Union to give it meaning. While oftentimes not compatible, this multitude of visions is then nevertheless associated with the European Union and its values, thus fostering internal cohesion and associating Europe with a force of good.
Town placards and the establishment of connections to other towns in Europe do not require much manpower or investment. Suggesting the use of existing national days can mitigate the contentiousness of a European National Day. Textbook creation is more controversial. This process could either be initiated unilaterally through the European Commission, which would then incentivise actors to adopt it or multilaterally through a Council process. The creation of back-filling concepts and the incentives for actors to fill them can be coordinated by EU representations on national levels, whereby focus is on the scale and not the quality of contributions.