13.8.14

A new (progressive) narrative for Europe

Opinion publiée en juillet 2014 dans la revue "New European" de l'organisation UNITEE. J'y reviens encore sur l'importance d'un nouveau grand récit pour l'Europe, qui parte de la base et ne soit pas une construction intellectuelle fumeuse destinée à servir de cache-sexe à la misère néo-libérale de l'actuel consensus de Bruxelles.

A renewed narrative for the EU seems to have been the Grail of the outgoing European Commission. A couple of years ago, EC President Barroso tasked a group of high profile intellectuals and artists to lay the ground for a narrative that could breathe new life into the European project. Confined to a very philosophical, though interesting, exercise, there is little hope that this narrative will ever have any impact. 

The power of narratives lies in mobilising forces that all political leaders are desperately striving to harness. Narratives give a sense of purpose, of direction; they manage to get the best out of individuals, groups and communities because they offer a better horizon – that still remains achievable in a not-so-distant future.

Narratives are simple: they encapsulate in a few words a project for society and give confidence to those who adhere to it that it is worth committing to, joining forces and collectively overcoming obstacles. It is never a philosophical statement or a rational demonstration. It is about intuition and deep connection between all the partakers. Let me give a few examples of narratives in different contexts: the most recent one is the “Yes, we can!” motto initiated during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Every single US citizen could, through these 3 words, reconnect with the egalitarian founding values of the United States of America. No explanation was needed: people could identify immediately with equality, the dream of a better society, the necessity to act together and the idea of unity it conveyed. It got Mr. Obama elected twice and still resonates deeply in the USA and around the globe as a banner for collective change.

In a totally different context, the Turkish AKP’s motto is also a narrative: “Do not stop moving on” (Durmak Yok, Yolla Devam). It paves the way towards ongoing societal transformation, translating the push and pull of History, the collective duty to embrace change – for the better. More than a decade after the launch of this narrative, it is still pushing AKP’s supporters to endorse the changes promoted by the government they elected as part of an ongoing drive towards a better society.

Finally, the French national motto is also a trans-historical narrative: “Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood” (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité) has been able to mobilise the best energies and feelings across centuries, anchoring progressive societal change at the heart of a nation’s identity. Of course, narratives can be derailed over time. The French one also served to justify colonialism and other similar atrocities, but this will never delegitimise the values – one could say the Platonic ideas – that this combination of words encapsulates. To this day, millions of people are struggling daily to make them a concrete reality by challenging the structures of power and oppression, in France and around the world.

The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) has been an innovator in this area as early as 2008, when we identified the need for a new narrative for the European anti-racist movement, but also for the whole of Europe. As of 2009, we tried to figure out a mobilising narrative, starting from the grassroots. The challenge was to keep it understandable from East to West, from North to South, by the average wo/man on the street, a newly arrived migrant, a Roma nurse working in her settlement, a banker from the City, or the President of the Commission himself.

It took us three years to encapsulate our narrative for Europe as “Realising full equality, solidarity and well-being for All in Europe”. The power – tested ever since – of our progressive narrative is that it re-establishes a strong and direct connection between all residents of Europe and the aspirations that were at the heart of the European project, right after WWII. It is not about new wishy-washy “forms of imagination and thinking for Europe” as in Mr. Barroso’s project. It is about empowering people to regain agency on their lives and their collective destiny through the European project.

But agreeing upon a mobilising narrative is just the beginning of the journey. Once we know the horizon we want to reach, we have to design concrete plans and strategies to access it within a reasonable time frame, mapping opponents and allies along the way, taking stock of the resources available and constantly exploring possibilities for increased leverage. This part of the work is the most challenging: it is about devising all the concrete steps to make a dream come true at the level of a continent, whilst representing a crucial, but small, cluster of the population with little resources.

It took us another 2 years to sharpen our objectives and methodologies, though we know it is a never ending task. Along the way, we realised that our narrative could actually be shared by other progressive movements and even by the EU as a whole, reconnecting with the founding values and vision of the EU. This also enabled us to grasp the widening gap between the discourses of political leaders and the harsh realities lived on the ground by most Europeans, and in particular our communities. 

Indeed, over the last 35 years, before every European election or ratification of any new Treaty, citizens and residents alike were promised prosperity, growth, employment, increased security and improved access to all sorts of services. Yet, in parallel, they faced an increased liberalisation of European economies and a corollary dismantlement of public services, leading to structurally high levels of unemployment, lack of growth and growing insecurity. If European Union GDPs have been skyrocketing, prosperity has been the privilege of a bunch of happy few, the downside of it being that the level of inequalities in Europe is the same in 2014 as it was one century ago, just before the break out of WWI. 

Citizens are confronted with a generation-long dissonance between the EU’s promise and the increased difficulties and insecurity they face in their daily lives. The prospect of a better and more stable future for their children has definitely faded away. In this context, trying to rearticulate a new narrative for Europe around arts and culture, as per Mr. Barroso’s method, is doomed to fail because it consists in window dressing violent neo-liberal policies behind the smokescreen of a shared culture and values. Culture is of little help if you can’t foot your electricity and heating bills, if you have to choose between feeding your children or bringing them to the doctor if they’re ill, if you can’t rent a decent flat and if having a low-paid flexible job costs you more than what you earn from it. 

Rather than developing a real narrative for Europe that would gather people around a common project benefitting everybody in an increasingly multicultural society, and drawing the inevitable political and strategic conclusions of such a narrative (i.e. reinforcing public services, reducing the extension of the “free market”, levelling up social standards across the EU, redistributing wealth and growth, reinforcing the democracy of the European institutions…), Mr. Barroso is trying to promote a “narrative of diversion”, seeking to build consensus around values, rather than around a joint mobilisation in favour of a diverse and multicultural civilisational project. What more could we expect from someone representing institutions trapped in the ideology of the unrestricted “free market” economy as the only way to properly allocate resources in our societies?

Reflecting on a narrative for Europe also highlights some of the contradictions in the evolution of nation states in Europe since WWII. Indeed, guiding societies in a particular direction, around a collective vision, had been the role of States for the past couple of centuries. However, over the last six decades, States have become the arbitrators of conflicting interests, rather than the organisers of societies, good or bad, according to a set of higher interests, often the common good. Unfortunately, looking back at how we came to the current state of play, one cannot fail to notice that the arbitration has been largely unbalanced, favouring the richest cluster of society.

It is therefore no surprise that the EU is now expected to endorse a mobilising narrative as Member States have dropped this responsibility along the way. This is also reflected in national political debates where very few political parties dare to put forward an articulated vision of society in line with their respective ideologies. Indeed, this implies making clear-cut choices about who should be the beneficiaries: the 99 or the 1%?

In the current age of globalisation, does the EU have the legitimacy to put forward a narrative? Yes, definitely. Does it have the means to implement it? Yes, definitely too. But this requires a prior re-alignment between the narrative and the policies, and it needs to be about society as a whole, not only about culture, arts and values. These are crucial elements of any narrative, but they come in support of a socially progressive vision, not in spite of or instead of it. Finally, Member States also have to re-ignite the power of their own narratives to support the European one. At this stage, we need coherence, not confidence. Confidence will come along the way, when people will feel that their lives are improving. The more they will feel it, the more they will contribute, generating the virtuous circle we’re so much in need of. 

“Full equality, solidarity and Well-being for All”. What else?


Michael Privot,

ENAR Director

Disponible ici pp. 12-14.

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