A new narrative for Europe: From Myth to Mythomania

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

President José Manuel Barroso’s new narrative looks like a one more attempt to revive the illusion that Europeans have adhered to the European project because of a shared culture. Another myth. Mozart, Goethe and Picasso have contributed much less to building Europe than the reduction of precariousness that followed WWII, writes Michael Privot.

Michael Privot, Director of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR).

On 1 March, President Barroso and Chancellor Merkel will attend the unveiling of the final declaration on the “New Narrative for Europe”, drafted by artists, scientists and intellectuals. This project is the result of nearly two years of efforts, and was launched following a call by President Barroso to mobilise the cultural sector to give good reasons to citizens to stand up against populism and for a common European future.

The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) initially rejoiced at the prospect of this ambitious project. Indeed, we had been innovators 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 narrative able to mobilise forces, harness energies, give hope and, above all, offer a sense of direction, starting from the grassroots. The challenge was to keep it simple and 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”. It is about empowering people to regain agency on their lives and their collective destiny through the European project.

While our respective efforts both originated in a legitimate concern for the future of Europe and the rise of toxic ideologies and political forces, we decided to go back to potential victims of such ideologies and build a narrative bottom up. The Commission project will gave way to a sophisticated discourse, stuck in the stratosphere of philosophical considerations, disconnected from citizens’ aspirations.

The European project was driven by a generation that had just gone through the horrors of WWII and wished to avoid them for ever. They acted very wisely on 3 levers: 1) the law, with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; 2) a redistributive economy: the Pact of the Resistance laid the ground for an economy at the service of society and aiming at stability after the excesses of the interwar period – that also led to the rise of Nazism; 3) a bold political undertaking: the development of economic and military cooperation in Europe, planting the seeds of the European Union.

In the following decades, the idea that Europe was the vehicle for bringing progress, a better future for the generations to come, reduction of inequalities, improved solidarity, education and health stuck in people’s minds.

In 30 years, European societies achieved an impressive leap forward. This holds true until the beginning of the Eighties, when the European project started to go off track by focusing on improving the situation of a tiny cluster of the population, while the majority endured a growing number of sacrifices to “maintain our social model”. The 2007 crises were the culmination of this change of direction.

Today, people feel Europe no longer protects them, does not offer them a future, and has not been able to organise solidarity between its wealthy and poorer Member States. They have lost faith in the European project. Indeed, a “Brussels Consensus” has emerged – a coalition of individuals and institutions trapped in systemic constraints and unable to develop a critical approach to the concrete implications of their economic and social policies. Austerity has never led to the prosperity and progress of the majority. This is a myth.

Mr Barroso’s narrative project looks like a one more attempt to revive the illusion that Europeans have adhered to the European project because of a shared culture. Another myth. Mozart, Goethe and Picasso have contributed much less to building Europe than the reduction of precariousness that followed WWII.

Trying to tap into the support of artists and intellectuals as models of transnationalism and anti-populism, hoping that they will be able to blow on the dying embers of pro-European sentiments among Europeans is an illusion. On the contrary, it reduces culture, artists and intellectuals to the role of a smoke screen hiding the root causes of Europeans’ disengagement: the increasing gap in resources and wealth redistribution when Europe has never been so rich; increased poverty (1 out of 4 Europeans lives in poverty); the dismantling of public and social services; social dumping; tax avoidance; refusal of tax harmonisation; lack of guaranteed minimum income; growing environmental disorders; failing representative democracies.

Our narrative for Europe, “Realising full equality, solidarity and well-being for All”, requires tackling every single one of these challenges in an inclusive and progressive way. As for Mr Barroso’s narrative, nobody can deny that culture and arts play a central role in our lives, but today Europeans want a future, not a culture. Will it really be able to cater for that? 

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