Dobbs: Eurozone drama can turn into ‘House of Cards’

Michael Dobbs ,with the cast of House of Cards. [Michael Dobbs]

Europe is a great story to tell, but often marred by institutional jumble. The Eurozone crisis could be told in such a way that it would spark the imagination of Europeans, on what the EU is all about, says Michael Dobbs, author of the critically-acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards, in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV.

Michael Dobbs is a member of the House of Lords, former chief of staff of UK Prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and the writer of House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

Dobbs spoke to EURACTIV’s editor in chief Daniela Vincenti, in the margin of the International Communication summit organised by Pomilio Blumm.

You are the author of House of Cards—based on the life of a Machiavellian politician Francis Urquhart. Do you think the EU can appeal to the imagination of a political writer like you, or is it just too complicated to inspire?

First of all, the American production is in the parameter of television. The House before it became an American television series, was British TV series, and a book. It is something that is universal. People around the world are watching this and not because they are fascinated or even understand the US system. It is just like Julius Cesar. 2000 years ago, he was stabbed in the back by his best friend on the steps of the Capitol. That is the message about the human side of politics and that is what people get out of it. What people remember when seeing the US version of House of Cards is not what bill is being involved, or which committee is being involved: it is Francis and Claire [the main character in House of Cards]—these great characters. That is what is what drives drama. Not the details.

Culture is what drives politics: it’s the people, rather than the institution. The institutions are relevant, but they are not the story.

So let me rephrase my question: Do you think that the European story can be told through strong characters like Francis and Claire?

Certainly it can be done, and in one of my books, I have done a bit. But drama concentrates so often on the dark side. We discover what people are about and what makes them different when we see them under pressure and in difficult situation.

House of Cards is mostly on the dark side, most of Shakespeare is on the dark side. For drama to take place in Brussels, it would inevitably first be quite controversial, but it would require Brussels and the European Union to have a sense of humour and a sense of perspective, and be able to laugh at itself.

Right now, I don’t see much sign of the European Union being able to laugh at itself.

You say drama. Do you think the Eurozone crisis could be such a drama? 

The Eurozone crisis is a very good case. First of all, the drama would have to be written by someone who understood the inside. Too many people write drama as a base of their uniformed prejudices. Good political drama is written by people who are on the inside, who understand the pressure, and understand that sometimes there is no right and wrong, it is just simply a matter of different types of wrong.

Politicians who in very difficult circumstances have to make difficult set of choices.

The Eurozone disaster would be much easier to write it from the point of view of a middle class Greek. You have talked about the Eurozone crisis from the centre. There is another story to be told out there and that actually might make a great drama: contrasting what goes on at the centre with what goes in the real world.

But I have to ask myself when the time will come to do that. Is the Eurozone crisis yet over, or are we simply taking a pause when we see whether we can avoid another one?

It is a difficult area, but it would have to be brought down to the individuals—the Merkels, the Hollandes of this world, and the Greek middle-age housewife who finds it desperately difficult to survive at this moment. The two together can make a very compelling drama. But it would not be necessarily the sort of thing that the EU would feel comfortable about.

But the point of drama is not to make people feel comfortable about things. It is actually often to make things wobble a bit, so that one can move to a new and hopefully a better position.

Is that a way of saying that institutional Europe is trying to micromanage the narrative around Europe, which defacto disengages Europeans from the European project?

If people out there are able to re-embrace the European Union, it has to be through communication that relates to their real life. This is why I suspect that there is more enthusiasm in new member states.

Some of the old members of the EU are asking ‘what relevance does this is to my life and problems?’. Because the language that is used is often too organizational, and bureaucratic. We have to find a way of linking what goes on at the centre with the ordinary live of European citizens.

It is peculiar how Europe is admired all over the world, except at home. The reason is we have tried over the last years to define Europe in organizational terms, through its institutions. When people talk about Europe today, they mean the EU. But identity is not defined by institutions, defined by culture.

If I make one criticism about what the European Union has done, it is to set too rigid a timetable. If the EU wants to change something, it has to allow time for the people to catch (up) and not to get so far ahead of the people that the people begin turn their back on the EU.

When do you think we are going to have an EU House of Cards?

I don’t know. These things can’t be planned, they just happen. The whole point of creativity is that it is a spark, (a) lightbulb that suddenly flashes on, and you never know what causes that to be lit. But Europe is a great story to tell. We should revisit the Treaty of Rome, which calls for an ever closer union, not amongst institutions, but among the people of Europe.

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