PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images

Rewriting Europe’s Narrative

Nearly a decade of austerity in member states has undermined the European Union's economic promise, strained the bonds of solidarity, and paved the way for a resurgence of toxic ideologies. If the EU is to survive, it needs a new collective identity – and the ability to intimidate others.

MADRID – When the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union, was established by the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the narrative that defined it was that economic integration would encourage growth, strengthen democracy, and bury the ghosts of Europe’s violent past. In other words, the objective of inoculating Europe from the maladies of nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism was written into the DNA of the post-World War II project of European integration.

But the disarray produced by the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and the austerity measures that followed, undermined the EU’s foundational promises and paved the way for the return of toxic ideologies. If European solidarity is to survive its latest challenge, a new narrative is urgently needed.

Populism’s resurgence has no doubt been aided by the anonymity of EU institutions, in contrast to the traditional welfare-providing institutions of the nation-state. For this reason, EU policymakers should embrace more socially responsible initiatives that promote wealth distribution, welfare, and workers’ rights.

But, by itself, a better socioeconomic deal for EU citizens will not prevent the European project from fracturing. Communal bonds can withstand economic strain; they dissolve when shared values are trampled and a sense of belonging is lost. Today’s failures have less to do with economic hardship than with the collective inability to create what Winston Churchill once called “the European family” linked by shared “patriotism and common citizenship.”

If the United States somehow remains united after the ravages of Donald Trump’s predatory presidency, it will be thanks to the emotional resonance of the so-called American dream and shared allegiance to the promise, enshrined in the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights, of equal enjoyment of individual liberty. Europeans have no such bond, and creating one will not be easy, especially as regional nationalist movements, like that in Catalonia, push in the other direction.

The EU’s post-Cold War enlargement was meant to cement the bloc’s shared values for future generations. Instead, with populist politicians gaining strength in Central and Eastern Europe, enlargement has become a threat to the bloc itself. Today’s East-West divide has raised a troubling question: are Europe’s common borders based on anything more profound than geography?

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Multilateral organizations are always free to change course when changing realities dictate. For example, NATO has tweaked its mandate twice in the last three decades – first at the end of the Cold War, when its founding strategic doctrine became irrelevant, and more recently, to hedge against Russian revisionism.

But the meek response by major European powers to the illiberal trend in Central and Eastern Europe does not constitute a course correction; it embodies, instead, unprincipled pragmatism. Unless the status quo changes, the EU’s easternmost states – particularly Poland, where the idea of “Polexit” has been gaining ground – could withdraw from the EU to form a more autocratic alliance with Eurasia.

Authoritarian populism is not a deviation from the democratic process; it has always been its unavoidable concomitant. Now that the EU seems incapable of stemming its rise among the bloc’s own founding members, maintaining cohesion would require a new pan-European narrative, one that incorporates diverse national histories and political idiosyncrasies.

This means listening to, and conducting a continuous dialogue about, the illiberal policies championed by Poland’s de facto leader, Law and Justice party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, and Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. So long as the democratic pendulum is allowed to work, policies can be reversed. Not even Donald Trump is eternal, as French President Emmanuel Macron has remarked.

If the EU’s “imagined community” of a predominantly Roman Catholic collectivity shaped by the history of Charlemagne’s medieval western empire can still accommodate its illiberal Eastern European members, albeit with some difficulty, it can do the same for Muslim-majority Turkey, where a sizeable opposition resiliently pursues a Kemalist, secular vision for the country. Moreover, despite President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tightened grip on power, which has given European leaders a pretext to suspend Turkey’s accession bid, he continues to advocate EU membership.

Europe’s inability to forge a common narrative has hurt its “soft power” advantage over non-democratic states like China and Russia. Rendered complacent by America’s security guarantees, Europe has been too quick to embrace the fantasy of a “post-historical” world, where conflicts are always resolved peacefully, and where military power is unnecessary.

To be sure, the EU’s greatest strength remains its ability to defend democratic ideals and to project progressive values around the world. And with much of Europe surrounded by illiberal forces, and with the US in retreat from its global responsibilities, the EU has been left alone to defend what remains of the old order.

But to be able to inspire, Europe must also have the ability to intimidate. If the EU could stand up to Russian aggression, for example, the bloc would have more leverage over Eastern European states, especially those with governments that appear happy to gravitate toward Russia’s sphere of influence. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long used history to suit his own political narrative. The EU needs to be equally adept.

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