The abduction of Europe by Titian

Europe needs a foundational narrative.  A common market, a bunch of binding rules (albeit more reasonable ones than commonly depicted), large administrative premises in Brussels, faceless bureaucrats and a phantom Parliament do not constitute a foundational narrative. Without a foundational narrative, Europe won’t resist another ten years of being accused of all evil, of having caused every plague and been the source of all sin – this scape goat of populism and every national rancour will be destroyed.

Foundational narratives are the glue that stick human communities together. This fact is so obvious and fundamental that it is puzzling that we need to write this post. It is amazing that European leaders haven’t yet acted in any meaningful fashion to fill the void of the Union, and its abysmal lack of story.

Sixty six years after the beginning of perhaps the most extraordinary political project of its long history, the continent is still failing to produce a narrative. This was understandable when the Union was limited to a free market Treaty. A free market Treaty is a State to State arrangement, which doesn’t need popular support. Some members (now leaving), never wanted the Union to be anything more than an arrangement. But the Union has become, as a result of what has been added to the foundations over the last 50 years, an entity of such incredible significance that it can hardly be considered a mere arrangement.

The founders, after WWII, consciously constructed the framework of the Union, the ECSC, as a political project to discourage age-old enemies from embarking again on wars. But as more floors, aisles and annexes were added to the building over time, fears arose that Europe was becoming a Federal State. In France for example, Jacques Chirac’s UDR-RPR fought against “federalism”, and condemned the promoters of the European project (Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s UDF) to “proceed with a mask”, that is, to move forward with European consolidation behind closed doors. Since then, at every step of European construction, its promoters have felt it was preferable to undermine the symbolic importance of the EU and advertise its convenience only.

Today, Europe has similar institutions to national governments.  It has a Constitution, a legislative branch (the EU Parliament) and an executive branch.  The latter combines the European Council (Heads of States and a President they choose, currently Donald Tusk) which is in charge of strategic questions, and the Commission, which is in charge of day to day implementation of European law. Compared to a National State, the EU’s governance might seem a little more complex, since it allows member national governments to exercise control on the Commission via the Council of the European Union (where National Ministers sit, with rotating Presidency). The legislative process is also slightly more complex, as it is shared (“co-decision”) between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council of the European Union(1).

For all its complexity, is the Union less democratic? One of the extraordinary things about Europe is that politicians, including the ones involved in its Institutions, sometimes themselves say that the EU is undemocratic and in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, when this is clearly simply EU-bashing at its most basic.  The Parliament is directly elected by European citizens. The two councils are an emanation of democratically elected member States Governments. The Commission’s  President is chosen by the Council, and his nomination approved by the Parliament. Both the Council and the Parliament have the power to sack him or her. The Union is a democracy, more so than these member States who still maintain a hereditary Head of State (Royalty)!(2)

The EU has a Minister for Foreign Affairs. It has a currency. It has borders. It has a Central Bank. The Union’s domains of competence are defined by the Treaty of Lisbon, and cover nearly all aspects of government.

Europe is not becoming a Federation, it is one. Over the last 66 years, a Cathedral has been built that member States have been reluctant to present as such to their citizens, and that they have insisted on describing as a humble countryside church in order to avoid criticism for having agreed to a loss of sovereignty. But now the Cathedral is there, its turrets pointing proudly at the sky; it can’t be hidden any longer. Which is exactly why its purpose must be acclaimed, its accomplishments celebrated, and its goal publicised.

A European narrative should start with the celebration of our European democracy.

Continental European citizens are supposed to be split on Europe, which is why politicians have tended to hide the Cathedral from their eyes. But the 2017 French Presidential elections have seen a landslide loss for the candidate that promised to pull France out of Europe. Are Europeans really opposed to Europe?

What the French elections have also shown, as did the Dutch ones before them, is that there is a need for a debate on the social goals of the EU, and about the level of protection the Union is going to provide to its citizens, in particular in the area of labour laws. The opposition between a political left that aims at increasing workers’ protection, and a right that advocates employment flexibility should be a surprise to no-one, since it has been the main political tension in national politics across the whole continent since WWII. This opposition is not resolved, and requires an ongoing serious, deep and dignified debate.

We must question whether lack of labour flexibility is really responsible for the lagging national growth and employment rates in Southern Europe, versus the North, rather than other issues, such as higher taxation – with social security costs being added to the cost of labour – or a lower proportion of profits being re-invested in the economy. We must question whether transnational mobility affects the labour marketplace, and how mobility can be beneficial to energise the economy, without condemning workers to the lowest common denominator in terms of social protection and wages. We must question our handling of areas and populations which have been left to economic obsolescence by technological progress, and how to remedy the specific problems that arise in these regions. We must question the future of labour, the technological evolutions that threaten our societies and work practices, and the future of social protection systems that are premised on work as the primary source of revenue: in an automated economy, how do we distribute revenue when labour itself becomes obsolescent?

These questions are hard, but they are also fascinating and debates around them should be extraordinarily passionate and engaging. What is truly amazing, in our Federal Europe, is that these questions arise in national conversations, and are then used to crystallise various shapes and forms of Euro-scepticism, as if raising questions about the key area of our lives required a position of hostility towards Europe. It is no less amazing that none of the national champions of the EU (pro European political parties) ever propose to use the one forum we have to discuss such topics, the only institution with the power to resolve them – the European Parliament. Instead, the supposed dominance of the German Government is invoked as an excuse to claim that no solution to social issues can be found without exiting the Union, or that the Union’s social policies are a done deal that we must learn to live with.

The European Parliament has had countless discussions on social issues and labour laws. But the discussions happening in Strasbourg have an absolute nil echo in national political conversations. They generate no comment, and even, no public opposition. The national media superbly ignore the European Parliament debates, and barely report them. As a result, we witness an incredible paradox: social issues, equality, poverty, labour laws, the questions that matter most are discussed in Strasbourg by MEPs who have the power to make an impact on them in a deafening media silence, whilst national media can never get tired of staging the oratories of national stand up speakers who have zero power to influence European legislation.

The European Parliament must become the central institution of our Union, and our media must start reporting its work and placing it at the core of our political conversation and culture. The Parliament’s debates are often too consensual and technical. The Institution must become aware of its own importance, and become a lively, powerful and vibrant Assembly of the People(s), where our questions can be asked and answered, our challenges taken on board, our future debated and resolved. The media must start reporting the Parliament’s activities on issues that matter to European people. The Parliament must become the core of our European democracy, it must shine and dominate the political conversation. It must become the chamber where political movements aspire to be heard, the place where the future is given its shape.

It must also exert its constitutional powers and demonstrate its control, as per the Treaty of Lisbon, over the European Commission to ensure the Commission pushes forward the agenda democratically decided by the Parliament, as is its prerogative (2).

The European Parliament must become our Agora (3).

Isn’t making the Parliament a lively democratic institution the antidote to scepticism towards Europe? Would Europeans look at Europe with different eyes if the Parliament’s debates were publicised and did indeed relay their questions, their fears, their hopes, their challenges? If the Parliament actually sacked a Commission that  failed to enact its democratically determined agenda?

The fundamental narrative Europe needs is about the power of its core democratic institution.

But we also need stories that demonstrate the usefulness of Europe in everybody’s life. The Euro has been a positive narrative, overall. Erasmus has been another compelling story, allowing thousands of young people to study abroad; to have access to an open continent of human and career opportunities; to meet and even, for some, marry foreigners. Why not celebrate louder? We need more European success stories, so we can look at the Cathedral with pride and a sense of belonging. Success can come from everywhere, really: enterprise, adventures, exploration, sport, culture, entertainment… The European Space program, or Airbus could be springboards for powerful narratives (4). European sports events. European environmental projects. European cultural movements. European arts. European humanitarian activities. European innovative businesses. All and any of these.

Europe needs heroes. The countryside church syndrome has led us to choose too many countryside clergymen to celebrate the mass. But as said, Europe is a Cathedral. We need bishops. Perhaps even a Pope. We need more prominent personalities to be the voices of Europe. But we must also celebrate European heroes outside of politics. In business, in arts, in science.

It has always amazed me that in a Continent of 400 million, the only cinematographic culture that has succeeded across borders is American cinema. Why are Americans capable of exciting all Europeans on the deeds and works of Captain America, but no European hero has ever emerged from an otherwise rich, talented and well-funded European cinema?

So, European democracy, success stories, and European heroes, are narratives that need to be told.  But what is the foundational narrative that should underpin our story telling? What are the values, and what is the core idea?

European values were firmly asserted, first in the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights and further, in the 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union; Europe was born of a desire for peace, and the condemnation of internal war and conflict is certainly a belief that unites Europeans today. Justice is key, a form of justice that can be harmoniously combined with the need for prosperity. A deep attachment to humanism is no doubt part of our European values, on a Continent that unanimously rejects the barbaric violence that darkened the 20th Century. Freedom, of course, is pivotal. The pursuit of a more egalitarian and protective society is still under debate but will almost certainly, over time, be added to our core values.

Europe needs a core idea. One that is to us what the American Dream is to North Americans. It should sum up what we are, as a group, but also motivate and energise each of us, make us feel individually as part of a fantastic adventure. It should inspire us and make us all creators of the European enterprise. It should be our empowering belief.

From a divided continent, we have come together. From a history of wars, we have chosen a future of peace. From a past of servitude and domination, we are aiming at creating a society of free equals. Our core idea must illustrate our united desire to create a better society, a society with more rights and less servitude, a society with more potential and less hardship.


  1. The Council of the European Union also takes the lead in crisis management. The majority rule now in force in the Council of the European Union ensures that it represents the majority view of the member States rather than allowing one State to oppose, via veto, to the decision of the others, a clear step towards federalism.
  2. There is noticeably a democratic deficit in the Union’s current democratic life. However, one that we hope will be corrected in the future. The Parliament doesn’t have the power to initiate legislative, the Commission currently holds this power, as well as the power to draft legislation. However, as a result of the constitutional subordination of the Commission to the Parliament, it doesn’t preclude the Parliament from exerting pressure on the Commission such that it drafts legislation in accordance with the Parliament’s direction.
  3. The Ancient Greece place where citizens freely gathered and discussed the City’s issues and public life.
  4. Even though Airbus wasn’t created by the EU, it is seen as a strong symbol of how Europeans can cooperate and achieve ambitious goals by uniting their forces.


Christophe Abensour

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