Back in 2013—an age ago, the calm before the storm—José Manuel Barroso, then the president of the European Commission, gave a speech launching a new project. This was before the refugee crisis, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, before the British voted to leave the European Union, before the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, London, and Barcelona.
Nevertheless, Barroso—like many, many others—saw which way the wind was blowing even then. Europe’s leaders seemed technocratic and remote—and they knew it. Europe’s political institutions were unpopular. The euro crisis had left numerous people angry and resentful. Worse, younger Europeans seemed not to get the point of the union at all. Barroso made a proposal:
I think we need, in the beginning of the XXI century, namely for the new generation that is not so much identified with this narrative of Europe, to continue to tell the story of Europe. Like a book: it cannot only stay in the first pages, even if the first pages were extremely beautiful. We have to continue our narrative, continue to write the book of the present and of the future. This is why we need a new narrative for Europe.
With that, he launched the “New Narrative for Europe,” a cultural project that looked impressive on paper. Artists, writers, and scientists from across the continent signed a declaration: “In light of the current global trends, the values of human dignity and democracy must be reaffirmed.” They made contributions to a new book, The Mind and Body of Europe: A New Narrative. Debates on the New Narrative were held across Europe, in Milan, Warsaw, and Berlin as well as Brussels. Members of the European Commission (each member state has one) held “citizens’ dialogues” across the continent too. A New Narrative website was created so that young Europeans could “have their say.”
The aim was to create a strong sense of European federal identity, and while it’s easy for Anglo-Saxons to laugh, many modern European states were created by precisely this kind of top-down campaign—think of the unification of Italy or Germany in the nineteenth century, or the resurrection of Poland after World War I. Barroso’s project had some of the elements of a popular national movement: intellectual and artistic support, a consistent idea, an inspiring concept.
Except, of course, that it was not popular. The artists, writers, and scientists squabbled about the declaration. The Mind and Body of Europe sank without a trace. The debates went unremarked. The website is still there but seems not to have been recently updated. None of the six books reviewed here, all by experts on European politics, mentions the New Narrative project at…
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