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EU lacks compelling stories

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Union needs compelling folk tale

The best way to do something against rising populism in European Union is to popularize Europe. The EU suffers from unpopularity because it lacks an inspiring story in which everyone can identify. But how do you create such a story?

When the journalist Frans Nypels took me on in 1980 as an apprentice journalist at Haarlems Dagblad, the regional newspaper in the area where I come from, he held out to me a principle that has always been a guiding principle for me in the practice of the reporter’s profession: ‘We’re writing here for Mien with the floral dress.’ She was our archetype of the newspaper reader. Someone with no more education than elementary school. Housewife. Folk Woman. In terms of knowledge level, in general development, a 12-year-old, research had shown.

But Mien was not stupid. She just hadn’t continued her education. She had not had the opportunity to do so. We had to help her. Starting by taking her seriously.

In her name, I stormed the governing institutions; the city council, the county council and parliament, the court, to check power from the press stand on behalf of citizens like Mien. We called the legal authority to account on behalf of our readers. It was our journalistic duty to lift people out of ignorance, to empower them. And empowerment begins with informing but in such a way that people can understand.

Social gaps are created by differences in education and knowledge but most importantly by your place of birth and upbringing and the resulting networks of social contacts. But that backlog of training and knowledge, there is something to be done about that. And that starts with informing ordinary average people.

This is where the European institutions, the European Commission and the European Union, and the related institutions and media initiatives, fall tremendously short. I regularly visit a movie house that shows many European films made thanks to subsidies from the European program Creative Europe MEDIA. The audience consists of people like me: highly educated people in their 50s. Out of personal interest, I have been following all kinds of European cultural projects for many years. I’ve never come across a project that really enjoys wide popularity. And this is how the whole European cultural policy works: It does not trickle down to the great mass of the population, barring a few exceptions. I mention the Eurovision Song Contest and the European Football Championship.

The exclusivity of European cultural politics is part of a larger widespread phenomenon that makes culture, art, inaccessible to the masses. Popular culture much more often tends to become elitist, “classic,” over time rather than conversely changing from elitist to popular. For example, attending Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion during Easter in the Netherlands is considered a ritual of good taste for a select few. Until a Christian media organization, the Evangelische Omroep, decided to turn it into an (annual) television production in which well-known Dutch artists sing the Passion of Jesus in popular music genres such as pop, jazz, hip-hop and rap. The live broadcast of this sung Stations of the Cross, “The Passion,” raises tens of thousands of people and is watched by millions on television. So it can be done.

So why does it fail to popularize Europe? I think this is because Europe lacks a haunting, popular and compelling story about Europe in the same way that there is a national, patriotic folk story to be told about every country that is rooted in history and that is real, true but also partly mythical. That is a romantic ideal that reflects the popular character. Wilhelm Tell, Joan of Arc, King Arthur…Hansel Brinkers, Pinocchio, Don Quixote. Europe must contend with national popular cultures that are strongly rooted in language and traditions that form our identity.

‘Europe’ in its most common sense, that of the multinational cooperation project around a common market (the EU) has failed to capture ‘the hearts of the people’. People don’t like Europe. One does not love her. This is because she lacks inspiration. The European Union is also insecure about itself. When banknotes were issued in the new European currency, the euro, they featured bridges as a sign of connection. But they were not existing, recognizable bridges because European administrators were afraid of critical reaction: “Why your bridge and not ours? Because famous bridges are national symbols.

The question is whether that is always really the case: When Notre Dame burned down in Paris it emoted many people, even outside Paris and France. All of Europe cried. Notre Dame belongs to us Europeans. She belongs to all of us. Just like the Ramblas, the Trevi Fountain, Unter den Linden and all those countless other European landmarks we have ever visited and lost our hearts to. The shooting down of the century-old bridge near Mostar in 1993 during the Yugoslav civil war also made many hearts shrink in pain. And now the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage.

Is there a modern fairy tale to be told about Europe? A folk tale with a moral, an epic about past, present and future, a Tolkienian battle of good against evil, a story about hope, about Europe as the promise of a dignified existence, a story that people will pass on to each other? ‘Once upon a time, there was a continent where people were once regularly at each other’s throats…but in the end they lived happily ever after.’

The European Union emerged incrementally from the 1950s thanks to the burying of often centuries-old feuds that had degenerated into unprecedented barbarism in the years before 1945. The Union is not just a rational project of wise governance because we are stronger together, economically, geopolitically and so on: It has been, above all, our way of repentance after 1945. She is our realization, our deeper understanding, and our hope that war and misery are avoidable. The Union is a form of civilization, of law as opposed to injustice, lawlessness and arbitrariness. It embodies the hope for a dignified existence for all within its borders. She is our idea of a better world.

Now we find that this is a fragile status quo easily shaken by populists who cleverly exploit civil discontent. Discontent that incumbent politicians have ignored for far too long. The governing elite fails to see that its own ideological agenda is not landing with voters. This crisis of confidence shows how important it is for a political narrative to resonate with the entire population and not just a small portion, especially when it comes to substantial, existential change.

This is the urgent task facing the European Union: Together, let’s create a narrative that mobilizes European public opinion for a secure future. Only a popular Europe, which is loved, can stand up to populism: But people must then be able to grasp that Europe in order to identify with it.

This can be organized: everyone is basically connected to everyone these days. Media content creation has never been easier. Software is breaking down language barriers within Europe. Europe needs storytellers, in words and images: writers, poets, musicians, composers, painters, filmmakers, game developers, thinkers with an imaginative folk spirit. And she desperately needs them. The Union needs compelling folk tales to help shape its future.

Who is participating? See: www.thesoulofeurope.com.