Introduction: why discussing the European narrative now?

Narrating is a part of the essential story-telling and myth-making by leading politicians that social constructions such as nation states and the European Union need. It is part of the fabric that keeps it together. It involves much more than simply ‘communicating’ the EU and includes appealing to emotions and creating a sense of ownership among citizens. Politicians face an immense task: how to ensure that citizens feel involved?

The EU agenda is now packed with major policy questions including measures following the eurocrisis, different expectations regarding trade agreements, the consequences of migration policies, the inevitability of labour mobility, deepening military cooperation, inroads towards EU tax policies, etc. Yet the growing relevance of the ‘Union’ has not been matched by the development of a European identity. Governments have to offer a narrative for why ambitious EU policies are needed if the spill-over mechanism from deeper integration to European identity fails.‍[115]

A decade ago hardly anyone discussed the narrative of the EU. Opinion leaders concluded that the EU was the ‘paragon of the international virtues’, ‘irresistibly attractive’, and a ‘beacon of light’.‍[116] Who needs a narrative when all is well? A decade later, the future of the EU seldom looked so uncertain. Deepening integration following the eurocrisis, Juncker’s plea in his State of the Union (2017) to use the ‘wind in the sails’ of European integration, and perceived needs to step up actions in relation to employment, imply that the question of a suitable narrative seems here to stay.

‘The’ European narrative raises a number of important questions: Do member states (still) have a convincing story about the need for deeper integration? Is it possible to formulate a European narrative that corresponds to the variegated national narratives? Are narratives in the member states converging or does ‘Union’ mean different things in different countries? This article reviews shifts in the EU narratives in four countries, i.e. the United Kingdom, France, Germany and The Netherlands.

Towards a European narrative?

In 2013, the then president of the Commission, Barroso tried to reinvent a European narrative centred around culture, cultural diversity and ‘European values’. A review of the EU narrative debates indicates that, first of all, crisis and fears have dominated the EU discussions, ranging from concerns over competitive markets in the United States and Eastern Asia, to security threats. Negative stories may not be enough to create a positive bond. Secondly, with grave concerns over unemployment and doubts over the EU’s borders, EU leaders have shifted towards the narrative of the EU as defender of values. Barroso stressed that “confidence in Europe needs to be regained. In light of the current global trends, the values of human dignity and democracy must be reaffirmed. Populist and nationalist narratives must not prevail”.‍[117] He also started to stress the rule of law and ‘diversity’‍[118] as European values. Yet current tensions, e.g. between the Commission and Poland, or between solidarity and conditionality, show that diversity and European values need not coexist easily. Similarly, it seems not very credible to assume the rule of law is equally applied to all countries when the Commission does not take France to court for breaking the 3% rule ‘because it is France’.‍[119] Juncker shifted tracks by avoiding discussions about visions and emphasised instead pragmatic solutions and a Europe that ‘delivers’. As a senior Commission official explained in 2015: “no philosophies please; action is needed.”

Discussions on the European narrative underline the tendency to expect governments to simply explain the importance of the EU. This however leaves open the question of what kind of narrative is required. Moreover, EU narrative discussions address what the Union should be and therefore fail to offer the fabric to accept what it is. Juncker’s ‘the EU has to deliver’ and the many references to ‘the EU that has to reform’ (compare Macron’s Sorbonne speech)‍[120] bring the message home that the EU as it currently functions does not function. Hence, as far as there is a European narrative, it includes threats, crises, pragmatism and frustration about what the EU is not. This may not offer a positive narrative.

National EU narratives

As often stated, governments must have a narrative of the EU that better resonates with the concerns of the citizens. Apart from the impressions that governments abuse the EU by ‘blaming Brussels’‍[121], what narratives do we see in the member states?

United Kingdom

Starting with the United Kingdom, the endless discussions over the EU and the outcome of the Brexit referendum suggest the UK would have needed most of all a narrative adapted to changing European conditions (including the fall of the Iron Curtain). Cameron and his government had the rational proof derived from 32 reports that the EU was beneficial. Rationally, Cameron presented membership as functional, but he did not create a national EU narrative pertaining to current conditions. Setting aside the problem that the credibility of Cameron’s support for ‘Remain’ was tempered by the history of his own public ambivalence to the EU, Cameron subscribed to a myth of British exceptionalism that appeals to the free institutions and common law traditions of the isles stretching back a thousand years.

Echoing Churchill, the great narrator of English-speaking peoples, this vision placed the UK at the centre of three circles of influence; the special relationship with the USA, the British Commonwealth and Europe (in that order). The fall of the Iron Curtain weakened this British narrative because the third concentric circle (Europe) became less needed strategically. Enlargement was seen by Thatcher not as a threat to the EU’s integrity or values but as an economic opportunity as much as globalisation offered new economic global perspectives outside ‘Europe’. Consecutive British governments failed to develop a new narrative pertaining to the EU’s changing conditions.


Quite different was the development of the framing of European integration in France. France´s traditional self-image of being the leading European nation that, with German support, would work towards a political union. De Gaulle formalised the French-German relations with the Élysée Treaty (1963) to symbolise that intense cooperation at political, administrative and societal levels was needed. Macron recently announced to deepen the Élysée Treaty; a strong symbolic signal. Also, symbolic defence cooperation has served the purpose to transmit the message that France’s greatness and prestige depend on European cooperation (Europe as multiplicateur de puissance).‍[122] This frame included an element of controlling (West-) Germany politically and economically.

Peace as well as economic protection have figured strongly in the French perspectives (LLEurope qui protège). This also serves to underline it is not pro-internationalisation or -liberalisation. Hence, the French narrative has been ambiguous: integration to defend the French position in the international ranks on the one hand, and, on the other, to offer protection against foreign investments and (wage) competition, e.g. resulting from intra-EU mobility of labour and services. Similarly, the euro was presented as a mixed project to safeguard France’s strengths and to influence the Deutsche Mark.

The French perspective thus combines emotional and nationalistic arguments, as underlined by Hollande’s ‘a strong Europe to guarantee our sovereignty’. Hence, the French frame relates to power and not to rules and regulatory details that are necessary for the well-functioning of the internal market or euro. Reform of the EU and of the euro rules, a political union, and flexible integration have been favourite themes of French Presidents. Macron in many ways continues the narrative of L’Europe puissance, LLEurope qui protège, and – we may add – L’Europe qui doit changer.

The resemblance between the French narrative and discussions in other Southern EU countries such as Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain is striking. Governments have remained highly pro-EU (and pro-euro). However, Tsipras and Renzi, among others, have underlined the EU has to go back to its roots and to the original ambitions of creating a political union based on solidarity. Southern leaders tend to see themselves as rescuers of the European dream and want to reform the EU.


The German EU narrative has been persistently integrationist, yet modifications are in the air. After World War II the framing was closely linked to its economic and political rehabilitation. Germany emits the impression of being a middle-sized country that is highly dependent on its European partners. Merkel and het Finance Minister Schäuble have regarded it as their duty to keep the EU together. However, they also live the tale of a rule-based Europe (stability Union). Yet they are highly compromise-oriented and willing to pay high prices for integration (giving up the Deutschmark, accepting bailouts through the newly created European Stability Mechanism, etc.). While doing this, German leaders stress that European partners have to adhere to rules and to accept independent monitoring of rules.

Yet, also for legal reasons, and given the tense discussion in Germany over transfers between Bundesländer, open-ended financial commitments are not accepted. The EU cannot become a transfer union. The end of German patience has also been displayed, for example, in the insistence of including the IMF out of distrust of the European Commission, and by Schӓuble’s flirtations with euro-exits. Germany seems to become more outspoken on the terms on which EU policies are accepted. Contrary to the French political union, Germany tends towards a legal union.

The Netherlands

The Dutch narrative has been rather sober but seems to tend towards becoming the narrative of a small country. Rutte (2013) stated rather traditionally that “[integration] was an economic project from the very beginning” and underlined that “European Union is a pragmatic partnership between countries”. There was a strong sense of economic benefits and a dislike of EU visions (“people with visions need to see a doctor”).‍[123] Nevertheless, Rutte’s vision was clear: the EU as a limited confederation centred around the internal market. The eurocrisis, the migration crisis and the successful Dutch presidency in 2016 have modified the narrative towards a more positive presentation of the need to work through the EU, e.g. to maximize influence in neighbouring regions.‍[124] The framing has changed from economic project towards accepting the steps that need to be taken to strengthen borders, defence cooperation and the euro.

This regained pro-integrationist framing, however, also seems to be pragmatic because what happens in the EU largely depends on others; not on Dutch visions. This pragmatism was underlined in 2015 when the third rescue package to Greece – despite the election promise in 2012 of ‘no more money to Greece’ – was defended by ‘we could not stop it’. A small country has little room for manoeuvre or for visions. A narrative makes little sense when so many are involved in collective decision-making.

Conclusions and implications: From overtaxed European narrative to managing expectations

The EU is on a course towards deeper integration. The Union’s growing importance also highlighted the divergence in the European narratives whereas convergence would have been helpful. The UK stuck to its ‘we have special relations’, Germany’s self-awareness and focus on rules seem to become more pronounced, weak member states and Commission President Juncker emphasize it is the EU that needs reforming, and a small country like the Netherlands has few other options but to rely on pragmatism.

Although all leaders are faced with split societies over European integration, their responses are remarkably different. Merkel seems to become extra careful, Rutte opts for pragmatism and Macron chooses a fuite en avant. This review of narratives also suggests a difference between Northern countries that expect member states to reform and Southern member states that are more concerned with reforming the EU.

Even though some form of European public sphere is developing as can be seen, for instance, by the interest in elections in the member states, a convincing European narrative is proving elusive. This analysis has a number of consequences. First, London is not alone in lacking a narrative – all governments are struggling. Secondly, expectation management is in order. Lowering expectations in the narrative as regards what the EU is or can offer might be the less frustrating option for all concerned. Juncker’s insistence on an ‘EU that delivers’, Macron’s high ambitions and the Bratislava process create resistance towards deeper integration in some countries and frustrations over an EU that underperforms in others. Yet avoiding discussions about the EU’s future also carries dangers. Thirdly, deepening integration that is now on the agenda demands a narrative to assert ownership. In the present circumstances, deeper integration might result in a polarisation of the national narratives.

Risse, Th. (2005), ‘Neofunctionalism, European identity, and the puzzles of European integration’, Journal of European Public Policy, 12:2, April 2005: 291–309.
Kassim, H., A. Schout (eds), National EU Narratives in Europe’s multilevel context, forthcoming.
New Narrative for Europe, Speech by President Barroso at the Opening of the Warsaw New Narrative for Europe General Assembly, 11 July 2013.
See also Lacroix, J. and Nicolaidis, K. (2011), European Stories. Intellectual Debates on Europe in National Contexts, Oxford: OUP.
Schout, A., M. Luining (2017), ‘Rutte en de Europese januskop’, Internationale Spectator, no.71/
Rozenberg, O., ´French narratives oft he EU; the many ends of indifference’, in: Kassim, H., A. Schout (eds), National EU Narratives in Europe’s multilevel context, forthcoming.
Schout, A. (2017) ‘The Dutch EU Presidency: The Continuing Relevance of the Rotating Presidency in a Political Union’, Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol 55, pp. 54-63.

About the authors

Adriaan Schout is Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator Europe at the Clingendael Institute. He combines research and consultancy on European governance questions for national and European institutions. He has worked on projects addressing issues of the EU presidency, EU integration and Improving EU regulation, amongst others.

Hussein Kassim is Professor in Politics at the University of East Anglia. His research focusses on EU institutions, the relations between the EU and its Member States (with a particular focus on the UK), and EU policy in competition policy and in aviation.