Will the European hero please stand up?
April 2021
Will the European hero please stand up?
An essay on European global narrative strategy
Ties Dams & Monika Sie Dhian Ho


A more strategic European narrative is called for. That is, European leaders should more actively engage with the stories they tell and are being told about Europe’s place in the world. This essay problematises the EU global narrative in order to define ways it can be made more competitive in today’s geopolitical discursive arena. It juxtaposes aspects of the European narrative with the discursive moves of China, in order to synthesise elements of a new global narrative for Europe that provides a common sense of purpose with third countries, and that is both competitive and timely. It answers three distinct questions:

How does the European global narrative currently function?

Which aspects of the European global narrative are put under pressure by its discursive competition with China?

And how can EU institutions and European member states contribute to a stronger global narrative strategy?

This essay argues that European leaders should embrace the language of particularism, letting go of universalist value narratives. The European Way of Life is a potentially powerful but underused narrative, through which European leaders can more forcefully explain the existential worth of human rights, democracy and rule of law to Europe. It must dare to speak the language of history, using the ancient civilisational roots of European society as a treasured resource for projecting powerful stories. This means casting as our hero ‘Europe’ the ancient civilisation, rather than the EU as a young political project. The costs of strategic autonomy ought to be explained as the collective sacrifices needed to protect European values. It would be wise to recognise that European society itself is a hero forged out of hegemonic struggle in order to overcome it. It has little need of enemies, but must emphasise time and again the costs of giving in to our own vices.

If a more strategic European narrative is called for, a locus of strategic narrative formation must be established. The European Commission and Council should build capacity to exercise narrative leadership in the global arena, as it has done within Europe by virtue of the European Way of Life. Institutionally, this means a visible and proactive Stratcom unit that has a status able to amplify the capacity of member state diplomatic networks, EEAS delegations and embassies and the platform of the European Council and Commission Presidents. A more strategic European narrative, crucially, means a more empathetic and research-driven communication strategy. The various audiences within Europe, but also in the European neighbourhood and Africa, are badly under-researched. Opinion research into concrete and local grievances, aspirations, common interests and values, and perceptions of the EU should be conducted in a wide range of regional settings. To this end, historic or current ties between member states and third countries should be pooled. European thought leadership has to reconceptualise and instrumentalise the fundamental power that narrative bears in our age.

Disclaimer: The research for and production of this report have been conducted within the PROGRESS research framework agreement. Responsibility for the contents and for the opinions expressed, rests solely with the authors and does not constitute, nor should be construed as, an endorsement by the Netherlands Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense. This project has been completed on behalf of the China Knowledge Network of the Government of the Netherlands.

About the authors

Ties Dams is Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute. He is part of the EU & Global Affairs Unit and the Clingendael China Centre.

Monika Sie Dhian Ho is General Director of the Clingendael Institute. She is also Vice-Chair of the European Integration Committee and a member of the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) and teaches at the Netherlands School of Public Administration in The Hague.

Photo credits

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653.
© Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York