The European narrative community is being changed; by means of influence, interference and by the sheer gravitational pull of China’s ascent, the mechanics of European power and identity are irrevocably transformed. European leaders ought to start driving those changes. In accordance with the five main elements of powerful narratives, this essay has put forward arguments for making the European story machine more adaptive and competitive in its discursive relation to China.

Europe must more forcefully research the grievances and aspirations of its most important audiences in Africa, the Neighbourhood and in Europe itself. Broad strokes will not do; Europe must tailor its messaging to local audiences in regional contexts, building on extensive knowledge of how these audiences perceive Europe, what historic grievances fester and what future aspirations Europe can appeal to. European leaders ought not be reticent in addressing these grievances and aspirations, as ignoring them only leaves China easy discursive opportunities to take.

The EU should invest in deep, localised research into different regional audiences’ aspirations, grievances, common interests, and values and connect that knowledge to the strategic formation of narratives in congruence with member states.

In the forthcoming Conference on the Future of Europe, African leaders should be given an active role, addressing with European leaders historic grievances as well as aspirations as the basis for a new era of Afro-European strategic partnership.

European governments should develop Mandarin-language messaging on WeChat, aimed at the Chinese diaspora community.

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. Europe would be wise to relearn the grammar of community. It must dare to speak about the European way of life, its limits, its costs and the reasons it is worth defending. And 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.

Act as the champion of the Rest: quickly play into future escalations between the US and China by displaying Europe as a partner for hedging against hegemonic strife.

Rebrand European development assistance and Connectivity Strategy in unison.

In the context of Connectivity Strategy, FPI and ODA, invest in structural capacity to cobrand successes of cooperation with third countries.

The institutional setting in which strategic narratives are formed must be updated. Within the European narrative space, not all voices are equal; this is a fact widely recognised but rarely acknowledged. If member states want to play a part, and see a strong European narrative strategy as being in their own interest, they must start speaking for Europe in a strategic and coordinated fashion.

Reality will dictate, undoubtedly, that European messaging will come about through improvisation as well, and it is in this theatre of improvisation that those who dare speak up drive the story. Each member state should at least recognise that power and aim to seize it, if only momentarily and never exclusively for one’s own. Via such a process a European geopolitical narrative will be formed and institutions must build the capacity to contribute to it. The Netherlands’ China policy paper, as well as its recent Indo-Pacific Strategy, prove that taking initiative on strategically hot issues pays off. Member states should innovate on a European scale, by initiating debate, proposing ideas, forging alliances and driving structural change. The same should be done for a European Global Narrative Strategy.

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.

Create a strategic locus to coordinate the EU’s and EU member states’ joint narrative formation.

Pool narrative capacity of member states’ diplomatic networks, EEAS and the office of the European Council President and the Commission President.

Develop a new conceptual framework for European narrative power and translate that into concrete instruments for diplomats, policy makers, strategic communication-experts and political leadership.

Build capacity to study and counter Chinese disinformation, but go beyond the reactive mode, to chart and diminish the trend of declinism through which it festers.

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.