The EU suffers from a lack of visibility and a reluctance to celebrate its victories. Partly, this issue should be attributed to the hero conundrum, but there is more to it than that.

Knowledge of the EU among general audiences in non-European countries is poor indeed. Country studies are sparse, but available data show that in India and Brazil, for example, most citizens are unaware of the existence and purpose of the EU. In South Africa, the EU is viewed as ‘an ineffective actor by the few who have an opinion on it’ (Lucarelli, 2014). Unsurprisingly, the EU is better known among elites, especially in former colonial countries and countries close to the EU’s borders. As Lucarelli (Seen from the Outside: The State of the Art on the Image of the EU, 2014) concludes:

The EU tends to be regarded as complicated, bureaucratic and potentially ‘boring’ for the broad public.

Other data show that the EU is globally recognised as an economic powerhouse and a potential leader that, as of now, lacks strategic influence. In Southeast Asia, the EU is the largest provider of FDI and amongst the top three importers for most states in the region. According to the last ‘State of Southeast Asia’ survey, when asked which state or bloc was most trusted to champion global free trade, the EU came in second only to Japan, leaving the US and China far behind. It won the contest for ‘leadership in maintaining the rule-based order and upholding international law’, with the US and Japan coming in second and third respectively. Only a fraction of respondents (0.7% in 2019 and 1.1% in 2020) indicated that the EU had the most political and strategic influence. The EU ambassador to ASEAN is quoted as saying that the EU suffers from ‘a visibility deficit’, adding that this is far from being only the case in Southeast Asia:

It is hard enough already to get people to write and read about the EU and EU policies within Europe.

(Hutt, 2020)

There is, in short, much to be gained by systematically and audaciously banking on the latent positive sentiments towards the EU and complementing narratives of economic success with those that emphasise geostrategic leadership. The public diplomacy activities of the European Commission’s Foreign Policy Instruments could be brought to the fore and adapted to incorporate strategic narrative formation.

In comparison to the BRI, the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy exemplifies what happens when victories are left uncelebrated. Launched in 2018 by means of the ‘Joint Communication Connecting Europe and Asia – Building Blocks for an EU Strategy’ (EC; HRVP, 2018), it is widely recognised as the EU’s answer to the BRI, even though the EU has tried hard to escape that frame. On the surface, it is similar to the BRI: a bureaucratic framework that brings together all kinds of trade-enhancing measures, such as investments in transportation networks, across Eurasia and Southeast Asia. In terms of volume, it is probably a lot smaller, as the BRI has grown into an umbrella for all of China’s economic diplomacy. As narratives, the two could not be more different.

The BRI was born in 2013 during visits Xi made to Kazakhstan and Indonesia (Xinhua, 2016). Even though at that initial stage it encompassed only a number of projects in two countries, in his speeches Xi launched a narrative of wider ambition and deeper relevance. Staunchly historicist and civilisational, Xi’s tale recounted ‘2000-plus years’ of trade and cultural links between Asia and Europe and announced that now was the time to breathe new life into these ancient ‘Silk Roads’ (Xi, President Xi Jinping Delivers Important Speech and Proposes to Build a Silk Road Economic Belt with Central Asian Countries, 2013). In the beginning of the BRI, it can be said, there was the Word, not the policy. And by virtue of Xi’s words, and the narrative space he created, material policies could grow all the more rapidly. Xi’s strategic forte exemplified by the BRI should not be misunderstood: the project is poorly defined and opaque, and the narrative was partly designed, but also improvised and revised many times. Yet, the very fact that the BRI was launched by narrative means implies that, however imperfect, Xi created a literary device that can be used time and again to celebrate relatively small successes in light of the greater victory ahead: China as an imperishable power and an indispensable centre of world trade.

The EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy is the opposite: it projects norms but has no narrative. Unsurprisingly, the strategy’s existence is barely known beyond the office walls of European ministries and think tanks. The issue is not that the EU, in this case, has forgotten to put the icing on the cake; rather, half the cake is missing, as the BRI shows that narratives exert their own power, which, in turn, amplify the material prowess of policy. In the case of the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, the mutually enforcing machinery of narrative and material policy never got running, as internal competition between various EU bureaucracies and member states made it impossible to create a singular strategic narrative (Okano-Heijmans, 2021).

Although, since 2019, the EEAS has appointed an Ambassador-at-large for Connectivity, this office is too understaffed and too isolated to construct an EU-wide narrative while funding to put the lofty ambitions into practice is lacking (Okano-Heijmans, 2021). Europe’s untapped power of materially impactful and geopolitically strategic storytelling lies, rather, in the potentially amplifying effects of the EEAS network of embassies and delegations and those of the member states. This potential can only be tapped when there is in fact a narrative to tell. EU and member-state leadership should take a leaf from Xi’s book and lead by force of narrative, initiating compelling stories that drive policies and shape interests. Von der Leyen, with her European Way of Life, shows it can be done. Xi shows it must be done, and that it must be done on a global level, to compete.

The issue resonates in the field of development assistance. The EU and its member states are the world’s largest development donor (European Commission, 2019), but are recognised by few as such. Over the past two decades the US has stepped up its efforts to publicise and brand its development assistance. USAID legislation requires that all programmes under the Foreign Assistance Act ‘be identified appropriately overseas as “American Aid”’ (USAID, 2020). Likewise, since 2012, the UK government has required that ‘aid from Britain will … be badged with a Union Flag when it is sent overseas’ (Department for International Development, 2012).

Around the same time, the EU issued guidelines on the use of the EU emblem, requiring beneficiaries of EU programmes at home and abroad to use the ‘European emblem in their communication to acknowledge the support received under EU programmes’ (European Commmission, 2012). In 2018 an update on ‘Requirements for implementing partners’ with regard to ‘Communication and Visibility in EU-financed external actions’ was published, which deems it a matter of some importance that

C&V [communication and visibility, auth.] measures … must be designed as part of a structured communication and visibility plan developed by the partner concerned … must be people-centred, adopting where appropriate a story-telling approach that emphasises the impact of action on individual lives, rather than administrative guidelines or budgets.

(European Commission, 2018)

Conversely, China brands many different kinds of projects, including many commercial initiatives, as development assistance, whilst at the same time spending very little money on aid in the narrow sense (Fang, 2018). In so doing, it lends an aura of charity to big, visible projects, most importantly in the field of infrastructure. This has helped Chinese aid become highly visible relative to its actual size. Moreover, as we have seen before, it has made its aid-branding part of a larger narrative, that points to the emancipatory potential of a post-Western world.

The Anglo-Saxon approach has some clear disadvantages. It reeks of neo-colonialism and undermines the authority and agency of local governments. Although it may invigorate national pride in donor countries, it diminishes the altruistic quality that pride may have. When it comes to the EU, more importantly, the biggest issue is not diminishing support for development aid at home, which was cited as the main reason behind the UK’s branding spree. Recent figures indicate that more than 73% of EU citizens believe aid spending by the EU and its member states should either stay the same or increase (Chadwick, 2019).

The EU and its member states are not better served by Anglo-Saxon fanfaronade, nor by Chinese sophistry. Europe may benefit, however, from cunningly making use of narrative power to increase the impact of the money it spends on aid. How? Paradoxically, the Commission’s requirements for communication and visibility above already point to the answer: storytelling, but on a large scale. Europe must breathe life into the institutional instruments in place by exercising narrative leadership, making aid, connectivity and foreign policy parts of a larger narrative that explains the story Europa’s vital value to the world. Furthermore, Europe can competitively distinguish itself by offering budgets for local governments of recipient countries to cobrand with the EU: celebrating shared successes in a way that adds to, rather than undermines the agency and self-worth of local audiences. Europe must show and tell.

The European reluctance to celebrate victories is not only a missed opportunity but also a strategic weakness that has indeed been exploited in recent times. A virulent mix of braggadocio and smear coming from geopolitical competitors has made its mark on European discourse during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Chinese leadership knows it has long struggled to project soft power or an attractive national image on the global stage. As a consequence of China’s ascent and the growing liabilities and responsibilities associated with this power, of the escalation of animosities in messaging between Washington and Beijing during the Trump administration and of the PR calamity that the COVID-19 outbreak was feared to be, the Chinese leadership has been experimenting with more audacious forms of public diplomacy. ‘Face mask diplomacy’, as China’s COVID-19 publicity campaign has come to be known, exposes an important strand of insecurity in China’s self-image as a great power.

Even though many European countries were quick to deliver aid to China as the epidemic emerged, with EU officials noting exchanges of over 50 tonnes of medical supplies in January alone, European messaging was deliberately muted, in response to Chinese requests to maintain a low profile. When the crisis hit Europe, Chinese assistance arrived all the same, although commercial exchanges of medical supplies far exceeded aid volumes. Ironically, Chinese government, state-owned and private enterprises, local Chinese communities and other actors amplified well-coordinated and locally tailored messages of Chinese leadership and charity (ETNC, 2020).

The Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is among China’s most vocal supporters, spreading billboards across the country thanking Xi. In an official address announcing a state of national emergency, Vucic said:

European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairytale on paper.

(Evans, 2020)

Serbia is not an EU state, but a candidate member, neighbour and recipient of EU aid. Italy is another interesting case: after the EU declined Italy’s request for aid under the Civil Protection Mechanism, Chinese parties (state and private) provided 30 tons of medical supplies for Italy (Verma, 2020). This was accompanied by a relentless social media campaign, using both anonymous bot accounts as well as the embassy’s own media to amplify China’s message (Ghiretti, 2020). Later, the European Commission did provide Italy with aid for medical equipment and offered a ‘heartfelt apology’ for not coming to Italy’s aid initially. Several member states followed by treating Italian patients and sending medical equipment (Verma, 2020).

The next chapter in China’s COVID narrative is unfolding as we speak: vaccine diplomacy. It raises the question of how a European leadership is preparing to project narratives of European effectiveness and solidarity, before these can be trumped by Chinese counter-narratives of division and inertia. Even more surprising has been the rise of Chinese disinformation tactics, which focus not on projecting a positive image for China abroad but on infusing European public discourse with polarising and negative messaging. EU vs. Disinfo is an EU desk aimed at mapping, checking and refuting disinformation tactics. A recent post by EU vs. Disinfo explains that disinformation is a form of storytelling; false claims narrated in a compelling way, in the full knowledge that people are generally poor at remembering facts and all the better at internalising narratives (EU vs. Disinfo, 2021).

Propaganda and disinformation are very different, both on a strategic and ethical level. China’s recent experiments with this broad range of narrative interventions, however, come from a more profound and long-standing strategic concept of discourse power, huayuquan, which does not focus on attractiveness like soft power does, but rather on an actor’s right to speak in a global arena of discursive competition dominated by a few powerful players. The current Chinese leadership recognises the West as discursively hegemonic and views breaking that hegemony as a matter of great, long-term priority.

A strategic outlook such as that showcased by the Chinese leadership blends material and immaterial forms of power and recognises offensive and defensive narratives as complementary rather than conflicting forces. Conceptually, it is poorly understood in Europe; its strategic usefulness has yet to be embraced; and instruments barely exist to fit European societies. China’s experiments urge us to fill in these blanks, if Europe wants to have its voice heard in the future. Europe should innovate its strategic conception of the power of narrative, translate that into instruments that fit its sociopolitical model and geostrategic interests, and adapt its institutions to make targeted use of these instruments based on deep research into and localised data on audiences’ grievances, aspirations and common interests. The biggest danger is only to react.