Every story needs a hero. So, who is Europe’s?

In his Poetics, Aristotle defines the epic, or heroic verse, thus:

Epic poetry corresponds to tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of admirable people. But they differ in that epic … is narrative. …

One should not compose a tragedy out of a body of material which would serve for an epic – by which I mean one that contains a multiplicity of stories.


Tragedy and epic are both about heroes – ‘admirably people’ – but whereas a tragedy lets the characters speak for themselves, in an epic we hear the narrator tell the story. The epic has one important strategic advantage: it has a significantly wider scope, as the narrator can link many stories within one grand narrative. The weakness of the epic is that it is less direct: the narrator draws attention away from the hero, by standing between him and the audience. Homer, in Aristotle’s mind, has used the epic to its full potential, weaving a narrative of unparalleled breadth in his Iliad and Odyssey, yet claiming as little space as possible for himself, letting his heroes, Odysseus and others, tell the story for him.

The Chinese story-machine is in the business of producing epics. Xi is not only the most powerful leader since Mao, but he is also China’s most visible in decades, probably even surpassing Deng. Mao was the revolutionary master of chaos, who did the impossible by reclaiming an empire seemingly lost in decades of division and decay. Deng was the wise man, the restorer of order, who led China towards its own path of development. Xi is the poet as well as the protagonist of part three of China’s modern epic: the return to global leadership.

China’s mode of narration reflects its sociopolitical model, strongly emphasising unity. With the succession of Hu by Xi, the CCP supplemented and partly replaced its model of collective but opaque leadership with a single, visible storyteller-in-chief. In a 2011 op-ed, sinologist Kerry Brown already argued that:

Hu’s reticence as a national leader, his lack of profile and ego, the things that have made him a successful Party secretary, are also the very things that inhibit him as a spokesperson or face of the new, emerging China.

(Brown, 2011)

China needed both a hero and a narrator to humanise its growing power. Xi has added greatly to the recognisability of the Chinese leadership abroad (Saich, 2014).

The ambiguity that comes with the divided, multifaceted structures of European power is reflected in the evolving way the Chinese leadership approaches Europe. During his first visit to the continent in 2014, Xi made his first stop in the Netherlands (BBC, 2014). As head of state, Xi was welcomed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport not by Prime Minister Rutte, but by King Willem-Alexander. This probably reflects the Chinese appraisal of the Dutch King that, although largely bereft of official powers, he is the Netherlands’ face and voice on the global stage. After the Netherlands, an important centre of Sino-European economic interdependence, Xi visited the European capitals of power. First, Paris, where French President Hollande stood waiting on the tarmac (Ng & Chen, 2014). Second, Berlin, where Xi held a joint press conference with German Chancellor Merkel (DW, 2014). Finally, Xi made a first-ever visit by a Chinese head of state to the seats of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. These meetings, however, were not followed by a press conference, and were framed as ‘personal visits’ rather than an official summit (Gardner, 2014).

Xi’s more recent European visits show interesting divergences in the relatively stable constellation of European representations of power. In 2019, two weeks after the EU dubbed China a ‘systemic rival’, Xi visited Italy and France, leaving Germany and the EU conspicuously aside. During the visit to Italy, Xi and prime minister Conte surprised the world by signing a memorandum of understanding that amounted to Italy joining the Belt and Road Initiative. This was a highly symbolic move, allowing Xi to claim his first major EU player to join the BRI team. After Italy came France. On the second day of Xi’s visit to Paris, Macron invited German Chancellor Merkel and President of the European Commission Juncker to meet with Xi, alongside him (Tiezzi, 2019). In this way Macron staged a timely play of European unity, artfully casting himself as the hero. In the 2020 video summit between the EU and China, Xi was met by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and for the Council Presidency Chancellor Merkel (European Council, 2020). The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the EU and China was concluded in a videocall between Xi, Michel, Von der Leyen, Merkel and Macron (Lau & Wu, 2020).

This goes to show that the EU’s modes of narration reflect Europe’s political model, too. It has many Homers, even if it lacks an Odysseus.

European power is ­– and will in all probability be for generations to come – a web of member states spun across three main poles – the French Presidency, the German Chancellery and the European Union. Its great narrative weakness is the inability of any constituent part to credibly be Europe’s hero on the global stage. Europe will not have a personification of its grand narrative to rival Xi in the near future. Another would be the unwillingness of other member states to accept the stronger voice of Berlin, Paris and Brussels on the world stage, rendering Europe mute as a narrator. Its great strength, however, is the plethora of potential narrators it has on offer: any member state can potentially use its narrative power – even if this power is distributed unequally – to voice and thereby shape the European story of struggle and aspiration, at home and abroad. If Europe wants to make a stronger show in the global discursive arena, it should make more use of this strength rather than wait for its weakness to disappear. Macron shows it can be done, and indeed to France’s own greater glory and huayuquan within Europe and beyond. The difference between concert and cacophony will be made not by a single conductor but in improvised forms of harmony and coordination, in Brussels and beyond.

‘From War to Peace: A European Tale’, the joint speech given by Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, upon receiving the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the EU, offers an additional solution to the hero conundrum. The European hero, in this narrative, is an abstraction. It is …

speaking to us from the centuries, the idea of Europa itself …

(Van Rompuy & Barroso, 2012)

Crucially, the value of Europa is explained in opposition to evils that are worded not abstractly, but in emotive, visceral and concrete terms. A history of ‘scars of spears and swords, canons and guns, trenches and tanks’ is set against the longing for ‘the simple joys and hopes that make life worth living’. European peace is summed up by means of a single, simple object of sentiment:

When Konrad Adenauer came to Paris to conclude the Coal and Steel Treaty, in 1951, one evening he found a gift waiting at his hotel. It was a war medal, une Croix de Guerre, that had belonged to a French soldier. His daughter, a young student, had left it with a little note for the Chancellor, as a gesture of reconciliation and hope.

(Van Rompuy & Barroso, 2012)

The point here is not to get into the technicalities of speechwriting; rather, it is to prove that an abstract hero can indeed carry a compelling narrative when it lets specific, human grievances, aspirations and struggles take centre stage. Emotive language is key (Clerck-Sachsse, 2020) – and so is the language of history. The recognition of Europa as a character that represents ancient cultures, of which the EU and its member states are guardians, offers opportunities to both match and compete with China’s ‘civilisation state’ discourse. If European leaders acknowledge that they need a European hero to tell their story, it must be that deep history of longing for peace and order, that speaks to us from the centuries, rather than any one institution that represents it.

As the Nobel Peace Prize speech shows, a compelling hero’s narrative requires the narrator to describe in no uncertain terms the forces the hero is fighting against. If every story needs a hero, every hero needs a nemesis.

The mistake often made is to equate the concept of ‘nemesis’ with the character of ‘enemy’. American presidents have a track record of framing competition in terms of animosity. In a 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, President Ronald Reagan famously referred to the Soviet Union as ‘the focus of evil in the modern world’ and ‘an evil empire’ (Reagan, 1983). His successor George H. W. Bush said in his 1992 State of the Union Address that winning the Cold War meant that ‘we can stop making the sacrifices we had to make when we had an avowed enemy that was a Superpower’ (Bush G. H., 1992). In his 2002 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush called out the ‘axis of evil’ (Bush G. W., 2002). President Donald Trump called the EU a ‘foe’ (Politico, 2018) and Xi Jinping both his ‘friend’ and his ‘enemy’ (CNBC, 2019). Biden has called Xi ‘a thug’ (Bloomberg, 2020).

Is China the enemy Europe needs to become a hero? Probably not. In 1995, then Assistant Secretary of Defence Joseph Nye Jr. said in an interview:

If you treat China as an enemy, China will become an enemy. … It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

(Mann, 1995)

This statement resonated recently when a Chinese diplomat literally repeated Nye’s words in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald (Kearsley, Bagshaw, & Galloway, 2020), reflecting on the spiralling of animosities between the Australian and Chinese governments. The Chinese diplomat is not wrong, although he may be right for the wrong reasons. Talking ‘tough’ to China only adds fuel to Xi’s attempts to fire up nationalistic anti-Western sentiments at home and abroad. It helps Xi and the CCP, if only marginally, to legitimise China’s ever more assertive foreign policies. When it comes to China, it is probably better to act tough than talk tough.

Europe does not need an enemy. It needs a nemesis. The goddess Nemesis did not fight Narcissus to punish him for his vanity. Unseen, she enacted her divine retribution by letting him suffer the final consequences of his vice: death by hubris (Ovid). If we cast Europa, the idea, as our hero, representing the virtues of peace and compromise, amongst others, our European leaders should explain viscerally the consequences of our vices: division, arrogance and a lack of action. Our own failure to protect, unify and innovate is our nemesis. China’s ascent is merely the reminder that it would be hubristic to take the European Way of Life for granted.