“Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”

Don DeLillo, Underworld

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. Europe’s global narrative needs reshaping, as some of its anchors are coming loose: the story of the EU as an example of the end of history as well as that of the Transatlantic partnership as the harbinger of a universal world order are being challenged. China’s ascent unhinges both.

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? Three main clusters of audiences will be highlighted to illustrate points of broader relevance: those in Africa, in the European Neighbourhood and in Europe itself. The differences between the internal and external European narratives are significant but are related and will be discussed in tandem.

The point, here, is not to criticise European narratives on moral grounds, nor indeed to question the policies with which they are twinned. The point is to show that Europe’s discursive competition with China lays bare some of the EU’s main strategic weaknesses as well as strengths. This essay will not pretend to offer a definitive take on the subject but hopes to add to the discussion on Europe’s position in the global battle of narratives (Borrell, 2020) by deepening a handful of key themes and offering some creative options for innovating the European story. Which narrative elements must be enhanced, put to the fore, let go or diminished? How can those narrative elements be put to better use? What does that require in an institutional sense? Hearing Borrell’s assertion that the European External Action Services’ capacity to let Europe’s story be heard in the midst of Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns is inadequate (Cerulus, 2021), this essay asks what story ought to be told and how it can be made to resonate.

Great powers tell grand narratives, not just to further their interests, but because it is in their nature: it is not what they do, it is what they are. Political communities are forged by long histories of struggle and aspiration – by histories of longing, to paraphrase the American novelist Don DeLillo (Underworld, 1997). A narrative provides a community with a collective identity and common sense of purpose: towards a preferred way of life for the community itself, and for that community in its relationship to others. A strong collective identity and narrative is also a key dimension in the geopolitical strategies of states. To exercise and legitimise their power, and to mobilise popular support, they produce narratives about their place in the world. All stories states tell are anchored in an interpretation of history and in structures of society and power. The narrative machinery of states runs no matter what; the question is how states permutate it, and whether they do it consciously and indeed strategically. If we accept that premise, the question arises of whether states are able to strategically influence the evolution of their narrative-communities, and, by extension, the evolution of others.