A value narrative is most powerful when it inspires a sense of community and calls out common interests. The EU’s value narrative, internal and external, is in two minds, between moral universalism and a European particularism. This ambiguity is being put increasingly under geopolitical pressure.

The multilateral framework is written in the discourse of universalism, and so has traditionally been the EU global narrative. The European strategy has some clear advantages, as it, to use Chinese terminology, amplifies its huayuquan, or ‘right to speak’, within the multilateral order. And yet, the disadvantages of the universalist strategy are becoming rapidly clearer, and indeed, the signs of the EU’s own ambiguity are starting to show. The EU has hitched its wagon to an ambitious and increasingly contested normative dream: namely, that of a world moving ever closer to the global adoption of democracy, rule of law, human rights and free-market capitalism as universal norms. If that train falters, so does the European narrative.

China has broken the universalist spell for Europe. In the wake of its ascent, the discursive space of authoritarian states widens. The EU has, indirectly, acknowledged this, by calling China a ‘systemic rival’, implying that Europe’s values, norms and institutions are as much ‘a system’ as China’s are. The increasingly ambiguous universalism of Europe’s value narrative is laid bare not only by China, however. Johannes Hahn, then Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, already recognised the strategic issues a universalist narrative necessarily has when it fails to deliver on its awesome promise in a 2015 speech. Speaking with particular reference to the European Neighbourhood Policy, Hahn stated:

Let me take your minds back to 2003. The EU is on the brink of its biggest ever enlargement, the ‘big bang’. The will to follow our European model of democracy, rule of law, human rights and free markets is bringing transformational change to our Central and Eastern European friends – and we can feel confident in our power as a pole of attraction for others. …

The vision we once had – the EU with its supposedly irresistible offer, and partners who would, to varying degrees, want to move closer to us – is clearly no longer appropriate.

(Hahn, 2015)

Despite this early and clear-cut diagnosis, the EU has been trying to restore the cracks in the universalist value narrative since then, by supplementing it with other kinds of narratives, the most important of which are output and norm narratives.

An illustrative example of this is a speech by former High Representative Mogherini on ‘eastern neighbourhood developments’. In her 2019 speech, a follow-up to Hahn’s, Mogherini hails the successes of the EU Eastern Neighbourhood policies (which include the partner countries Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova), which she sums up thus:

The twenty deliverables that we are implementing within the Eastern Partnership focus on the issues our people care the most about: jobs, energy security, education, strong civil society, independent media – things that are indeed on top of our citizens’ agendas.

We have also achieved good progress in trade, energy, connectivity or the digital sphere. At the same time, we need to do more in the fields of the rule of law, judiciary or fighting corruption.

(Mogherini, 2019)

‘Deliverables’ is a term typical of output narratives, although the deliverables mentioned lack the concreteness that makes such a narrative truly potent. In addition, Mogherini’s story mixes talk of ‘deliverables’ with norms, such as ‘rule of law’ and ‘strong civil society’. As such, it fails on both counts, lacking the clarity and specificity of either. Mogherini comes across as responding implicitly and only partly to Hahn’s pessimism, by dialling down the value narrative in favour of a more technocratic tone, which fails to persuade.

The Chinese narrator mirrors Europe’s weakness, for example, in the way it addresses the Chinese diaspora communities across the world. First of all, it projects a strong narrative of a cohesive Chinese global community, which links the destinies of Chinese people at home with the diaspora community abroad. Xi’s encouragement of a renaissance of Confucianism is remarkable in this context. For people in the diaspora who might feel little affinity with communism, but who are still educating their children on Confucian virtues, this shared ancient Chinese culture fits the narrative of a cohesive Chinese global community.

China also mobilises the Chinese diaspora to amplify its narratives in other countries. The most recent example is that of Italy during the COVID-19 crisis (Zeneli & Santoro, 2020). Here, the Chinese diaspora organised many initiatives to donate medical equipment and funds to Italian authorities to help fight the pandemic. The Chinese embassy’s social media accounts actively retweeted and spread posts from Chinese immigrants that showed their efforts. This was aimed at the increasingly negative public sentiment towards China.

Xi has authorised the United Front Work Department (UFWD) to oversee China’s approach to the diaspora. It runs the ‘China News Service’, a CCP media network with many bureaus established across the globe. WeChat is one of the media used to reach the diaspora. Local UFWD leaders also direct Chinese embassy employees in their work towards the diaspora. The narratives used typically present all ethnic Chinese as a ‘fictional homogeneous and patriotic group united under the party’s leadership’, as a recent Australian report explains (Joske, 2020). By presenting UFWD groups as representatives of the Chinese community in a particular country, the diaspora’s own voice is stifled. For many in the Chinese diaspora, WeChat is the primary source of news and information. This makes it more difficult for the European Union’s narrative to reach the diaspora. Aside from the medium used, language is an additional barrier, as Mandarin is the preferred language for many members of the diaspora.

China’s messaging to foreign audiences strongly emphasises the output that the relationship with China has delivered, and, when appropriate, it connects that to two norms, and two norms only: material development and self-determination (Dams & Putten, 2015). In the run-up to the recent Belarusian elections, for example, Xi called President Lukashenko to propose fast-tracking the China-Belarus industrial park, a cooperation worth US$520 million of investments in infrastructure (SCMP, 2020). In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic Xi called Lukashenko to express his readiness to strengthen medical cooperation (MoFA of PRC, 2020). In virtually every contact with Belarus, China stresses that:

China will continue to support Belarus in following a development path suited to its national conditions.

(MoFA of PRC, 2020)

The Chinese self-determination narrative presupposes that societies are distinct moral units, forged out of long and unique sociocultural histories. There is only one legitimate representative of a society’s deep ‘history of longing’, and that is the state. Imposing normative frameworks on countries from a multilateral or unilateral perspective is folly. Cunningly, China slips in a value narrative, propagating the value of political stability and unity over democracy, and cultural identity over moral universalism only implicitly, thus evading a strong claim to moral leadership, whilst making its point nonetheless.

Compared to the Chinese story, the EU’s tale of ambiguity has a major downside. It fails to express the boundaries, the integrity and the worth of the European community, and consequently struggles to convey the unique and vital value of European civilisation to the world. As such, the EU’s external narrative reflects a key weakness in the EU’s internal narrative: it is a market (economic community), it is a collection of governing bodies (political community), but not yet a social and cultural community, with a collective identity (Sie Dhian Ho, 2018). This is a pressure point that China and other geopolitical competitors are able to press (Van Middelaar, Van der Putten, & Sie Dhian Ho, 2021).

To great promise, as well as controversy, the new Commission has adopted a moniker that could open a new chapter in the European story: the ‘European Way of Life’. Although hardly new (Rompuy, 2010), the term was brought to the fore in 2019 by then President-elect of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen in her mission letter to the Vice-President designate for ‘Protecting the European Way of Life’, Margaritis Schinas (Von der Leyen, 2019), later adapted to ‘Promoting the European Way of Life’. Following criticism, Von der Leyen published an op-ed in various European newspapers, defining her ‘European Way of Life’ (Von der Leyen, 2019). Here, Von der Leyen expressly projects a value narrative and indeed a real geopolitical narrative, as she links Europe’s values directly to geopolitical rivalry past and present:

Last month marked thirty years since two million people across the Baltic States joined hands to form a ‘chain of freedom’ more than 600 kilometres long. … they also showed the uniting force of our common values: freedom, equality, democracy and respect for human dignity.

These values, and our attachment to them, are our very foundation. …

This European way of life came at a great price and sacrifice. … We have seen foreign powers interfere in our elections from the outside. And we have seen home-grown populists with cheap nationalistic slogans try to destabilise us from the inside. …

Of course, words matter. I recognise that. For some, the European way of life is a loaded and politically charged term. But we cannot and must not let others take away our language from us: this is also part of who we are.

(Von der Leyen, Op-Ed - The European way of life, 2019)

If European value messaging is in two minds – universalist and particularist respectively – the European Way of Life, representing the second, plays into the changed geopolitical climate best. In a manner not unlike Xi’s ‘China Dream’, it explains to the world Europe’s core values, and their existential worth, without making universalist promises. It points to Europe’s red lines in the geopolitical arena, helps counter the narrative of division that haunts the EU, and potentially helps weave a stronger normative fabric for the European community. Strikingly, it connects to more basic common interests of the European people: security, order and identity – ones often underestimated in the European grand narrative, yet uniquely powerful in reaching across dividing lines within the European Union. Here too lies a potential flaw of the European Way of Life narrative: if it fails to connect to a positive and empathetic neighbourhood agenda, it runs the risk of bringing together the European community at the cost of appearing protectionist in the eyes of its global partners. The universalist strategy had a major strong point, in that it pointed to and legitimised a clear mission to the world. What does the European Way of Life narrative have to offer the world? The answer lies in part in the great geopolitical struggle of our time. That is, Europe could lead in supporting communities across the globe to protect their way of life in the midst of geopolitical rivalry.