Can Europe Make It?

The European Union has no idea!

Forget better communication or a radical change in its course of action: what the EU really needs is a big, bold idea to move forward.

Rune Kier Nielsen
7 January 2014

Shutterstock/donskarpo. All rights reserved.

"If you think you lack words, what you really lack are ideas". 

That is what I took away from a lecture by the father of framing, George Lakoff. I think about it every time I see the debate over the EU polarising into framing versus action. Take this exchange: some say the EU should just communicate better and others say it should act radically differently. It is really quite sad, because actions and framing can't be separated and they both emerge logically from the ideas we pursue. That is why, when José Manuel Barroso is seeking guidance on where to go big and where to go small, he too should look to the level of ideas.

If we have a clear idea about where we want to go, we can start out in that direction and we can tell others about where we are going and why. If we are clear on the level of ideas, we can act in accordance and communicate accordingly. That is why I have argued elsewhere on the need for a European Dream, an idea or a story to guide the EU in what actions to take and how to communicate them convincingly. That does not mean however that everybody will love them! An idea is only an idea if you can disagree - indeed if someone does disagree.

A need for controversy

This brings me to my second point. The problem of the European Union cannot be solved by a consensual idea because excessive polarisation is not the problem. In fact the EU needs more polarisation - to be relevant, the EU must pick a fight and take sides. Any idea worth fighting for is controversial long before it starts being praised as a brave stance to take. 

The collective remembrance of Nelson Mandela is a shining example. From being imprisoned in South Africa, on the terrorist watch list in the United States and deemed dangerous by Thatcher, it is hard today to find a single serious politician who does not embrace his ideas. John F. Kennedy was controversial enough to get killed, yet today he is praised by US Republicans and Democrats alike. Martin Luther King Jr. was controversial before his ideas about civil rights and racism were embraced by the public after his death (and his ideas about the Vietnam War forgotten), as described by the Guardian's Gary Young. Even Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, where he laid out the ideological foundation of the United States, was received badly by many in its time. Today it is praised as one of the greatest speeches ever given and cited frequently. And Richard Toye convincingly shows that the same was true for Churchill's speeches: they were received with much ambivalence before criticism was silenced by history - not to say, victory.

These examples show that ideas can be controversial in their day, yet be judged as sheer commonsense by history. The actions and words following policies like Apartheid, Jim Crow, slavery or pacifist policies against nazi conquest were ideas long before they became action and words. And ideas will stand long after the word is silent and the action forgotten. Yet they were some of the defining positions and struggles that stood the test of time.

The test of time

The EU also needs an idea that can stand the test of time. The EU has to be conceptually bold. If it wants to mobilise support from the population it should listen to the wisdom of Marshall Ganz. Ganz is an experienced union organiser and a professor of Leadership Communication at the Harvard School of Leadership, where he teaches a class called Public Narrative. He has inspired the Obama campaigns and the European Union might find something of interest in his work too. 

Marshall Ganz argues that the struggle for freedom is always going on and one has to take sides. That comes from what he calls criticality - a recognition of the world's pain - and from hope - a recognition of the world's possibility. Those three things would be a good place to start:

  1. What is the defining struggle of our time and where do we stand in it?
  2. What is wrong with the world? 
  3. What could the world be like?

Really, what is the idea of a European Union? Plenty of people say that if we had not had the European Union we would have had to invent it, but what would be its foundational idea? Why do we need the Union?

When we have an answer to that question, we will know what to do and what to say. When we have an idea, we will no longer have a duality of action and framing. With an idea our actions will frame themselves and our words will pack a greater punch. That is where the European Union needs to go.

Unfortunately, today the Union maintains its position as "a drain plug" against the Hobbesian nightmare of war. But simply avoiding harm is not a powerful idea and it will weaken even further as those who witnessed WW2 inevitably pass away. There are plenty of stories asserting that the Union is really dragging its members down, not holding them up. That other member states and the community is dead weight for any one nation. What is needed is the counter argument: That the Union lifts its members, that the union members can achieve more together than they can apart: and furthermore, that the union is rightly positioned in the defining struggle of our time.

A strong and bold European idea can achieve that by answering Ganz's three questions. That is where we need to go, not back to arguing Framing versus Action. That for sure is not at all where the challenge lies.

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