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The EU's narrative weakness


Thursday 7 February 2013

In an article for this week's edition of European Voice, I asked the question: How good a story can anyone tell about the European Union? I defined “good”, as meaning both a story that is positive about the subject – the EU – and a story that is entertaining and interesting.

I had been mulling over the question since going to see the Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln”. Although a biopic about the 16th president of the United States is not easily confused with the EU, there are things they have in common. As my colleague Dave Keating pointed out, those who go to see the film find that, apart from the opening battle scenes, they are in for two and a half hours about the passage of a piece of legislation (the 13th amendment to the constitution). Meat and drink to the policy wonks of Brussels.

There were plenty of those policy wonks in the audience the night that I went, because it was a special screening hosted by the US ambassador to the EU, William Kennard, and the US ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman. Each of them made brief welcoming speeches. How, I wondered would Gutman cope with following Kennard, whose elegant phrases included a reference to being “the grandson of a slave”, which, when you are about to see a film about Lincoln, is a fairly unbeatable claim.

Gutman may not have beaten him, but he came respectably close, by explaining that his father had been an illegal migrant to the US, a Holocaust survivor, who hid from the Nazis in the woods of Poland during the Second World War. A generation later, his son is a US ambassador – a contemporary example of that social mobility that Lincoln, who went from the log cabin to the White House, was supposed to have embodied.

I do not know how other Europeans felt after sitting through those speeches and that film, but I was left with a distinct feeling that the Americans have the better stories. I blame that feeling in part on the rather wonderful title of a book by the American historian Eric Foner, published in 1998: “The Story of American Freedom”. (If you are inspired by Spielberg's film to brush up on your knowledge of Civil War history, I commend Foner's history of the formation of the Republican Party, “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men”. It was one of the first, serious history books that I ever read, and it opened my eyes to what the subject might offer.)

One of the things that interested me about the Spielberg film is how the story of slavery has been transformed into a story of freedom, a tale of redemption. I began musing on why the same has not happened with what might have been a similarly redemptive story – how the European Union was created out of the ashes of the Second World War, out of the evils of the Holocaust and Nazi terror. The oft-repeated claim is that the European Union has brought peace to the European continent, and yet that claim has not been taken up by the story-tellers and the myth-makers. For my tentative guesses at why not, turn to the newspaper.   

 

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