Europe needs new stories and an end to mind-numbing ‘group think’

Frankly Speaking

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe

Incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has jazzed up her team’s job titles, promising also to give a ‘geopolitical’ tinge to future policies.

This is good news. But the rebranding of tasks must be backed up by a rethink of the European narrative. Most importantly, it’s time to take a break from mind-numbing European group think.

Stories matter. The stories we tell ourselves – about ourselves – are as important as the ones we tell others. They determine how Europeans view themselves and how others perceive Europe.

In a changing world, Europe needs new stories and fresh thinking to flourish and thrive. The threat to Europe doesn’t come from diversity of thought. It comes from complacency and clinging to out-dated single narratives that keep us within our old comfort zones – but disconnected from the realities of today’s complicated world.

So, let’s start reframing at least four important conversations.

Let’s welcome that rare modern animal: a politician who can think

First, let’s admit that French President Emmanuel Macron is no European superhero – but he isn’t a villain either. The French leader’s recent tough-talking interview on transatlantic relations and “brain dead” NATO has been almost-universally denounced as unacceptable, disruptive and another deadly blow to faltering US-EU relations. It isn’t.

The French leader’s choice of words is deliberate and his comments are thoughtful. As the US looks inwards and elsewhere, Europe needs to get its act together on security and defence. Yes, Macron is speaking more like a think-tanker than a politician but in a world where politicians prefer to interact through Twitter diatribes, what’s wrong with that?

Let’s welcome that rare modern animal: a politician who can think. As they get ready to meet in London for the NATO summit in two weeks, European leaders should pay attention to Macron’s concerns instead of huffing and puffing about the sanctity of transatlantic relations.

Reinforcing Europe-Africa ties, however, requires a recognition that Africa is in the midst of exciting transformations

Second, no more time should be lost in reframing EU-Africa relations. Summits with African leaders are now the norm in Japan, China and India.  Russia is upping its game in Africa, having just hosted representatives of all 54 African nations, including 43 heads of state or government, in Sochi.

Turkey-Africa relations have reached “a level that could not have been even imagined 15 years ago”, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who recently met with Africa’s Muslim leaders. The number of Turkish embassies in Africa has increased from 12 to 42 in recent years.

Europe still matters in many African countries. France is expected to convene a meeting with African leaders in June and several German-Africa gatherings will be held during the German Presidency in the second half of 2020, including one summit in Brussels.

Reinforcing Europe-Africa ties, however, requires a recognition that Africa is in the midst of exciting transformations. It needs two key changes: a firm rejection of the still-too-often ‘white saviour’ approach based on colonial (mis)perceptions and a vision of Africa as a land of potential migrants, all poised to arrive en masse in Europe.

But China and Europe will need to cooperate especially on tackling global challenges

Third, it’s time to recognise the complexity of China and the multi-faceted reality of Europe-China relations. Responsible leadership demands that when engaging with Global China, EU leaders put Europe First.

Competition and cooperation, divergence and convergence will continue to be the hallmark of EU-China relations. Differences over human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the rule of law in the South China Sea, the power of state-owned enterprises, Internet freedoms and rules governing cyberspace will continue to sow discord.

But China and Europe will need to cooperate especially on tackling global challenges including climate change, Iran, North Korea and Agenda 2030. Both are serious about preserving the much-frayed multilateral rules-based order. The recent EU-China agreement to protect 100 European Geographical Indications is an important breakthrough.

The question is simple: can the new EU leaders wipe away the cobwebs and start a new, more sensitive and inclusive European conversation?

Finally, the switch from “protecting” to “promoting” the “European Way of Life” is a welcome sign that the new Commission chief is willing to listen to critics who said the original job title echoed Far Right tropes.

The truth of the pudding, however, is in the eating. The annual “Black Pete” controversy raging in the Netherlands is a sad illustration that the “European Way of Life” includes elements which are hurtful to many Europeans and certainly should not be promoted

The question is simple: can the new EU leaders wipe away the cobwebs and start a new, more sensitive and inclusive European conversation? Or are we doomed to hear out-dated myths which mislead and confuse European citizens – and amuse and amaze the rest of the world?

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