The European Dream is based on an ‘Equals around a table’- metaphor

By on dec 17, 2013 in English | 0 comments

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This piece was first published in Social Europe Journal 28/11 2013.

The EU – In need of a new narrative

European Commission President José M. Barroso is searching for a new European Union narrative. As I have argued elsewhere, the EU needs a dream of the Martin Luther King Jr.-type if it wants to stay relevant for the European population. I agree with Barroso in seeing the EU’s lack of a positive vision as a threat to its democratic legitimacy by low public anticipation, participation and appreciation. Eurosceptics stand strong because the union has failed to arm its allies. At the moment the European Union is without a clear vision to mobilise and engage the public leaving its allies vulnerable to strategies of ‘divide and conquer’. The lack of vision gives rise to xenophobia, ethnic tension and conflicts between rich and poor. Yet the European dream has strong potential for a social Europe.

So, what would a new narrative look like? What would be the contours of a European Dream?

I believe a successful European story would have three characteristics to fulfill its function as described above:

  • It should be derived from the recognised history of the Union to be credible and it should draw on known mythology to be forcefull. That is, it should build a bridge between the Union’s known history and the mythology of the continent – Union and European.
  • It should be sufficiently concrete to convey a sense of shared familiarity and vivid enough to stir emotions enough to create belonging, community and engagement. That is, it should build on local lives and let the means fit the message.
  • It should shield the Union from its most obvious weaknesses and it should give direction to future actions. That is, it should help determine what the ‘small things’ and what the ‘big things’ are.


History and mythology

As evident in history, the European Union sprang from war. To prevent its repetition, leaders met around a table to talk business, but the mere fact that they talked created a community. That – more than any binding decision – created a union: the union around the table. That union was not forced and it was not intended. It came from seeing enemies as equals – because this is what happens when people come together. The table is the creative glue of what Luuk van Middelaar calls ‘the intermediary sphere’ in The Passage to Europe.

When receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the European Union, José M. Barroso and Herman van Rompuy spoke about the Union as a means to end war on a war torn continent. I have argued that this rhetoric has equated the union with ‘a drain plug’ with the sole purpose of avoiding further harm. That is not an engaging story or a positive dream for the future. It only rests on the fear of a Hobbesian nightmare – at the very bottom of the Maslow pyramid of needs.

Yet The Passage to Europe describes how something else happened. The leaders might have met to talk trade but the fact that they met at all created something more. Because when people sit around a table they don’t fight and when they don’t fight they might trade. And when they trade, they might see that sitting around a table can do much more than stop a future war. In between the trade talks European leaders came to see that they had something in common besides the name of the table at which they sat. They formed a group independent of its members. Indeed The Passage to Europe dedicates extensive space to ‘the crisis of the empty chair’ showing that the table is more than the people around it.

On this foundation I propose that ‘equals around a table’ should be the governing analogy and the founding myth behind any new narrative or ‘European Dream’. The slogan of the European Union is ‘united in diversity’ and in the words of Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition:

“To live together in the world means essentially that the world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it: the world like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”

A ‘table’-metaphor further has a strong mythology in the European context. Jesus sat around a table, predicted his demise and forgave his traitors depicted on ‘The Last Supper’. King Arthur and his ‘Knights of the Round Table’ is a common legend of valour, righteousness and equality. Martin Luther King Jr. might not be European, but his ‘I have a dream’ speech has resonated strongly with many Europeans over the last 50 years. He too talked about ‘the table of brotherhood’ as the central meeting place in his dream about equality and racial justice. Even the idea of a European continent in the very physical and geological sense rests on the idea of a tableau – or table.


The ‘European Dream’ needs concrete and vivid imagery

These myths are powerful because they are shared and they derive their power from the concrete, vivid and sensual imagery that all of us connote to the idea of ‘a table’. It is where we eat our dinners as a family, it is where we gather when seeing good friends. It is enjoyment, closeness and reconciliation. At a table the seat is active in its productive sociality. We do something when we sit at a table – and everybody knows that sitting there is more than just sitting. That is also the force of the European Union and would be a powerful idea to associate with EU bureaucracy.

The dynamics of the ‘European Dream’ is what happens when people come together around a table and come to see the humanity in each others eyes. Therefore, it cannot be an individualistic liberalistic dream like the American ‘working from scratch to success’. The ‘European Dream’ is born from commonality and moves towards what people only desire when they can work together. It is social. In fact, it is entirely at the top of Maslow pyramid and rests firmly in the social contract. We do not have a European Union because we do not want to be killed, we have a European Union because it makes our lives better.

In Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that ‘human thought processes are largely metaphorical’ in nature and in Don’t Think of an Elephant! Lakoff further argues that at the bottom of all metaphors are two central perceptions of a family: the ‘Strict Father’ model and the ‘Nuturant Parent Model’, the difference being one of hierarchical authority versus caring equality. One places the individual on top, the other the collective. The ‘European Dream’ should be firmly placed in the ‘Nurturant Parent’ model. This fundamental model of metaphor combined with the imagery of ‘a table’, could make the aims of the European Union understood by making it concrete and familiar enough to be felt. It could also be social and provide political direction for the EU.


A shield that is ‘Big on Big’ and ‘Small on Small’

One of the most common criticisms of the European Union is that ‘it is all just talk’, bureaucracy and not ‘doing’ anything. That is also what a good guiding metaphor should guard against. The metaphor of ‘a European table’ resting on the ‘Nurturant Parent’ model is strong because it builds further on the idea of the Union being a guard against future wars with reconciliatory and forgiving family connotations. And from its family connotations, it also creates a wider affinity with Europe across national borders. This metaphor is strong because it is a reality for many families in Europe.

The dream rests on the European experience of conflict without limiting itself to avoiding war in the future. It takes what brought us peace and puts it to use for a better future. By pointing to a European tradition, it tells us that we can do it, because we have done it before and it shows us where it will take us in a way concrete enough for us to feel it.

What do people who meet around a table do? And what do equals discuss if the issue is collective care and the common good? The story – and so the strategy – must be about solidarity with one another to avoid war and lay the foundation for a better future for the people, their environment and the diverse international community which they are part of. It should be framed as ‘common good’, not as ‘competition’ and it should focus on the subjects that have the power to prevent war and ensure prosperity and quality of life – as would be the focus of any family around a table. This points to a direction regarding military force versus diplomacy, green sustainability versus free market, social benefits versus wage competition. With a table metaphor, these should be the guideposts for the European Union.

A message of ‘equals around a table’ based on the ‘Nurturant Parent’ model can’t be one-way communication – this would simply undermine the message. There has at least to be the appearance of person to person dialogue. Around a table of equals you will not be told what to do. You will expect your views to be heard. And you will want to see your considerations being taken into account. Such a dream should be voiced in speeches.

What we need now are politicians courageous enough to voice the dream in speeches with vivid and sensual words for people to see, feel and want. They should not be afraid to persuade and be controversial. All dreams are like this. Martin Luther Kings’s dream was controversial in its time, says Gary Young in The Speech, so were the bold speeches of Churchill says Richard Toye in The Roar of the Lion and so was the Gettysberg Address by Abraham Lincoln. A dream takes a side and only later will it be evident if it is on the right side of history.