The EU’s Foundational Myth: A response to right-wing populism?

The EU situates itself not just in geo-political space, but in time too

March 03, 2021 9:01 AM
Samuel Bennett (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland)

By Samuel Bennett*

The EU has been challenged more in recent years than it ever has since 1945. Gone is the passive consensus, replaced by a ‘long-decade’ of almost constant ‘crises’ (immigration, financial crisis, democratic deficit, right-wing populism, and Brexit) that collectively and individually are being used to delegitimise the concept of a more deeply integrated continent and even question its continued existence. Can Europe’s ‘common history’ be used to shore up its legitimacy in the face of these crises and in particular right-wing populism?

In part at least, the EU’s continued legitimacy relies on its citizens feeling a sense of attachment to it. In this endeavour, it has taken on the trappings of a proto-state: a centre of power, elected officials, founding fathers and a president, and the symbols ‘banal-nationalism’: a flag, an anthem, Europe Day. Just like states, nations and other social groupings, to this list we can add a common history—one of war and devastation—and a shared, peaceful future. In this way, the EU situates itself not just in geo-political space, but in time too.

As Eder (2006) writes, the EU is a community of memory. Elsewhere, other authors (Lucarelli 2008; Kølvraa 2016) have argued that Europe’s history is its true other, one which threatens the bloc with destruction and obliteration. Whilst attempting to find its raison d’être, the EU (and before it, the EEC) has securitised its past, warning of the dangers of what might happen if the memory of the war fades.

The foundational myth the EU tells is that the European cooperation from the 1950s onwards was a departure from its previous history, in particular the wars of the 20th century. This is the bloc’s ‘origins story’, its etiological myth. In this story the 1930s and 40s were a crisis point which marked the end of the old national European order and the birth of a new Europe (Della sala (2016). The EU’s story is thus an anti-nationalistic one (Beck 2003), and for some believers in a federal Europe, even an anti-national one.

The EU’s claim is thus a straight-forward one. It is a cautionary tale in which history teaches us a lesson—the Ciceronian historia magistra vitae—offered in a simple event-lesson-future behaviour schema. The event is the war; the lesson is that not being united leads to war, and from here, there is only one rational future course of action, one logical alternative: a deeply integrated Europe. Quite simply, cost of not integrating is genocide, death, and chaos.

This might seem a hyperbolic claim for EU actors to make, but in my research I found that it is a clear rhetorical strategy used by EU actors (see Bennett 2022, forthcoming). When talking about Brexit in 2016, the then president of the European Council Donald Tusk stated that “the only alternative [to the EU] is political chaos, the return to national egoisms and the triumph of antidemocratic tendencies”. Alsoin 2016, in an intervention on Brexit, Jean-Claude Juncker said that “Those who do not believe in Europe, doubt it or are exasperated by it should visit the graves of our wars” and a decade earlier on a visit to Theriesenstadt, the then Commissioner for Communication Strategy, Margot Wallström, stated: “There are those who want to scrap the European supranational idea. They want the European union to go back to the old purely nation-state way of doing things. I say those people should come to Terezin and see where that old roads lead”. Both of the latter are examples of metonymy—referring to an object or concept through something closely connected to it. The war is not explicitly referenced, but with the evocation of graves and a concentration camp, the message is clear: history is urging us to integrate.

But what happens when the actual memory of war recedes? Kølvraa (2016) makes a convincing case that the peace is now so taken for granted that the risk of war is not seen as realistic and “’never again’ has apparently for some time been a mundane—if not banal—statement”. Linked to this, many young people in Europe have “critical gaps” in their knowledge of the holocaust and the situation is not helped by governmental attempts in Central and Eastern Europe to influence historical research on the topic. We can add to this the rise of right-wing populism in the corridors of power, which at the very least led to a rise in euro-scepticism and in some countries includes tacit support for anti-Semitic actors.

If the emotive, powerful reference to the war is in decline, then so is the legitimatory power of the EU’s foundational myth, essentially because it has succeeded in its goal of bringing a lasting peace to the continent. For Kølvraa the EU is suffering from a utopia deficit, but it can also be understood as an affect deficit—its foundation myth no longer resonates with citizens who have only experienced peace and the freedoms that the EU affords. On the one hand, peace is taken for granted, but on the other, the EU’s ‘long-decade’ of crisis has been exploited by populist actors to question whether continued, or even deeper European integration is desirable.

In the face of this, maybe the recent rise in nationalism, the far-right, and the populist right in politics at the European and national levels offer somewhat of an opportunity for the EU to return its focus to its foundational myth. By linking the current dangers with those of the past, history can be resecuritised and presented again by EU actors as the bloc’s true ‘other’ that must be overcome.

Parts of this blog appear in Samuel Bennett’s forthcoming article: Bennett (2022) “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”: Mythopoesis and the European Union’s existential crisis’, part of a Special Issue of the Journal of Language and Politics entitled, Reimagining Europe and its (dis)integration? (De)legitimising the EU’s project in times of crisis (eds. Franco Zappettini & Samuel Bennett).

*Samuel Bennett is an Assistant Professor at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland. He is a critical linguist studying (non)belonging and exclusion, social media, populism and colonialism. He is the author of Constructions of Migrant Integration in British Public Discourse (Bloomsbury, 2018) and has published widely in leading journals, including Critical Discourse Studies and the Journal of Language & Politics.


Beck, U. (2003) ‘Understanding the Real Europe’. Dissent, Vol. 50, No. 3, pp. 32–38.

Della sala, V. (2016). ‘Europe’s odyssey?: political myth and the European Union’. Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 524–541.

Eder, K. (2006) ‘Europe’s Borders. The Narrative Construction of the Boundaries of Europe’. European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 255–71.

Kølvraa, C. (2016). ‘European Fantasies: On the EU’s Political Myths and the Affective Potential of Utopian Imaginaries for European Identity’. Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol 54, No. 1, pp. 169-184

Lucarelli, S. (2008). ‘European Political Identity, Foreign Policy and the Others’ Image: An Underexplored Relationship’. In: Cerutti, F., & Lucarelli, S. (Eds.), The Search for a European Identity: Values, Policies and Legitimacy of the European Union (pp.21-41). London: Routledge.

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