Borja Negrete’s column explores the advantages of Soft Power and how it can contribute to creating a shared sense of European identity. Popular culture, common European values, politics and, more than anything, effective communication could solve more problems on the continent than any meeting in Brussels. The EU should learn from its opponents and start by telling stories.
It is no time to sit and wait, but to take the arena and be the hero.

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), originally ‘Smultronstället’, is one of the greater films produced in Europe.


The Dutch and the French elections prove that there are still a large number of Europeans who believe in the EU. The economic crisis damaged the heart of the institution, but it seems that the successes of the Union are overcoming its failures, and the spread of populist movements has already seen its peak, although the tide is far from over.

But, how can the European Union regain its sense of existence? How can the bureaucrats in Brussels convince the European population that the EU is beneficial and necessary?

Certainly, the EU’s communication has not worked as well as it should have. In Spain, for example, too many people remain ill-informed about what exactly the EU provides (apart from economic cuts) and this disaffection was evidenced when a huge number of people didn’t use their vote in the last European elections (more than 50% of the electorate).

With this situation in mind, it seems an appropriate time to cite Joseph S. Nye’s literature on Soft Power, as it could help the EU strengthen its image and foster a sense of Europeanness among its member states. Nye is a Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University, and was Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. He was brilliant in developing the concept of Soft Power and identifying its sources.

Power can be interpreted as an ability to influence others in order to get the outcomes one wants. So, in the politics of diplomacy, there are basically two ways of influencing others’ behavior: to coerce (hard power) or to convince (soft power). Soft power supposes co-opting with others. It is based on the politics of attraction and is much more durable than any hard power options. The weapons of hard power can include sanctions, payments, military force and bribes, while those of soft power can include values, culture and policies.

It is nothing new to say that the EU is formed of a set of countries and regions with their own particular cultures and value systems. But borders and social realities have changed constantly. Taking this into consideration, the efforts to reinforce and communicate European unity have not been sufficient, especially if the ultimate goal is a united Europe.

The United States provides a perfect example of successful soft power in practice. At the beginning of its history, the fragile and heterogeneous United States also needed to create and promote common American values, both inside and outside their territory. Now, most US citizens identify themselves as American, are proud of this identity, and moreover, can identify what being American means. But what is European and what does it mean?

Joseph Nye states that soft power rests upon three resources: culture, political values and foreign policies. These may seem quite ambiguous, but he gives plenty of examples of how a State or International Organization should implement and reinforce them.

Firstly, in the case of the EU, it is necessary to promote a common ‘European culture’. Our continent is rich in history, science, literature and art. We in Europe could follow the example of the US. We have all been attracted by the American lifestyle exposed by their movies. Let’s start creating European projects in culture, as they can be powerful in promoting common agendas. As Winston Churchill stated in 1942 about the film ‘Mrs. Miniver’: “This movie has done more to help Great Britain in the war than a whole fleet of warships”.

Secondly, politics matter. Good political initiatives attract people. The Erasmus exchange program might be the best soft power policy that the EU has ever implemented. Each year, some 300,000 students travel to a different European country to study or work. During their stay, the social interaction with their peers from other countries helps break down prejudice, borders, and create a stronger European identity.

And European funds have served to finance many salutary projects all around the Union. But sadly, good politics alone are not enough – it is also necessary to communicate the Union’s achievements properly. Otherwise, citizens will remain unaware of how the EU has impacted their living standards and the social reality in which they live.

This was one of the main problems for the ‘Remain’ campaign during the ‘Brexit’ referendum. They failed to make a positive case for why the UK should remain in the EU, choosing instead to focus on the negative impacts of leaving the world’s largest single market. Nor did they emphasise the benefits of cultural exchange and the work the EU has done for labour rights.

Finally, the third source of soft power elucidated by Nye is foreign policy. In this respect, the EU has made great strides during the last few years. The European External Action Service has, in many ways, succeeded in harmonizing the foreign policy of the Member States. Despite different interests inside the EU, the organization does its best to act as one country in foreign policy issues such as the Syrian Crisis.

Together, these three resources — political values, culture and foreign policy — all need to be sold to the ‘European people’. Populist movements and parties have been quick to learn the importance of attraction in politics. Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the left-wing Podemos party in Spain have all  implemented clear communication strategies and Social Media has been a key part of their efforts to mobilise people. And the results  have surprised many.

The EU could also attempt to use these tools, but rather than exploiting fear, insecurity and fomenting nationalism, the organisation could focus instead on disseminating the positive values of the EU and the benefits it brings to its citizens. This way, perhaps a film could once again prove more powerful than a fleet of warships.


Keep the discussion going; ping @Borjanegrete or @ConsideringEur to comment, to challenge or to praise


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