DEEP down inside, whether we admit it or not, we’re all looking for a hero. Male or female, adult or child, cynic or naïve, we want a saviour, someone to look up to and inspire. It makes life more meaningful, it gives it direction.
This is true for individuals — and it’s true for communities and nations. In addition to parental guidance, young people crave the advice of mentors. Religious people bow to the knowledge of priests, rabbis and imams.
Political parties abide by the instructions of their whips and group leaders. Armies follow generals. And entire nations want to be led by strong presidents and prime ministers.
But here’s the problem: There is no shortage of villains but heroes are few and far between. The landscape — both national and global — is littered with villains. Bad guys get visibility, media attention, and votes. Good guys come last. Or at least, that’s what it looks like for the moment.
For proof, take the European Union. There’s no dearth of Eurosceptics and EU critics, autocrats and illiberals. In fact, the list of European bad guys (and some bad girls) is long and getting longer.
In contrast, the EU is desperately looking for a hero and an accompanying heroic narrative. The right person, we are encouraged to believe will bring renewed vitality, energy and a sense of purpose to the still-28 nation bloc.
And the right narrative will wake up Europe’s rather disenchanted and distracted European citizens, making people more aware of the EU’s worth and value.
The EU’s founding fathers (there must have been mothers there as well but they aren’t in the history books) were certainly visionary and inspiring. Men such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Paul-Henri Spaak and others, laid the foundations of the modern EU in the aftermath of World War II.
Their success in healing the wounds of war is unparalleled. They may have started small by focusing on cooperation on steel and coal but their ambitions were big.
And then, luckily in the 1980s just when the EU was in danger of slowing down, a new generation of builders of Europe emerged: Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, François Mitterrand, the French president and, perhaps above all, Jacques Delors, a former French finance minister who, over time, became THE European hero.
As president of the European Commission between 1985 and 1995, Delors drove the establishment first of the frontier-free single market and then of the treaty that led to the Euro, the single European currency.
Today, the one big lament of EU insiders is that there has never been “another Delors” to lead Europe. So, the search goes on.
For most of her 11 years in power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the undisputed “queen” of Europe. There is general agreement across the bloc that nothing ever gets done in the EU, unless Merkel approves.
But with her business-like approach, her focus on solving current problems rather than looking at wider challenges — and possibly the mere fact that she is a woman — Merkel has never fitted the role of “European hero”. Neither has she aspired to do so.
Never fear, however, the messiah has appeared. The EU has a new saviour, he is young and handsome and very, very pro-European and his name is Emmanuel Macron.
The French president, now one year into his term, is widely recognised as the European reformer, the man with a vision for Europe’s future and the capacity to make it come true. Sort of.
Last week, Macron vowed the European Parliament and EU wallahs across Europe with a three-hour-long intervention packed with punch and passion. There were sound bytes galore and plenty of ambition.
Taking the bull by the horns, the French president condemned the rise of “illiberal democracies” in Europe. Echoing the language of historians about Europe’s slide into war a century ago, he said he would not belong to another “generation of sleepwalkers” and let the EU wither in what he called an atmosphere of “civil war”.
His most quoted quote? “We are seeing authoritarianism all around us and the response is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy.”
Interestingly, Macron’s address to the parliament only briefly mentioned his lauded Eurozone reforms, possibly because his hopes for an EU-level finance minister, a common EU budget and EU-level bank deposit insurance isn’t too popular with the new coalition government in Berlin.
But Macron does have another important card up his sleeve. He is the one EU leader who has an “inside track” to US President Donald Trump, giving him the nickname of the “Trump whisperer”.
The French president will be in Washington next week, seeking to convince his very unpredictable American counterpart to drop his threat of trade tariffs against US steel and stay true to the nuclear deal with Iran.
Perhaps the Macron magic will work, perhaps it won’t. After all while he still shines in Europe, the French leader faces a summer of strikes and protests at home by disconnected workers.
But then, who says that all heroes have to be perfect?