Chapter 8: A Nonviolent Narrative for European Integration?

Roberto Baldoli and Claudio M. Radaelli

Roberto Baldoli*, School of Public Policy, University College London, UCL, London
Claudio M. Radaelli, School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute, Florence; On leave from School of Public Policy, University College London, London


Can we craft a narrative of European integration that contrasts populist narratives while resonating with the concerns of disaffected citizens? If this task is feasible, how do we leverage the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) to pursue a normative aim, and what are the implications of this normative mode of analysis? To answer these questions, we start from the core properties shared by populist narratives of the European Union. Then we present a possible alternative narrative, grounded in nonviolence as an analytical and normative framework. We compare setting, characters, plot, and moral of the story—first in the populist version and then in the nonviolent alternative. We find that nonviolence can be geared towards a narrative response to the populist account of European integration. We discuss the potential and implications of our normative contribution in terms of ethics and responsibility, contrasting constructive and destructive normative NPF.


*Corresponding author:

To cite the chapter: Baldoli, Roberto and Claudio M. Radaelli. 2022. “A Nonviolent Narrative for European Integration”, in Narratives and the Policy Process: Applications of the Narrative Policy Framework, Michael D. Jones, Mark K. McBeth, and Elizabeth A. Shanahan (eds.), Montana State University Library, 197-221.




      The Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) has emerged and consolidated in the context of empirical theories of the policy process. Less attention has been devoted to its normative potential, although there is nothing that stands in the way of leveraging the framework for normative purposes. In addition, the NPF applications to supranational integration projects and macro governance architectures are rare (for exceptions: Jones & McBeth, 2020; Ney, 2014; Peterson, 2018; Veselkova & Beblavy, 2014; on the macro dimension of power see Sievers & Jones, 2020) compared to applications at the micro and meso levels (Shanahan et al., 2018a). This normative, macro-level application of the NPF is our contribution to the volume—overall ours is an effort to make the NPF more engaged and relevant with attempts to respond to populism (following the call for action: Crow & Jones, 2018; Jones & Crow, 2017; Jones & McBeth, 2020). In doing this, we tie in with NPF studies that have a dimension of advocacy and engagement (Lybecker et al., 2013; McBeth et al., 2010; McBeth et al., 2017).

      Empirically, we leverage the potential of the NPF to enter the debate concerning the macro-level narratives of the European integration project. For decades, the peace project has been the most persuasive narrative in support of European Union (EU) integration. Over time this narrative has lost traction, also because the new generations do not have the same memories of World War II. By contrast, these memories were central in the beliefs and values of the generation that launched the European Economic Community in 1957. In the 21st Century, populist narratives attacking the very purpose of the EU have gained popularity. This populist turn is nested in a conflict of political and cultural values among Europeans, winners, and losers of integration.

      The narrative attack on the European integration project makes political capital out of objective policy crises. Among the EU policy crises of the last ten years, we mention the institutional and policy conflicts on public health and COVID-19 vaccines, the attacks on the sovereign debt of countries in the Euro area, the weak EU governance architecture for migration flows—and in the first part of the decade—the resistance to austerity measures perceived by segments of public opinion as an intrusion in domestic policy (Kratochvil & Sychra, 2019). Anti-European populist narratives have capitalized on the EU limitations in terms of policy crises as well as democratic governance. This state of play has often rewarded populist parties at the ballot box. But here we are not concerned with voting and elections. Rather, we wish to explore the narrative dimension. For sure there are different patterns and varieties of populism, but there are common elements (a common core so to speak) in populist narrations of the European integration project and EU institutions.

      This exploration of the populist narrative core leads to the normative questions that motivates us: What would a counter-narrative that takes seriously the essential concerns of people attracted by anti-European populist narratives look like? How should one build such a narrative? What are the connections between empirical and normative analysis that this exercise implies? We believe that social scientists should empirically study populism, understand its mechanisms, dissect its varieties, but also respond by shaping in the public discourse narratives that can antagonize populism. By doing this, we also connect to those in the field of EU politics who have explored the normative potential of narratives (McMahon, 2017).

      Methodologically, we use the NPF twice: first to reconstruct the core structure of the populist narrative and then to model the backbones of a possible alternative grounded in the theory of nonviolence. We carry out these tasks by starting empirically with the issues and categories that resonate with the audience of populism by tracing the relevant anti-European narrative themes put forward by populist parties in the 2019 elections to the European Parliament.

      Based on this empirical work, we shall develop the alternative narrative starting exactly by the same categories and concepts that seem so appealing to the electorate of populist parties. To illustrate, we shall accept categories such as “the people” (as opposed to “citizens” and “individuals”), and we won’t question narrative propositions such as “the EU is not democratic.” “the elites of the EU are unaccountable,” and “the people, not the institutions, are foundations of the polity.” If these themes (empirically evidenced by our analysis) resonate with a large portion of the EU citizens, they ought to be present also in the alternative we are searching for. Yet this alternative—we shall argue—brings us to very different conclusions, and therefore, is a potentially robust antagonist. More broadly, our experiment leads us to reflect on the normative usages of the NPF to craft a narrative, the blend between empirical and normative analysis, and the ethical implications of the normative turn in NPF research. In doing that, we will address questions on the NPF as a tool for construction or destruction at the macro level of analysis.

      To achieve our aims, section one will introduce the theoretical underpinnings. Section two will look at the NPF as a methodological framework. Section three will focus on the Eurosceptic populist narrative of the EU, using examples from populist party manifestos. Section four will take us into the territory of nonviolence. The nonviolent narrative of the EU—we argue—is critical of the EU as it now stands, agrees on the centrality of the people, and is concerned about the loss of sovereignty. The nonviolent narrative turns the top-down narrative of the people rescued by the leader into a bottom-up praxis of liberation starting from the individual. When we approach the NPF in normative mode—we conclude—social scientists must be very clear and explicit on the standards of governance (e.g., the preference for democracy, or one type of democratic regime over another) and their responsibility as policy researchers. We discuss the ethical implications of bending an existing populist narrative towards either destructive aims or a constructive program.


       The populist critique of the EU comes in different colours—from a full-blown attack on the idea of a political organization like the EU (that is, the critique of the EU as polity), to radical objections, to its political architecture (for example, the role of the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the EU) and resistance to policies (on migration and the Euro, for example). Some Eurosceptic parties are definitively equivocal (Heinisch et al., 2020). They object to the EU, but they also say that they will accept it once they will be in control of the main political levers of integration. Notwithstanding these differences, populist parties are united by an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite” that has taken hold of the institutions in Brussels.

      Populism argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the “people” (Mudde, 2004, p. 543). Populism is also a discursive frame (Laclau, 2005), a style of rhetoric (Norris & Inglehart, 2019), and a political strategy (Weyland, 2017). Whatever dimension we pick, populist parties point to different degrees to a story of what went (and is) wrong with the EU and what should be done. We will pin down the narrative fabric later. Let us now address a preliminary yet fundamental question: What would a narrative sharing some of the real concerns that push citizens towards populist views look like? Related to this is the following question: Why would we look at nonviolence to build an alternative narrative? Indeed, there are categories that, surprisingly perhaps, bring populism and nonviolence closer than one would have thought.

     Interestingly, Martin Luther King Jr. associated his political activity with the term populism—some activists coming from that experience even believe in the existence of a “nonviolent form of populism” to protect “the people” instead of race or class (Boyte, 2008). Contemporary populists such as the Italian Matteo Salvini[1] have evoked icons of nonviolence, such as Mahatma Gandhi. The history of nonviolence has a strong anti-elite flavour (Vinthagen, 2015). But the populist and nonviolent worldviews do not overlap; if anything, we can talk about shared common basic claims. Beyond these claims, the narratives depart. Indeed, some researchers and activists argue that nonviolence is an antidote to populism (Sombatpoonsiri, 2017, 2018). A nonviolent activist like Popovic (2018) writes about the power of nonviolence to fight the rise of populism.

      This leads us to clarify what nonviolence is. Nonviolence derives from ahimsa, which means the “force unleashed when the desire to harm is eradicated” (here we follow the literature we discussed in Baldoli & Radaelli, 2019). Yet, nonviolence is more than non-killing or non-injury. It has been correctly defined as a force that converts the desire to harm into “creative equivalents such as love and compassion.”[2] This force developed with Gandhi into a social and political praxis aimed at reducing violence and building up a different society (constructive program). We identify nonviolence as an analytical and normative framework (Baldoli & Radaelli, 2019; Baldoli, 2018). Analyticalbecause it draws attention to certain phenomena, causal processes, and interpretations. Normative—because it allows us to come to a judgment on the quality of individual and social action and more generally the meanings implied by and diffused through behavior.

      There are three central properties of the nonviolent framework. First, the force that appears in the definition is power grounded in praxis. The nonviolent force appears only when in a real-world episode the desire to harm is eradicated. Nonviolence starts from a conception of power as creation, which appears when people create together social competence and governance from the bottom up (Baldoli & Radaelli, 2019). Second, this force can be unleashed by any individual, even just one person (see Nagler, 2014 on person power). It is not contingent on a given institutional setting, neither does it require institutional “authorization.” Instead, in its most basic form, the real source of power lies in the consent, assistance, and cooperation of the political community—that is, the consent theory of power (Sharp ,1973a, 1973b). People give elected politicians and institutions consent to rule, but they can withdraw it at any time, for example, with civil disobedience. Third, nonviolent action is a process of change rather than a plan to reach a final goal. For this reason, Baldoli and Radaelli (2019) conclude that the nonviolent political theory of the EU is not about achieving a pre-defined political structure like a federation or a confederation. Instead, a nonviolent EU is a horizon (Diez, 1997).

       Some qualifications on the framework of nonviolence are in order. Nonviolence is often associated with a set of techniques of action that do not physically harm an opponent (Sharp, 1973b). It is often a qualifier inserted before “conflict” and “civil resistance” (Bartkowsi, 2013, Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, Popovic, 2015). And yet, this view of nonviolence, although popular in the literature and in our collective imagination of squares filled with peaceful citizens, has limitations. In fact, nonviolence cannot be reduced to a set of techniques (for further specifications: Jahanbegloo, 2014; Nagler, 2004; Mantena, 2012). If that were the case, it would be absolutely fine to argue that the vast majority of citizens that follow populist parties and movements are nonviolent. Some extreme right-wing populists stage flash-mob protests, experiment with new ways of communal living, and even claim that they study Gene Sharp and Gandhi (Bennhold, 2018). We would end up with paradoxes such as “nonviolent forms of right-wing extremism” (Briggs & Goodwin, 2012). Besides, it would be easy but conceptually narrow to think of nonviolence as a mere toolbox of collective action (Sombatpoonsiri, 2018). As a framework for political action, nonviolence is oriented towards empowerment, liberation, and change (Mantena, 2012). It goes beyond expressing indignity and protest. The core of nonviolence is a process of change (Mantena, 2012) and creation—in this sense it is a form of emergent power (Adler-Nissen & Pouliot 2014)—leading to swaraj (self-rule and self-government) and sarvodaya (the uplift of all). Nonviolence may start from the individual, but it is deeply intersubjective, ending up in the domain of politics and governance, with a realistic, rather than idealistic, posture (Mantena, 2012).

      In the remainder, we develop these foundational propositions to explore one dimension of nonviolence: the narrative dimension. The question now arises: How do we go about this aim in terms of methodology and sources?

Methodology and Sources

       Examples of narrative-inspired studies in the field of EU politics and policy deal with the prospect for a new narrative (Innerarity et al., 2018), the role of the EU in others’ countries narratives (Zheng, 2017), the projection and reception of EU narrative in other parts of the world (Chaban et al., 2017), and modes of narration of European integration (Kaiser & McMahon, 2017). Manners and Murray (2016) outline the crisis of the narrative of the peace project.

       There are different ways to get to grips with narratives (Tuohy, 2019). We adopt the NPF. The NPF is frequently associated with the empirical analysis of the policy process and public policies (Jones at al., 2010), hence it has a strong sectoral component (e.g., environmental, social, foreign policy, etc.). Yet, the NPF is also suitable for the analysis of institutional and historical narratives—the grand narratives (Ney, 2014) that ‘create socially constructed realities that manifest as institutions (Shanahan et al., 2018a, p. 195).

      This kind of macro-level analysis is key to firstly understand and secondly address constructively the subject matter of this chapter. Our normative take on the NPF is not a violation of any of the central claims of the approach—quite the opposite. Recent NPF work goes in the normative direction quite explicitly (Sievers & Jones, 2020). Leading authors in the field have embraced the normative NPF turn to critically assess Trump’s narrative (Jones & Crow, 2020; Jones & McBeth, 2020), help science communicators to spread science more persuasively (Crow & Jones, 2017), and provide advice to practitioners (Jones & Crow, 2018).

      We adopt the NPF because it allows us to compare the core structural features or building blocks of different narratives. One important NPF proposition is that these common features appear in a large variety of narratives across space and time. We will therefore compare populist and nonviolent narratives in terms of the following features: the context (the setting of the story), characters, plot, and moral of the story. We are aware of the discussion about what elements a narrative must have and those that may or may not be present (the plot may be incomplete or non-existent, and there may be one or more characters). But this discussion does not concern us as we are not in the territory of definitions. Empirically, we observe that setting, characters, plot, and moral are core elements of the populist narrative. And, consequently, we can examine them.

      Commencing with the context, in a narrative, what matters is the discursive representation of the setting, defined as “environment (space) in which characters exist and interact with one another over time” (Shanahan et al., 2018b, p. 928). The NPF argues that actors in domains of high controversies tend to be discursively portrayed as heroes and villains. There are other characters in the story, but these two are more common because they push the audience towards a given conclusion—the villains are motivated by wrong or ill purposes (Shanahan et al., 2018a). The plot is a set of cause-and-effect mechanisms connecting past to present and future. Not all narratives have plots (Shanahan et al., 2018a); indeed, there are incomplete and incoherent plots. The limited attention for political life of the ordinary citizen may make an incomplete plot still capable of resonating well in terms of emotions. When the narrator talks about the future, the desired course of action is often contrasted with a doomsday scenario, which is a set of terrible consequences that can only be avoided by staying firmly on the side of the hero. When an individual or group self-identifies as the only one who can take us into a better future where the problem is solved, we have an angel shift. The angel shift occurs in a narrative when the narration emphasizes the ability of a group or a hero to solve a problem and at the same time de-emphasizes villains (Shanahan et al., 2013). Weible et al. (2009, pp. 132–133) explain that the opposite devil shift occurs when “actors will exaggerate the malicious motives, behaviors, and influence of opponents.” Finally, the moral of the story assigns purpose to the actions of the characters; it is a bit like the point that the story makes.

      Following Tuohy (2019), there is a continuum between organic and crafted narratives. At a given moment in time, the organic narrative is already there, in the real world. Instead, a crafted narrative is deliberatively created for a purpose by an author. Today we can talk of organic populist narratives—even though we acknowledge that, when looking at the EU, populism can be hard, soft, equivocal, and historically contingent (Heinisch et al., 2020). The populist roots in nationalism are also produced discursively and imagined (Anderson, 1983). Be that as it may, a nonviolent narrative of the EU can only be crafted. It does not mean invented, because as we shall illustrate some episodes and heroes have punctuated nonviolent moments in EU history, but it is marginal and silenced. The NPF will provide the structural components we need to construct a nonviolent narrative that does not yet exist in the EU public sphere.

      Moving to sources and data, there is no systematic corpus of nonviolent text. Thus, for our NPF analysis, we draw on the nonviolence literature, but we cannot generate data. To illustrate, there are no 2019 European Parliament (EP) elections manifestos grounded in or even mentioning nonviolence. There is literature generated by European nonviolent authors and activists dealing explicitly with key European issues, such as Gonzalo Arias, Marco Cappato, Danilo Dolci, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Jean-Marie Muller, Petra Kelly, and Srdja Popovic. It would make no sense to code these scattered writings and speeches produced in different periods for different purposes and with very different lengths, from the systematic essay-like treatment of Havel to the Cappato resolution of the EP (European Parliament 2008). We considered eclectically these reports and speeches—supplemented by the few scholarly references on nonviolence in the EU (see the classic Galtung, 1973; more recently Diez, 1997; Baldoli & Radaelli, 2019) to build our own structural components, that is, setting, actors, plot, doomsday scenario, and moral of the story.

      For the populist narrative, by contrast, possible sources and data are abundant. The first criterion is geographical variety. This points towards cases from both political systems of the old EU-15 and the Euroscepticism populism in the Central and Eastern democracies. The second criterion is the representation of left-wing, right-wing, and “new” populism. A third criterion is to take recent statements. This leads us to choose party manifestos from parties that successfully competed for seats in the EP in 2019. Our criteria do not include statistical representativeness. This is because we do not want to draw inferences about a population of parties from a sample. But we want to show the presence of narrative elements and structures both on the right and on the left, in the West and the East. Hence, a country can be over-represented or under-represented; in some countries, there are populist parties that have not developed antagonistic narratives of the EU (Romania) or have not published 2019 manifestos with details on the EU. We found relevant text in the documents of the League (Italy), Rassemblement National (France), Vox (Spain), PiS (Poland), Podemos (Spain), Finns Party (Finland), and Five-Star Movement (M5S), the “new populism” in Italy). When we found references to the EU, we searched the narrative, focusing on non-ambiguous, explicit, and clear references to setting, characters (narrator, villain, hero, other),’ plot, and moral. We also checked our statements on the populist categories against the precise meaning of concepts provided in the literature (Hooghe et al., 2002; DeVries & Edward, 2009; Halikiopoulou et al., 2012; Pirro & Van Kessel, 2017).

The Populist Narrative

      To start with the foundation(s) of the populist narrative, let us consider the polity dimension: what is Europe as “context” for a political organization? Does “Europe” exist as such, and if so should it be governed by a polity? In the populist narrative, Europe-as-context is not denied. Europe exists. There is a strong idea of Europe, of a community (Christian) whose individuals share a common heritage. Some populist parties stress the historic component (PiS, 2019, p. 8), others the common culture (Rassemblement National, 2019, p. 9; VOX, 2019, p. 2) or geographical position (League 2018). For these parties, the problems start with Europe as polity; the EU is a machine limiting aspirations and desires (Podemos, 2019, p. 5) or, for the right-wing populist parties, moving against the Europe of the Nations. This is the locus of the crisis: EU institutions are increasingly detached from their citizens.

       To stop this crisis, populists offer a hero. The hero is someone who comprehends the will of the people but is relatively new to politics, such as Iglesias or Grillo, or at least leading an outsider party, such as Salvini, Le Pen, or Abascal. In all these cases, the narrator is also the hero (who comprehends the will of the people) and the party leader. But “leader” does not necessarily mean politician. Populist leaders do not even identify themselves with “the politician.” It is common for a populist leader-hero to deploy narrative registers and repertories that do not belong to the classic political discourse. The language of the populist narrator can be satirical, delivered to public performances that are more similar to the shows of stand-alone comedians than to the style of political rallies—as shown by M5S Beppe Grillo.

      The leader captures and incarnates the category of “the will of the people” (an ambiguous concept, see Weale, 2018). The task of this character is to unveil the evil done by the political class; it is exactly by doing this that the leader becomes the populist hero. The people are the victims (el pueblo español). In the context of the EU, the people are homogeneous national entities, even though parties such as Podemos also refer to EU citizens. This is also valid for left-wing parties as they tend to equate class with the nation (Halikiopoulou et al., 2012). People are attacked by the EU elites (the villains) described as Eurocrats (Rassemblement National, 2019: 9), a “tentacular bureaucratic structure” (Lega) or “the caste” (M5S). They are assaulted by migrants who have access to the EU only because of its inefficiency. They are diminished in their capacity to choose how to spend and tax by the European Central Bank and the European Commission. They see their culture taken away by multinational and global entities.

      In particular, populists describe the people as a homogeneous entity. When the juxtaposition is with the villain (the EU), the people are the natives of a nation—even if internally populists fight fiercely against their domestic political class. There is no focus on the individual in this narrative construction: all French (or Finns, etc.) are losing out to the EU unless they listen to the leader. This form of nationalism is common to right-wing and left-wing populist parties, even though previous research already showed that the former is more concerned about culture while the latter about imperialism and great powers (Halikiopoulou et al., 2012).

      The villains are then the elites and their EU institutions. This proposition refers to polity, politics, and policies. The EU polity is not a community of people, nation-states, and supranational institutions. In its current form, EU politics is a kind of “foreign paternalism” (AFD, 2017, p. 16), which is entirely governed by political and economic elites, a homogeneous group of people with a precise ideology and a preference for compromise (VOX, 2019, p. 3). The European Commission is a group of bureaucrats only “very indirectly” selected by nation-states (Finns Party, 2019, p. 4). The Council of EU Ministers does not have the power it deserves to fully protect the dimensions of territory and nation—being overwhelmed by supranational institutions like the European Commission and the EP. The European Central Bank is abusing its role. Free trade and protectionism are labels that the villains use to turn the normative table on what is bad (free trade) and good for the people (the preservation of their culture, goods, habits, food, wrongly labeled as protectionism by the elites). Thus, the anti-EU institutional posture of the narrative goes hand-in-hand with the rejection of EU policies such as free trade and calls for protectionism. In the Iberian Peninsula, populist parties blame the EU elites for austerity and neoliberalism (Podemos, 2019); the same did the Front National in France (Bohemen et al., 2018). Yet, for the far-right, the key problem of Europe is cultural; they blame the EU mainly for the way the crisis of migration is challenging national identities.

      What is the plot of this story? There was a past where all the so-called “citizens of the state” had their own sovereignty and culture. They were coherent demos, with their own problems but also with their own identities. The present, instead, is dull and crude. This is because EU elites have objectives different from those of the people, first of all, that of political and economic integration at any cost. The EU is an institution with the power to regulate against the economic and physical health of citizens of member states (League, 2018, p.  9). Here is a common devil shift in the populist narrative, where narrators exaggerate the malicious motives, actions, and impact of their opponents (Shanahan et al., 2018a). When elites make policy choices, they are indifferent if not hostile to people’s suffering. Even worse, they deliberately choose policies that damage the unity, autonomy, and identity of the nations. They generate crises that are advantageous to a few villains.

      A consequence of the unfair EU political architecture is the crisis of sovereignty. Rassemblement National claims that the EU is a step towards le mondialisme total (2019, p. 6), in which nation-states no longer hold real power. The European elites are blamed for having trapped the member states and the “common citizens” in a system that, at least since Maastricht, eroded their sovereignty in economics, border protection, legislation, and commerce. This crisis has been described as a crisis of popular sovereignty (Pirro et al., 2018).

       The recurrent threat to the use of tools of direct democracy, such as the EU referendum, does not come from a real belief in a different kind of European democracy. No constructive action is envisaged. Most of the time, in populist narratives, the referenda are not ways to improve or construct a better EU. Instead, they are functional to the struggle of the nation-state against the EU. Indeed, Rassemblement National recalled the result of the 2005 referendum on the constitutional treaty, interpreting it as they attempt to stop the creation of the European federation (2019, p. 3). Even in the case of M5S, the proposal of an EU-wide use of the referendum is not backed by any vision for EU democracy. Most of the other party manifestos highlight that the key events to blame are the Maastricht Treaty, which created the Economic and Monetary Union, and the liberalization of most markets from audio-visual to food.

      What about the future? In the doomsday scenario, the exercise of popular sovereignty in the EU evaporates in a technocratic world—a world that suppresses traditional cultures and domestic liberties and freedom. Europeans will live in an EU with no power, ample areas of poverty, limited diversity, inequalities, and cultural stagnation.

      To avoid the doomsday scenario, populist heroes point to solutions that are not fully-fledged programs, but rather aspirations in the form of manifestos’ bullet points that evoke desirable future(s). Populist parties will soon force a critical re-appraisal of all Treaties on which the EU was built and abolish all regulations that are alien to domestic legal traditions. Here we find the solution discursively represented as the reverse of the EU as we know it today, with drastic changes to the EU politics—and even plots where one party can be equivocally both inside and outside the EU institutional perimeter (Heinisch et al., 2020).

Indeed, for some, the solution is simply a withdrawal from the EU, such as AFD or the Freedom Party.[3] We find generic appeals to a return to a Europe of Nations and to the foundational “Europe-as-context”—the Europe of the Peoples. Alongside this rejection of the EU polity, we also find an intermediate objective of hollowing out the integration project from the inside by gaining prominence inside the EU political institutions, especially the Council. Although ambiguous and equivocal (Heinisch et al., 2020), the League in 2019, along with Rassemblement National, was explicit in demanding a return back to the European Economic Community rather than a complete elimination of any political architecture for European integration. VOX aims for a more general political freedom of nations, while Podemos sees the future in terms of the protection of diversity and uniqueness of each state.

      Turning to the EU politics, technocratic and non-elected elites have to be tamed, when not completely removed, especially the Commission, the European Central Bank, and the Court of Justice of the EU. The Rassemblement envisages the substitution of the decision-making procedures with referenda that will steer European decisions (2019, p. 17). For VOX, the solution is to reduce the legislative capacity of the Commission (VOX, 2019, p. 5). Schengen should be abolished and frontiers reinstalled; the Maastricht Treaty and the Euro should be slowly reversed; the Commission’s competencies on migration should be minimized and the exclusive competences of the member states magnified. These statements appear in the manifestos of AFD, League, Rassemblement, and Finns Party.

      The moral of the story provides meaning and purpose to what the characters do, articulating their motives. The populist moral is a variation on the themes of nostalgia and what PiS called Euro-realism, which points to the Europe of homelands. In other words, they propose separation from—and slow suppression of—EU institutions. RN and VOX highlight the need to protect states’ identities and values, even introducing strong legal barriers—PiS claims. The League envisages future cooperation among nation-states based exclusively on economic gains, while Five-Star Movement and Podemos point to a generic “complete change of the EU,” This is morally justified by the need to return to the centrality of the people and their (national or in some extreme cases even regional) sovereignty. This moral of substantial disintegration is aligned with populist movements lurching towards illiberal forms of democracy and domestic authoritarianism by humiliating or limiting intermediate bodies, the use of referenda to secede and overturn the “projects of the elites,” and by not-so-veiled sympathies for populist leaders like Chavez, Trump, and Putin.

A Different Narrative: Freedom, Plurality, and Europe of All

       The nonviolent narrative we are about to craft shares important concerns with the populists. Take the context. For a nonviolent narrative, the EU is certainly in a multi-layered and multi-policy crisis in which the division between people and elites widens. Even more, a nonviolent narrative would accept to formulate the problem as a crisis of popular sovereignty as the people do not play the role they deserve.

      The narrator of nonviolence, like the one of populism, is not an elected politician in office. Rather, the narrator is someone from civil society. She or he can be a trade unionist like Walesa, a priest like don Tonino Bello or a translator like Gonzalo Arias. The narrators do not belong to old or new elites. Both nonviolence and populism emphasize the importance of the people. One of the most well-known concepts in nonviolence literature is indeed people power (Sharp, 1973a). Nonviolent theorists such as Havel and Capitini were not afraid of talking about the people as different from the ruling elites. Havel took the side of the “powerless” (Havel et al., 1985); Capitini focused his effort to help the whole of citizens, the “tutti” (the Italian word for “all”) (Capitini, 1999).

      Yet, crucially, in nonviolence, there is no reference to a hero who “knows” the will of the people. It is not by chance that in some of the most important nonviolent campaigns around the world today we find leaderless movements. Lanza del Vasto, Capitini, and Havel were great narrators but not heroes in their narratives. They were the public faces of the protest, facilitators or receptive charismatic protagonists of something bigger than them.

      Here we find a dramatic departure from the populist narrative: the true nonviolent heroes are individuals and communities emerging from passivity. Every individual carries the potential to become the hero. The concept of “people” does not mean “one entity” and “one voice.” People are different. Each person is unique. The people on which nonviolence focuses are in particular children, prisoners, minorities, oppressed, and foreigners. What people share is not one voice, but similar human conditions, that is, their basic biological-historical limitations (Baldoli, 2018).

      This changes dramatically the characters of our story, showing very different angel and devil shifts. The people cannot be “just” victims, as the elites are not intrinsically villains. People are not a deluded mass with common sense. They are an intricate mosaic of trustees of their own communities, each one with their own role, responsibilities, and opportunities. Both people and elites become heroes (angel shift) when they decide to use their power to say no to something unfair and to rise from passivity. This rejection of passivity may look similar to the populist rhetoric. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Rejection of passivity is an active process of liberation, starting from the self and our relationship with the others—a relationship made of both self-restraint and the acquisition of personal responsibility (Baldoli, 2018). This process includes the acquisition of methods of action to say no to decisions considered unfair (Sharp, 1973b) and effectively disobey (Popovic, 2015; Nagler, 2014). Yet, it also includes a profound work on the self, such as the maieutic process put in place by Danilo Dolci in Sicily (Dolci, 2009), or the work on education by Muller (2002). Instead, populism demands trust in the new leader without any serious work of empowerment of the citizens themselves.

      This act of liberation points to the relationship of passivity as the true villain (this is the devil shift of nonviolence). In a sense, the villain is a dyadic relation between us and the other, not a single character. No individual villain has to be humiliated and defeated. By taking pain and suffering upon herself, by going to jail against an unjust law or by practicing a hunger strike, the nonviolent hero offers the other the possibility to see the unjust nature of a law, a decision, an institution, or a tradition. The overall aim of nonviolent conflict is not to “win the war” but to change closed social and political relationships: habits, practices, or processes that impair the development of society. The aim is to convince, to persuade and be persuaded, and to achieve stable conflict resolution. In the literature, this concept has been called agape (King, 2010), openness (Capitini, 1999), or plurality (Baldoli, 2018). Agape is described by King as the capacity to forgive, which does not mean ignoring what happened, but averting the mistake of letting the event becoming a barrier, which would hinder reconciliation; the understanding that the other is more than his or her deeds; and the refusal to humiliate the other, as it would worsen the situation (2010).

      The EU is grounded on a veritable “European tradition” of agape dealing with domains in crisis, such as education (Jean-Marie Muller) the military (Gonzalo Arias), prisons (Pat Patfoort, Marco Pannella), the environment (Alex Langer), and religion (Lanza del Vasto and Capitini). The confrontation between the hero and the villain in these domains is not like a duel in a Spaghetti-Western film. Galtung points towards “transcending conflicts” because both parties are (and should be) transformed by the new solution (Galtung, 1996). In the case of the EU, both the people and the elites are damaged by the present situation. With nonviolence, confrontation with the villain (enshrined in the wrong social and political relations, not in the other) becomes a painful yet rewarding process to create a new reality together.

      And yet, what is the plot of this story? Since the inception of the European project, both the people and the elites failed to catch the opportunity of building up freedom and plurality. Both these groups failed to adopt, use, and develop the wisdom of nonviolent struggle and experiments of liberation from authoritarian regimes and war. At the same time, both groups did not do enough to accelerate a process that still goes too slowly—or stopped too early—in European recent history: the democratization of democracies.[4] The crisis does not come from a conspiracy of national and international elites against the people. People and elites suffer together from not having democratized the EU since its inception (Galtung, 1973). The problem is not the elite but the lack of the “power of all” (Capitini, 1999), meaning both participation and inclusion in the European policy process (Baldoli, 2018, p. 117), which reinforces and shapes a “diverse citizenship” (the concept is illustrated by Tully, 2014).

      The failure to embrace freedom and plurality leads to the claim that the EU suffers from a lack of sovereignty, in particular of popular sovereignty. Yet this term means neither that nation-states and their citizens do not have enough sovereignty, nor that the governments cannot freely design their domestic laws and policies. The problem lies in the process, in the daily practices. Citizens lack liberating and inclusive practices and processes in the European social and political spheres. In other words, the lack of popular sovereignty does not lie in the fact that EU institutions and policies do not legislate in the true spirit and will of the people (that some strong leader supposedly accesses without bias). It is not a referendum at the regional, national, or European level that will solve the legitimacy problem around Europe. The lack of popular sovereignty is grounded in the passivity and closure of practices.

      To turn the tide and avoid this doomsday scenario of passivity and closure, the heroes, in this case, the European people and the elites, have a choice to make: either they face the fragility of European democracies and their institutions closing down in themselves, giving up on their role as trustees of the society, or they rise from passivity and closure. By doing so, they will seize the opportunity to create a new reality via facti with the others. Populism instead makes a clear choice towards closure. Srdja Popovic, with his characteristic irony, pointed out a key weakness of populist leaders: they take themselves too seriously (Popovic, 2018). This mistake is what Gandhi called duragraha, meaning stubborn persistence that excludes others from the process of finding a solution.

      For the populists, the EU must be demolished from the top: Maastricht, the Euro, the Dublin regulation on migrations, the Commission, the European Central Bank, the primacy of EU law over national legislation. This process of dismantling will lead to the return of nationalism and Europe of the homelands. Nonviolence starts from personal liberation from passivity and openness towards the other in everyday relationships. It then scales up to community and governance. Instead of creating closed groups or identities to resist global change, citizens embrace human and democratic fragility, focusing on what they can do with/for the others. This is “diverse citizenship” (Tully, 2014), which points to the power of everyone to engage in the negotiation of practices of citizenship at different levels of the polity. For instance, Danilo Dolci tried to help fishermen in Sicily to become active citizens and not simply passive victims of a distant state; Alex Langer promoted the Peace Civil Corps to empower EU citizens to be able to act effectively in conflict zones; party leaders such as Petra Kelly and Marco Pannella incarnated nonviolent creativity to bring about changes in democratic contexts (Kelly, 2001; Pannella, 2007a, 2007b).

      What is the moral of the story, then? The moral comes close to what Diez (1997) called a political horizon connected with our daily practices. This is the opposite of a ballistic, deterministic model pointing to a final destination. The nonviolent narrative does not say whether there should be a banking union, a fiscal compact, or a revision of the Dublin regulation on migrants. It provides the horizon for taking these decisions. The means, not the pre-determined final goal, are ends-creative (Mantena, 2012). The means have the power of transforming social and political practices in qualitative ways. Means and ends should come together to overcome the current stalemate. There can’t be change with the simple transfer of power from the EU to its member states—Gandhi would have said that it would make no sense to change the tiger without changing the tiger’s nature. Real change happens when the meaning and character of rulership has changed, when the democratic order is qualitatively improved, and when a different horizon is built up from daily relationships and practices. This is a very different project from the populist one, as it is founded on the pillars of freedom and plurality.

      Many names have been given to this project: horizontal society (Galtung, 1992), post-democracy (Havel et al., 1985), and omnicracy (Capitini, 1999). The key to this vision is the theory of the “oceanic circles” elaborated by Gandhi. Nonviolent society is not like a pyramid; it is to be imagined as an oceanic circle (Gandhi, 1997), ever-widening from the person to the villages and more generally the political community. If we want to imagine a label for this alternative European project, we can say that nonviolence would change the populist “Europe of Nations” or “Europe of the People” into the Capitini-inspired “Europe of All.”


      We wrap up the key elements of our comparison in Table 1 below. Nonviolence generates meanings and sets the direction for the goals and objectives of individuals and communities. The polity’s foundations are in self-governance and liberation. Integration is not designed at the top and implemented at the bottom. The people, then, are core to the nonviolent narrative as well as to the populist narrative. Yet the concepts of “the people” and “governance” are framed in terms of communities and their trustees without excluding elites. The people are the heroes of this narrative not due to their choice to back a strong leader against the elites, but because they free themselves—learning to disobey and act for change. Freedom goes hand-in-hand with plurality and openness, as real change only happens when the others are on board and share the meanings incarnated via practices of liberation.

      The villains are present in both narratives. But, in populism they are individuals, while in nonviolence, the villain is not the other. Instead, the harm lies in the quality (or in the total absence) of the relationship among individuals (Table 1 row 4). In particular, it lies in passivity and closure in human relationships at any level, from personal to political.

      Like populism, the nonviolent narrative provides no apologies for the status quo (Table 1 row 5). However, nonviolence does not believe that the dismantling of European institutions is the solution to the crisis of popular sovereignty. It rings several alarm bells about the loss of popular sovereignty in the EU and its ailing democracies. Yet, this loss lies in the process, not in the laws and policies. Individuals, both people and elites, not the EU institutions, have the opportunity to go back to their history and resuscitate the many nonviolent experiments of freedom and plurality. Institutional change can only follow up and accommodate changes that are already taking place. Thus, the moral of the story (Table 1 row 6) is that the EU should not be dis-integrated. It still needs to be built as a new horizon of relationships and practices through much more freedom and plurality, and the Europe of All.


Table 1. A comparison of European integration narratives

Populist Narrative  Nonviolent Narrative
Settings The EU is not democratic and not effective in its policies, creating a rift between citizens and elites. The EU lacks popular sovereignty.
Heroes / Narrator The narrator: The narrator:
1) portrays herself as anti-establishment 1) does not come from the establishment
2) uses no conventional political language 2) uses no conventional political language
3) knows the will of the people 3) is not the interpreter of the will of the people
4) is the leader of the party and the hero in the narrative 4) is not necessarily the hero. The true heroes are the people as trustees of their community.
Victims The people. The people are one organic national entity with one single voice. A voice that is silenced by the EU. The people and the elites. They both suffer from the state of play in the EU.
Villain Political elites, technocrats. The villain is not an individual or an institution. The villain is the relationship of passivity and closure between us and the others.
Plot In the past Europe was a continent of homelands, culture and nations.The EU has become a project opposed to the will of the people; it hinders the exercise of popular sovereignty. To stop violations of the will of the people, we need to dismantle the EU integration project. If there is a future for the EU as political project, it is similar to the situation pre-Maastricht or the European Economic Community. The historical mistake of the EU was not to start from democracy as political vision. Today we have to democratize the EU and its member states. To stop the relationship of passivity and closure, the solution lies in liberating and inclusive practices. It is up to individuals (power of each one of us and people power), not to the EU institutions, to kick-start a process of liberation, democratic governance, and reform. EU institutional change will follow and accompany this bottom-up process.
Moral To reclaim the ‘Europe of Nations’ or the ‘Europe of the Peoples’. To claim freedom and plurality and build up the ‘Europe of All’.

      Our comparison contributes to the existing literature on NPF normative usages (see for instance McBeth et al., 2014; McBeth & Jones, 2020). Ethically, we argue that to shift the NPF in normative mode is acceptable because, as policy scholars, we see our enterprise intrinsically connected to the ethos of the democratic vision of the policy sciences (deLeon, 1997; Dunlop & Radaelli, 2021). We have not written this chapter to defend the EU but to respond to the populist ideology, which reveals serious flaws in terms of democratic theory (Weale, 2018).

      Our normative experiment also contains a plausibility test: Can we demonstrate how to move from one undesirable narrative to another more attractive narrative (attractive in terms of normative goals and potential traction on citizens)? We believe that we have passed this plausibility test with empirical homework on the “source” narrative (populism in our case) before attending to the new, normatively inspired counter-narrative. Our empirical work was based on components of the populist narratives that resonate the most with European citizens. We then plugged these components onto the narrative we were about to create in the lab of the social scientist, so to speak.

      Essentially, we have contributed to the emerging efforts to adopt the NPF normatively to create narratives at the macro level (Jones & McBeth, 2020). But we question the connection between means and ends implicit in the key categories of the NPF. Meanings and usages of NPF categories are not free-floating—they depend on the ends of those who handle and manipulate them. The same categories can be used to destroy (trust in institutions, legitimacy of the EU, confidence in reason) or to construct. This destructive vs. constructive bifurcation opens up NPF research to consideration about ethics. There is an ethical responsibility of the policy researcher. With the big questions (that is, macro questions concerning our societies and governance) come ethics and responsibility for the implications of what we say in the world out there. Normatively, the NPF can be either destructive or constructive. The difference lies in the ethical posture of the researcher.

      Consider how the destructive vs. constructive bifurcation shapes the NPF categories. Settings are far from being objective descriptions of an external reality; they are heavily influenced by framing and personal views (Shanahan et al., 2018b) and, in our case, ideologies. A crafted narrative can provide new meanings to the same words and orient the audience in a different direction. We have not done this in the present chapter—the nonviolent narrative adopted the populist critical view of the setting—but this is an option when crafting narratives, and researchers should be aware of that and communicate in total transparency what they are doing.

      More pertinently perhaps, consider the triad hero-narrator-victim. McBeth et al. (2014) as well as Lybecker et al. (2013) found that the villain-based narratives are highly divisive (in their context, of recycling), while a heroic narrative (in which the person exercising individual responsibility is considered a hero) receives support from both liberals and conservatives. Ney already highlighted that “inadvertent” causal mechanisms lead to a certain degree of polarization (2014, p. 222). Our analysis confirms these views and goes further. A constructive narrative eschews the notion of the narrator as the hero, pointing instead to diffusion and incarnation of the role of heroes among as many people as possible. The villain is not anthropomorphic, but it is a broken relationship; the victims are not simply the target group, but all parties involved in a broken relationship; and the plot is characterized by the engagement of everybody to adjunct an inclusive alternative to an insufficient status quo.

      The opposite happens in the destructive orientation of the NPF, as shown in Table 2. The triad hero-narrator-victim has normative connotations that can be manipulated to push for further polarization and disaggregation. In this sense, we go beyond the idea that a simple “pair-wise alliances” of cultural frames (in our case ideologies) may lead to exclusion of a third way of life, and thus to polarization (Ney, 2014, p. 231). A real constructive path at macro level dispenses of the narrator as hero and provides a plural notion of hero. The villain is an individual or a hostile group in the destructive NPF, while it lies in the quality of relationships in constructive NPF.

      Finally, these choices between destructive and constructive NPF have implications for the plot and the moral of the story (Table 2). The mechanism here is not simply one of a contest between narratives, with one emerging at the expense of the other. A constructive narrative creates, adds, and integrates the status quo with an alternative that includes everybody (past and future generations and other living beings)—even though it is achieved through self-suffering and renunciation. This process leads to a deeper level of learning and to a real reconciliation among the parties. At this level, the NPF goes beyond the vision of political life as a confrontation between discursive and advocacy coalitions.

      This does not mean that there should always be complete agreements at the meso level. Yet, it is at the macro level, at the level of the meaning of the institutions, that the maximum consensus possible has to be achieved. In other words, it is at the macro level that the institution should remain the “horizon” of everyone.


Table 2. Destructive and Constructive NPF

  Destructive NPF Constructive
Settings The status quo does not work
Hero narrator Concentration: the narrator is the hero; the heroes are few or even one person. Diffusion and plurality: the narrator is not the hero. The heroes are all individuals rising from passivity.
Victims Apathy: Groups of individuals are clearly distinguishable from other groups, they have nothing to share, no empathy. Empathy: All parties involved in the relationship.  All parties suffer in different ways from the present situation.


Villain Individual(s): other groups or even one person. A relationship, specifically the broken ties in the relationship with the others.
Plot Disengagement: the unsatisfactory status quo is independent from hero and narrator Engagement: The status quo is premised on interrelatedness of life. Individuals have the capacity and responsibility to address the quality of interrelatedness and improve.
Dialectics: path towards a superior unity/solution, even with the suffering or annihilation of the other group. Adjunction: adding quality to present reality, even with self-suffering. This quality integrates and enriches the present situation, and changes the present, failed relationship.
Destruction: going back to smaller independent units or imposition of the hero’s will on the other-as-loser. Domination instead of persuasion. Construction: building an alternative that includes the other. Persuasion instead of domination.
Moral Suppression or separation. Reconciliation.

      Our analysis also reveals that a destructive NPF may well work (and it may even have a positive role) when there is a high degree of cultural/social cohesion. When the NPF is adopted in a diverse polity like the EU, its hero- versus-villain feature can lead to further polarization, exclusion, and annihilation of the villains. Nonviolent struggles all around the world have shown that when there is a strong polarization, the narrative has to highlight a future of stable conflict resolution in a constructive mode.


      We set out to challenge the rising populist narrative on the EU. Instead of focusing on the evidence against single populist arguments, we proposed to fight narratives with narratives. It is wrong to always or only fight fire with fire (Weale, 2019). But, for advocacy and political engagement, it is correct to appraise whether we can fight a particular narrative with a counter-narrative that meets the criteria highlighted in our Introduction. Certainly, ours is only one way to catch the populist fire, others may prefer to fight it with evidence-based policy and reasoned argumentation. However, narratives are not the opposite of evidence, neither do they exclude evidence. They are devices to represent a full range of elements, including evidence, and, through the discursive representation of the elements, they connect problems to causal mechanisms.

       Our contribution to the NPF comes in four parts. First, it shows how the empirical homework connects with the normative objective. Second, it sheds light on the implications (in terms of responsibility and clarity on the implications of normative positions) of an analysis of a complex institutional project: integration and its institutions in Europe. Third, it introduces the concepts of destructive and constructive usages of the NPF when operating in normative mode. And fourth, it puts forward a suggestion when the context is one of polarization. Namely, we argue that we should not catch the fire of a polarizing narrative with another polarizing narrative but work on a constructive narrative that adds and integrates at the macro level.

      We acknowledge the limitations of our exercise. Ours is a crafted narrative, but there are limits to how one can generate narratives out of whole cloth. Besides, we cannot tell whether nonviolent narratives, if adopted by pro-European political leaders or parties, would bring them more votes or not. Our vision of nonviolence is not anchored to charismatic leaders, it is a bottom-up vision. However, trust in the narrator is an important factor, and many current leaders—if they were to endorse nonviolence—would be hopelessly engaging in communication out of character. The nonviolent narrative we outlined in this chapter is different from the one embraced by the European Commission and the EU institutions, although the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has re-orientated the EU towards a Green Deal for Europeans and resources for a more inclusive, sustainable future. The pandemic has also shed light on the feeling of unity in fragility among European citizens. But all this does not provide evidence that nonviolence is or will be present on the scene of EU politics and policy.

      With its limitations, our contribution to the study of narratives is nonetheless original. We contributed to the literature by showing the potential of the NPF for normative analysis, advocacy, and engagement. Our effort resonates with Jones and McBeth’s (2020) call for a more relevant NPF. They leverage the NPF to defend democracy and science from Trump’s attacks. Lybecker and McBeth recently developed recycling and river restoration narratives with the potential to reconcile liberals and conservatives. In our case, the NPF allows us to build a narrative of European integration that is critical of the EU as it now stands, yet it offers a way forward that is radically different from the populist narrative. It is designed to work on segments of the current populist electorate without falling into separation. Our work is also mindful of the ethical implications of normatively oriented NPF researchers. We argued that a normative NPF stance can be deployed to construct, reconcile, and improve, but the opposite may also happen, leading to narratives oriented to polarisation and conflict between the hero and the villain. More research is needed on the challenges and opportunities of using NPF to craft alternative narratives and for what purposes: the problems around the triad hero-narrator-enemy; the destructive or constructive quality of normative analysis; the possibility to extend this approach to meso and micro level analyses; and finally, there is much to learn from the limitations and cases in which the approach we pursued does not work.

Acknowledgments: We wish to acknowledge support from the UACES European Nonviolence Network 2021-2023 We are grateful to Mike Jones and the other contributors to the volume for their comments. We also wish to thank Theofanis Exadaktylos, Jonathan Kamkhaji and Gaia Taffoni for their suggestions on an early draft. The usual disclaimer applies.




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[1] See his reference to Gandhi on 18 May 2019 (

[3] See ADF manifesto at: (last accessed on the 24 May 2020). The Freedom Party manifesto is available at: (last accessed on the 24 May 2020).

[4] See Havel’s discourse to the French Senate: ‘the durability of the new European order will depend considerably on the measures of openness inside this structure’ (available at: Last Accessed on the 6 April 2020).


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Narratives and the Policy Process: Applications of the Narrative Policy Framework Copyright © 2022 by Roberto Baldoli and Claudio M. Radaelli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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