New Times,
New Thinking.

Europe’s race delusions

Built on imperial amnesia and competing nationalisms, the EU has never been the beacon of inclusion it claims to be.

By Marina Wheeler

Hans Kundnani’s mixed heritage – he was born of a Dutch mother and Indian father – frames his very readable critique of the European project (the EU), Eurowhiteness. When his parents arrived in the UK in the 1960s his Indian father was, he tells us, in some ways less of an outsider than his mother – he could vote, she could not. In his lifetime however, non-white Commonwealth citizens were “reimagined as immigrants” while the rights of Europeans continually grew.

While working for a European foreign-policy think tank, Kundnani supported the European project, “assuming” the EU was a force for good. But over time, his assumptions eroded. Reading this well-researched, interesting little book, I am reminded of the video to “99 Luftballons”, a German pop song from the 1980s. In the video, the red balloons represented dreams. Here, in my mind, they are Euro-myths, floating across an open expanse until Kundnani, wielding his pen, reaches out and – pop! – they are no more.

[See also: The revenge of Theresa May]

Foundational myth number one is that the EU is an expression of cosmopolitanism. Many “pro-Europeans”, Kundnani writes, “think it stands for diversity, inclusion and openness. It opposes nationalism and racism. It is about people ‘coming together’ and peacefully cooperating. It is a shining example of how enemies can become partners.” But this “Eurocentric view” mistakes Europe for the world. Nations within Europe have integrated, but for every internal border removed an external border has been fortified. For decades the Common Agricultural Policy subsidised European farmers with “devastating effects on farming in Africa”.

So Kundnani argues that in place of the myth of cosmopolitan Europe it is more accurate to see the EU as an “expression of regionalism”, something “analogous to nationalism… but on a larger, continental scale”. Consider the response to Covid-19. When France and Germany restricted exports of PPE this was “dangerous nationalism”. But a week later, when the EU imposed restrictions on PPE exports, it was viewed as a triumph of European unity. “We need to help each other,” declared Ursula von der Leyen, apparently impervious to its impact outside the EU.

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“Pro-Europeans” resist the nationalism analogy, Kundnani says, because the corollary of idealising European identity is to demonise national identity. This Eurocentric view of nationalism as a dark, elemental force, rooted in hatred of the Other, is a product of Europe’s, and especially Germany’s, history, but it creates blind spots. It obscures the “emancipatory aspects” of nationalism and negates its anti-colonial projects, such as India’s fight for independence.

The key to understanding, and managing, nationalism, argues Kundnani, is to distinguish its benign and problematic versions. Civic nationalism commonly implies voluntary commitment to a set of liberal principles as the basis of citizenship – a political community that in theory anyone can join. Ethnic or cultural nationalism is more exclusive, based as it is on shared ethnicity, language or religion. Both versions exist in the European project, but in Kundnani’s view, the ethnic/cultural is increasingly dominant.

He makes a good case. From Ancient Greece to the Second World War, Europe has shown a “sense of superiority and a concomitant impulse to ‘civilise’ the rest of the world”. In the medieval period the purpose was Christian – essentially to vanquish Islam – which evolved via the Enlightenment into “a rationalist, racialised mission”. In the 15th century the first cargo of African slaves was brought to Portugal. In 1492, the year when Muslim rule in Europe ended, Columbus travelled from Spain to the Bahamas. By then, the “era of discovery” – or put another way, colonisation by white Europeans – was under way, a process that would endure into the 20th century.

When I was a pupil at the European School in Brussels I learned that the point of the European project was to make war between France and Germany “not merely unthinkable but materially impossible”. But, writes Kundnani, European countries did not reject war after 1945. They rejected it within Europe; outside it they continued fighting colonial wars until they were spent or defeated. On 8 May 1945, the day Europe celebrated peace, French forces were suppressing Algerian independence with a massacre at Sétif and Guelma.

Astonishingly, when the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 to create the European Economic Community (EEC), France and Belgium’s colonial possessions were included, meaning most EEC territory was in Africa, not Europe. Free movement didn’t apply, but the treaty let France and Belgium consolidate colonies they could not have maintained on their own. At the same time many of the EU’s founding fathers signed up to a revived idea of “Eurafrica” – a movement to modernise Africa and access raw materials. The aim of uniting was to recover a dominant position in the world and compete with the British empire, Soviet Union and the US. “In other words” – cue the sound of another balloon popping – “from the beginning, the European project was not just about peace… It was, always, also about power.”

[See also: David Runciman’s armchair politics]

In the present, Kundnani has a clutch of concerns. “The colonial origins of the EU… have been written out of the narrative of European integration.” Instead, the Holocaust is the central collective memory in Europe, institutionalised with European funding of memorials and museums. In this way, he writes, the EU is a “vehicle for imperial amnesia” that fosters a false and dangerous assumption that racism has been discarded.

Now we have a “new civilising mission”, pursued by a more assertive, coercive EU. In integrating the countries of central and eastern Europe, economic policy was determined by the EU’s demands – privatisation, banking reform and a reduction in state spending –rather than citizens’ needs. During the 2015 migration crisis, “solidarity” in relocating newcomers failed to materialise. Ethnic diversity was not a “European value” the new member states expected to embrace. The “return to Europe” was based on a cultural myth of shared Christian roots, not political values.

In the EU, Kundnani sees a “civilisationalism” that has become increasingly defensive and fearful of migrants. Turkey’s membership application is frozen. Ostensibly this is due to President Erdoğan’s poor human rights record, although the EU willingly entrusts Turkey to keep out migrants, by fair means or foul. On the EU’s southern border too, the door to accession is shut. The EU’s interest in North Africa is largely to stem the flow of migration, with minimal scrutiny. Meanwhile, the EU official responsible for migration has a new title: vice-president for promoting (initially “protecting” was used) our European way of life. Migration, this strongly implies, threatens that way of life.

In a final chapter, Kundnani dismisses as “simplistic and binary” the notion that the UK’s vote to leave the EU was a yearning for white Britain. “Global Britain” is not nostalgia for empire, but another expression of imperial amnesia. It is more comforting to recall standing up to the Nazis than oppressing colonial subjects.

As for the “puzzling” charge that voting Leave shows Britain is racist, he draws on research by Neema Begum to argue the opposite. In voting, some members of Britain’s ethnic minorities were rejecting a bloc they viewed as racist: whether because of burkini bans or the ease with which Europeans could move to the UK while they struggled to bring their own families from Commonwealth countries, even to visit. From this perspective, voting to leave was not a rejection of immigration but a desire to rebalance it. And that is what has occurred: a dramatic fall in EU immigration and a significant rise from outside.

Eurowhiteness offers plenty to trouble the liberal conscience. If this review causes you to itch in irritation or experience warm flushes of anger, Kundnani’s book is for you. You don’t have to agree. It’s enough to recognise that there are different ways to interpret the data. Predicting dissent, Kundnani assures readers his book does not “aim to give definitive answers” but is intended “to stimulate debate”. I hope it does more.

We have left the EU, but there is work to be done to fashion a future relationship. For this, we need to improve our understanding by taking a sober look at the EU, shorn of myths and assumptions. Through a prism of race, this book makes a valuable contribution. Along the way if it shields critics of “the project” a little from being labelled ignorant, deluded and racist, that, to my mind, would also be good.

Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project
Hans Kundnani
Hurst, 248pp, £14.99

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[See also: Europe’s false dawn]

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con