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4 February 2021

What does it mean to be “pro-European” today?

As champions of the EU see a growing threat to the continent's culture and civilisation, whiteness may become even more central to European identity. 

By Hans Kundnani

In continental Europe and especially in Germany, people will often proudly say: “I’m European”. I frequently heard this from my former colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), which has offices around Europe. I could never identify with what sounded to me like a somewhat aggressive assertion of European identity. In fact, it made me uncomfortable. Since I could not see how one could identify with, let alone love, the European Union itself as an institution or set of institutions, it seemed the idea of being European expressed identification with a culture or civilisation – or even an ethnicity.

My view of European identity is undoubtedly to a large extent a function of my Britishness. British people tend to think of themselves primarily either as British (or as English, Scottish, Welsh, etc), or perhaps as part of the English-speaking world, or alternatively, as “citizens of the world”. But few think of themselves primarily as “European” as many in continental Europe do – in other words, as having something in common with other Europeans that sets them apart from the rest of the world. Few Brits see Europe as a Schicksalsgemeinschaft, or “community of fate”, in the way Germans do.

In my case, though, my inability to think of myself as “European” also has to do with my ethnicity. I was born and grew up in Britain, but my father is Indian and my mother is Dutch. “European” therefore never fully captured my identity, as it excluded the Asian part of it. I think this is true for many other non-white British people too – my sense is that if you are of African, Asian or Caribbean origin you are even less likely to identify as “European” than white Brits. (What I don’t know is whether non-white people in continental European countries think of themselves as “European”.)

At ECFR, when I heard people call themselves European, I immediately thought of what that meant in a colonial context or, for example, in apartheid South Africa. In those contexts, “European” meant white. Whiteness seemed to me more central to European identity than it was to the identity of any individual European nation state, whose identities were defined in opposition to each other (British identity, for example, as the historian Linda Colley has shown, emerged in opposition to, and was defined against, France). So when people expressed pride in being “European”, I heard an echo of a white identity.


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Most “pro-Europeans” are baffled or outraged when I say any of this. They think of the European project – that is, European integration leading to “ever closer union” – as the opposite of a white or racist endeavour. They see the EU – and by extension European identity – as an expression of cosmopolitanism. But this is in a basic sense wrong. The EU is, of course, not a global project but a regional project. What the EU stands for is neither nationalism or cosmopolitanism but something in between: regionalism. Thus to say “I’m European” is to express a regional identity.

The misleading characterisation of the EU as a cosmopolitan project is itself an expression of a Eurocentric tendency to mistake Europe for the world. The European project has integrated and to some extent overcome differences between the countries of Europe (though in the last decade it has sometimes seemed as if European integration, in particular the single currency, was increasing conflict between EU member states). But regional integration is quite different from global integration. Although internal barriers to the movement of capital, goods and people were removed, external barriers remained – particularly to immigration from outside the EU.

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The emergence of the myth of EU cosmopolitanism may lie partly in the way that, from its beginnings as the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s, the EU has been based on the lessons Europeans learned from the history of relations between European countries – the centuries of conflict culminating in the Second World War – rather than from Europe’s relations with the rest of the world. European integration began in the 1950s – at the exact moment of decolonisation – yet the narrative of the European project is silent about the history of European colonialism and its implications.

The myth creates a blind spot in pro-European thinking, which views the European project as a way to overcome the nationalisms that had caused conflict in Europe. For Germans in particular, it is a way to overcome the nation state, with which they have had a particularly disastrous experience.

Because of this rejection of nationalism, however, pro-Europeans tend to assume that almost anything the EU does at a regional level is separate from the problematic currents in European history before 1945 – after all, it is through the EU that Europe has navigated these currents. Thus concepts considered problematic at the national level – such as the “community of fate” – magically become unproblematic at the European level. When EU member states sought to restrict exports of PPE at the beginning of the pandemic last year, it was criticised as nationalism. But when the EU itself restricted the export of PPE beyond Europe, it was viewed as a triumph of European unity.

In reality, however, regionalism can be as bad as the worst nationalism. The centrality of the nation state in the past two centuries means the world has had less experience of regionalism as a powerful force, and it does not therefore have the same negative connotations as nationalism. But a regional identity can define itself against an Other, too, and be just as exclusionary as national identities historically have been. In fact, regionalism may have the potential to be even worse because regional blocs tend to be bigger and more powerful than single countries, and so capable of doing more harm to the rest of the world.

[See also: Yanis Varoufakis: Europe isn’t working

The tendency to elide Europe with the world is also concerned with the evolution of pro-European thinking. European integration was initially driven by an internal European logic in the context of the Cold War and decolonisation. But its apparent success and the enlargement of the EU after the end of the Cold War led many pro-Europeans to see the EU as a model for the world.

Implicit in this idea was a kind of “civilising mission” – though few pro-Europeans would think of it in those terms. In other words, there was a continuity of sorts between European colonialism and the “European project”. But the EU was considered a relatively benign civilising mission, seen as a “civilian power” that would elevate international politics and export its depoliticised model of regional governance along with the “European social model”, which included a generous welfare state.

A good example of this in policy terms is freedom of movement. In the 1990s and 2000s, many pro-Europeans could still see the evolution of freedom of movement within the EU as a precursor to global freedom of movement – the removal of borders within Europe as a first step towards a borderless world. Even then, things looked a little different in practice – in the UK, for example, membership of the EU led to a relative decline in immigration from the former colonies and a relative increase in immigration from Europe.

However, after a decade of crises, and in a changing world which many Europeans see as increasingly hostile, the idea of the EU as a model is now giving way in pro-European thinking to the idea of the EU as a competitor, as the EU has struggled to figure out how to resolve its own deep internal problems and to respond to what appear a growing number of external threats. It is not just that as the EU has become more embattled, pro-Europeans have become more defensive. The way they think about the European project has also changed – in worrying ways.

The idea that the EU would transform international politics now looks less plausible than it did a decade or two ago. Rather, the debate among pro-Europeans now focuses on how the EU can adapt to a world in which great power politics seems to have returned. Ursula von der Leyen promised a “geopolitical [European] Commission” when she became its president in 2019. Pro-Europeans have now embraced the idea of “European sovereignty”, a concept they had historically opposed. Thus the EU, which was once seen as a “normative power”, in other words a model, is now aspiring to become a much more traditional power – and so pro-Europeans urge it to develop a “defence union” or even “strategic autonomy”.

The idea that the EU could export its technocratic model of governance has also become less plausible during the last decade, especially since there has been a backlash within Europe against this depoliticised model. In fact, scholars such as Chris Bickerton have shown how populism is to a large extent a reaction to technocracy. The idea of a “European social model” also looks less credible; since the euro crisis began the EU, driven by Germany, has done much to dismantle the welfare state in the so-called periphery of the eurozone in the name of ensuring a “competitive” Europe.


Many pro-Europeans believe this rethink of the European project reflects a new realism. But against this background, the relatively benign civilising mission in earlier pro-European thinking, based on its political-economic model, appears to be giving way to a more civilisational discourse based on the uniqueness of its culture. The cultural or civilisational element of European identity has become more dominant – and is often expressed in terms of “European values”. To put it another way, the EU’s earlier civic regionalism is evolving into a more problematic cultural or even ethnic regionalism. Pro-Europeans increasingly think in terms of protecting the continent from threats that they view in increasingly cultural terms. Thus what has emerged is a kind of defensive civilisationalism.

The refugee crisis of 2015 may have been the critical juncture in this civilisational turn in the European project. It made it clear to Europeans, if it wasn’t already, that the absence of internal borders required hard external borders. In the past five years, the EU has taken a number of measures to increase external border security, including an expansion of Frontex, the EU border agency, that many see as a militarisation of the EU’s borders. Far from ushering in a borderless world, it is now clear that freedom of movement within the EU has simply meant that borders have been moved from one place to another – and further away from Germany.

The most striking expression of this pro-European civilisationalism is that, as part of Von der Leyen’s “geopolitical Commission”, the EU now has a Commissioner for Promoting our European Way of Life (it was originally “for Protecting our European Way of Life”), Margaritis Schinas. His main responsibility is to coordinate the Commission’s approach to asylum and migration, which is largely about keeping migrants out, often using brutal methods that violate human rights. This makes the EU’s civilisational turn explicit: migration is now seen not just as a difficult issue to be managed but as a threat to the “European Way of Life”.

[see also: China, Russia and the return of the civilisational state]

These developments reflect a growing tendency to think about international politics in civilisational terms. Europe increasingly defines its “values” against a rising China as a geopolitical threat, and against Islam, Europe’s historic Other, in the form of migrants and terrorism. In his 1996 book The Clash of Civilisations, the American political scientist Samuel Huntington predicted conflict between the West and China and Islam. But even though the initial impetus for European integration came from the United States through the Marshall Plan, the EU has also long sought to define itself against the US – and as the US becomes a minority-white country in the coming decades, whiteness may become even more central to European identity.

The figure who, more than anyone, embodies this synthesis of “pro-Europeanism” and civilisationalism is the French president Emmanuel Macron. His vision of a “Europe qui protège”, or “Europe that protects”, initially sounded like a progressive vision – offering people protection from the market – but this has increasingly given way to a focus on cultural, rather than economic, protection. In particular, since the murder of the teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamist terrorist in October 2020, and under pressure from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Macron has taken steps to stop what he calls “Islamist separatism”. Last October, he introduced measures to increase state control over mosques and imams in France to “defend the republic and its values”.

Macron also sees European foreign policy in explicitly civilisational terms. In a speech to a gathering of French ambassadors in Paris in August 2019, he spoke about the need for the EU, led by France, to pursue what he called a “project of European civilisation”. It should “rebuild sovereignty” and become a “balancing power”, particularly between China and the US. If the EU did not take bold action, he said, “Europe will disappear”.

The current debate among European foreign policy analysts almost sounds like an international political equivalent of immigration debates based on the fear of the “great replacement”. In his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement, which has influenced the far right in Europe and the US, the French writer Renaud Camus argued that the presence of Muslims threatened to destroy French culture and civilisation. When my former colleagues at ECFR say the EU must become more strategic or “sovereign” or talk about “European power”, I hear the analogous idea that, unless Europeans unite and assert themselves, they will be replaced by other (non-white) powers.

Hans Kundnani is a senior research fellow at Chatham House and the author of “The Paradox of German Power”