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22 February 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 8:40am

The meaning of pro-Europeanism – a response to Hans Kundnani

Civic principles – from liberal democracy to international law – are the cornerstones of the EU, not a particular ethnicity, religion or culture.

By Mark Leonard

One of the unexpected by-products of the 2016 Brexit referendum was the birth of an enthusiastic pro-Europeanism, which all of a sudden went from being an abstract, intellectual project to one that captured people’s hearts as well as their heads. Millions took to the streets waving European flags in the UK while opinion polls showed record support for the EU across the Continent. People only understood how much their European identity meant to them when they realised it could be taken away.

Hans Kundnani, in his recent essay on pro-Europeanism, does not share this sense of loss. As a British citizen of Dutch and Indian parentage he was never able to think of himself as “European” because, to him, it is a (white) civilisational project. “When my former colleagues at [the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)] say the EU must become more strategic or ‘sovereign’ or talk about ‘European power’,” he concludes in the essay, “I hear the analogous idea that, unless Europeans unite and assert themselves, they will be replaced by other (non-white) powers.”

As the director of ECFR, and so one of Kundnani’s former colleagues, I read his essay with a mixture of sadness and confusion since my experience – and the accounts of non-white colleagues and friends – are so different. As the child of a British father and a German-Jewish mother who was born in hiding in France, I did not need Brexit to feel European – it is my European identity that gives shape and meaning to my fragmented family history.

National identity is difficult to disentangle from blood and soil. A multinational identity, by contrast, is much less tightly bound to ethnicity because it is by definition multi-ethnic. Kundnani argues that the EU is a “regional project”, and that although “regionalism” does not “have the same negative connotations as nationalism”, a “regional identity can define itself against an Other, too, and be just as exclusionary as national identities have historically been”. Kundnani implies that Europe’s “Other” is the non-white population.

But to the founders of the EU – and people like myself – Europe’s primary “Other” is its own past. The entire European project is an elaborate attempt to transcend a history of nationalism in Europe and imperialism in the wider world. Thus the EU has in its DNA a rejection of the violent ethno-nationalism that led to the death camps. Like many across the Continent, I am a member of the first generation in my family not to face war and exile, let alone extermination. The EU deserves at least some of the credit for this.

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As Kundnani points out, the EU was also founded “at the exact moment” European empires were unwinding. Just as it was a way of dealing with competitive nationalisms among its members, it also provided its constituent nations with a new focus after decolonisation, helping European governments to move on from their rapacious colonial pasts. In his history of decolonisation, the German historian Jürgen Osterhammel makes the point that the bureaucrats who might otherwise have been administering European colonies ended up building the European bureaucracy in Brussels. In that sense, the EU also has in its genetic make-up a rejection of colonialism.

It’s true that the EU has done a much better job of facing up to the extermination of people within its continent than to its colonial history. Countries such as Belgium and France have struggled to come to terms with their dark imperial pasts, while institutions in Brussels rarely acknowledge them. Some central and Eastern European member states see themselves as victims of Soviet and Ottoman colonialism rather than perpetrators. Many are blighted by racism, as we have seen in the abuse hurled at footballers in recent matches. The 2015 migration crisis has also sometimes brought out the tendencies of a “Fortress Europe”.

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Yet while there has been a frightening upsurge of ethnic politics in Europe – as well as around the world – there is nothing intrinsic about European identity that makes it antithetical to diversity. In fact there are many reasons why it should be easier for European identity to acquire a post-colonial sensibility than the national identities within Europe.

First, every nationality is in a minority at a European level, and so a core part of the project is about protecting the rights of minorities and finding ways for them to live together in peace. Why is Viktor Orbán so critical of the EU? Precisely because it provides a platform for protecting the rights of minorities such as Roma, and the religious freedom of Muslims. To frame European-ness in ethnic terms is to ignore what Europe is today: a continent that relies on diversity and immigration.

Secondly, because European identity is not rooted in a single ethnicity, it can only be defined in terms of laws and values. ECFR has been at the forefront of defining an agenda on European sovereignty based on civic principles rather than ethnicity, religion or culture. The goal is to defend international law against power, liberal democracy against populist majoritarianism, privacy against surveillance capitalism, and human rights against surveillance states.

Kundnani characterises the EU as a regionalist, rather than cosmopolitan, project. I do not see these two categories as incompatible. It is perfectly possible to have cosmopolitan projects at a global, regional, national or local level. The EU – in keeping with its Enlightenment roots – has always been a universalist project. It is because of the pushback abroad from Putin, Trump and Xi Jinping against Enlightenment values that the EU has become more “regionalist”, preoccupied with at the very least defending these values at home.

Lastly, Kundnani’s critique implies the existence of a single European project, but there have always been competing conceptions of what Europe stands for. He takes the ideas of the proto-fascist Renaud Camus about whiteness as the dominant version of European identity, and then implies that this is the concept of Europeanism supported by Emmanuel Macron, Ursula von Der Leyen and even think tanks such as ECFR. Such an elision makes as much sense as allowing Nigel Farage to define what it means to be British and then accusing Sadiq Khan, Nicola Sturgeon and Caroline Lucas of supporting his Little-Englander ideology.

What it means to be “pro-European” today is not fixed but is perpetually being shaped and challenged. Identities are necessarily sites of conflict and the European story is still being written. Rather than repressing its history of colonialism, the EU needs to do more to help its member states find ways of confronting their pasts. Just as Europe has had to face and transcend the 20th-century nationalisms that destroyed the European continent, it needs to do the same with the challenges that imperialism has left in its wake in the rest of the world. A civic European identity provides a powerful framework for former imperial nations to face their own demons and instil pride in future generations.

Mark Leonard is the founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Age of Unpeace” (Bantam Press)