Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project by Hans Kundnani (2023). A review.
The dream of a united Europe has a long and deep history. In its modern form, it originated in nineteenth-century bourgeois thought and was advocated by a wide range of thinkers, including Immanuel Kant, Giuseppe Mazzini and Victor Hugo. European unity was a liberal enterprise, designed to institute a cosmopolitan society and to provide an alternative to national chauvinism and interstate warfare. The idea of a European federation was also once a staple of socialist and communist movements, for whose adherents it was the first part of the process of transcending nation states altogether. For George Orwell, a United Europe formulated on democratic socialist terms, would represent “the spectacle of a community where people are relatively free and happy and where the main motive in life is not the pursuit of money or power.”
The European Union certainly claims to be upholding this progressive vision and cosmopolitan sensibility. However, as Hans Kundnani argues in his new book, the EU is less than faithful to these aims. In fact, the EU vacillates between two versions of regionalism: a civic regionalism based on the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, and an ethno-regionalism, in which Europeanness is envisioned in racial, cultural and civilisational terms.
Kundnani used to be sympathetic to the EU project, but now sees it as a “racialised project,” a bastion of whiteness that is a vehicle for “imperial amnesia.” In other words, rather than transcending nationalism, the EU is reproducing nationalism’s pathologies on a continental scale.
As Kundnani points out, Europeanness is necessarily exclusive. It must have boundaries, it must be restricted to Europe, by definition. “The European project,” Kundnani states, “was defined not only in opposition to Europe’s past, but also in opposition to non-European Others.” So, while the former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe were hastily integrated after the end of the Cold War as part of their “return to Europe,” Morocco and Turkey were barred from joining, mainly for ethno-cultural reasons—because they were oriental, culturally Muslim societies, while Europe is occidental and culturally Christian. Moreover, even as national sovereignty was beginning to be regarded as antiquated, EU leaders promoted European sovereignty in its place.
Contrary to the common mythology, what we now call the EU did not arise from a benevolent, enlightened post-1945 epiphany, in which the European nations rejected war and conquest. European powers like France and Portugal were still fighting colonial wars well into the 1960s. In fact, the EU was the result of realpolitik. The Second World War prompted a redivision of the world. The United States and the Soviet Union were the new superpowers, and the former Great Powers were fragmented and bankrupt and unable to run their colonial empires in the way they had before. A more integrated Europe provided a way for the battered European powers to rebuild themselves economically and geopolitically, and, in Timothy Snyder’s phrase, give themselves a “soft landing” after empire.
The founders of the EU wanted Europe to be an international force that would rival and counterbalance the United States and Soviet Union. Indeed, European integration initially began as a way for European powers, in Kundnani’s words, to “consolidate their colonial possessions at a time when they were unable to maintain them on their own.” This is why Kwame Nkrumah critiqued the Treaty of Rome as a new form of “collective colonialism,” analogous to that of the Berlin Conference of 1884–85.
Like any imagined community, the European fraternity needed a common narrative to bind it together. Since the 1960s, the Holocaust—an event that was genuinely pan-European in scope—has become central to the European collective memory. Commemoration of the Holocaust and ritualistic pledges of “never again” function as a de facto civic religion in the European Union. As Kundnani notes, there is far less focus on the history of European colonialism or on contemporary racism in Europe. Thus, the lessons of history that Europeans are supposed to learn are based on “what Europeans had done to each other,” writes Kundnani, not on what they have done to non-Europeans. But Europe’s interactions with other civilisations have been just as important to its development as its internal battles and tragedies. Frantz Fanon called Europe “a creation of the Third World”—it has to be seen in the context of what it defines itself in opposition to, if we want to truly understand European history.
During the Cold War, the civic regionalist perspective reigned supreme. For the likes of Spain, Portugal and Greece, accession to the European Union went hand in hand with democratisation and social modernisation, after decades of dictatorship and stifling traditionalism. For the peoples languishing under Soviet rule, Europe represented the attractive, prosperous and liberal alternative they aspired to for their own countries. The post-Cold War period, however, solidified the idea of “Eurowhiteness” and the ethno-regionalist view of Europe became intertwined with the civic view.
The EU isn’t as open or cosmopolitan as it advertises itself to be, as we see in “Fortress Europe,” a term used to criticize the EU’s attempt to create its own border force to deter refugees and migrants from outside Europe. In practice, sustaining the fortress has meant making deals with dictators like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who have acted as Europe’s border guards—often with fatal consequences. The EU, it seems, can militarise its borders and legitimise ethno-nationalist prejudices and racist dehumanisation as much as any nation state.
In recent decades, the main Other against which Europe has defined itself has been Islam. Mass immigration from Muslim countries has been seen as eroding the European ethnos. More recently, a recrudescent Russia ruled by Vladimir Putin has become an outpost of illiberal authoritarianism that is seen as imperilling European values—a view demonstrated by the EU’s firm military and diplomatic support for Ukrainians as they resist the Russian invasion of their country.
Despite the fact that democracy is a cherished European value, the EU’s own mode of governance is conservative and based on a “deep distrust of popular sovereignty.” The EU has a democracy deficit. Most Europeans have very little influence over legislation passed in Brussels. The European Parliament is both more inaccessible and more toothless than national parliaments, and the governing structures of the EU are designed to be unresponsive to democratic pressure. As Peter Mair has astutely argued in Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, these trends reflect a wider process by which political elites have increasingly governed through unrepresentative and unaccountable institutions. Under these conditions, the former Soviet states found, writes Mair, that “joining the EU would mean accepting constraints on national and popular sovereignty at the exact moment they thought they were finally recovering them.”
The most intriguing section of Eurowhiteness is Kundnani’s discussion of Brexit. The popular view among progressives that Brexit represented an explosion of atavistic “white anger” is a simple-minded caricature. There were more rational reasons to be against the European Union than provincialism and racism. Indeed, some non-white Britons voted for Brexit because of their belief that, as long as Britain was part of the EU, white Europeans would get the benefit of freedom of movement, while black and brown people from outside Europe—especially those from the Commonwealth—would have to face a byzantine and capricious immigration system. After all, the racist restrictions on immigration from the Commonwealth imposed in the 1960s coincided with the UK’s accession to the European community.
One of the ironies of Brexit is that it reduced the number of non-white people working in EU institutions, since those non-white people were disproportionately British. After Brexit, non-white immigration increased, even as white European migration decreased. Thus, Brexit has provided an opportunity for Britain to properly engage with its colonial past and to become a “less Eurocentric country,” writes Kundnani.
The existing European Union is not fit for purpose. It’s currently a halfway house between a free trade agreement and a federal union—a compromise that is neither desirable nor sustainable. It serves the interests of elites and acts against the interests of the peoples of Europe. In Kundnani’s phrase, it is “neoliberal in economic terms and protectionist in cultural terms.” Fortress Europe makes a mockery of the Enlightenment, and all the other contributions Europe has made to the common inheritance that is human civilisation.
This doesn’t mean that we should abandon the aspiration of a European federation, or that we should worship the nation state and accept its deformities as natural and never to be transcended. But if there is to be a European federation, it shouldn’t be based on the top-down technocratic structures of the EU. Instead, it should emerge from a grassroots social movement to defend the rights of the people of Europe and beyond from the iniquitous policies of nation states in order to create a Europe that is whole and free. That is what true internationalism is all about.