Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project by Hans Kundnani

Book Review by Peter Ramsay

Liberals and leftists were quick to denounce the vote to leave the EU as an expression of racist nationalism. It was a lazy slander for which there was little evidence [1]. Certainly, anxiety about immigration was an important issue for Leave voters. But the left simply assumed that racism explained it.

In so doing, leftists recycled the old Trotskyist position that immigration control was a means to foment racism among the population and divide the working-class movement by implicitly blaming mainly poor foreigners for the conditions of indigenous workers. It completely escaped the attention of the left that we were no longer living in the 1970s: that in the half century that had elapsed since the working class movement had been utterly defeated with the consequence that a capitalist ruling class no longer had to divide it.  As a result, our rulers have given up promoting a national interest, officially repudiated racism and instead energetically promote both multiculturalism and mass immigration. And just as the left took no notice of the altered political context in which immigration was occurring, the left took no notice of the evidence that specifically racial prejudice, while far from eliminated, has declined significantly in the UK in the intervening period. Having predicted a fascist takeover after Brexit, the left’s fantasy politics was exposed when Britain elected the most ethnically diverse House of Commons in its history, a Tory prime minister appointed the most ethnically diverse Cabinet ever, and the Conservative Party eventually installed the first Prime Minister from an ethnic minority.

Liberals and leftists also failed to notice that their argument didn’t make much sense. The freedom of movement that voters had experienced, and were objecting to in 2016, was freedom of movement for (overwhelmingly) white people from Europe, a freedom that EU member-states most definitely denied to non-white people from outside Europe. Even if the old Marxist argument had still applied, and hostility to foreigners was driving support for immigration control, the race of those foreigners would not have been the issue. The liberal-left argument about Brexit and race was not only evidence-free, but conveniently obscured an obvious point about the European Union which a majority had voted to leave: that it is the European Union.

For Europhiles, the EU is what has allowed Europeans to escape the horrors of nationalism through collaboration and integration. Brexit could, therefore, only amount to a repudiation of this supposedly cosmopolitan advance for civilisation, a nostalgic longing for a return to Britain’s past imperial glories. In his new book, Hans Kundnani provides a fascinating and compelling critique of the rosy liberal view of European integration as a cosmopolitan project, demonstrating that at best it is a highly one-sided account of the process. His critique also provides a novel perspective on the relation between Brexit, Britain’s imperial past and its immigrant communities, and an imaginative proposal for the future of that relation.

Kundnani attacks what he describes as ‘the myth of cosmopolitan Europe’. He takes on the argument of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas who explained European integration as a step away from the “territorial principle” and the nation-state. For Habermas, the process was, therefore, a “starting point” for creating a truly cosmopolitan world without international relations, but with only domestic politics. Eurowhiteness demonstrates that this has never really been an accurate account of the EU, and that such a development has become increasingly unlikely in recent years. Rather than being truly cosmopolitan, the EU is better understood as ‘an expression of regionalism which is analogous to nationalism rather the opposite of it as many “pro-Europeans” imagine it to be’. (p15)

Kundnani begins with simple logic. Europhiles will declare themselves to have a European identity imagining that to be an inclusive commitment that overcomes the national distinctions within Europe. But, as Kundnani points out, to think of this as cosmopolitan is truly Eurocentric, for it is to mistake Europe for the world. While the Europhiles’ European identity is ‘internally inclusive’, it is necessarily ‘externally exclusive – that is, it excludes those who are not European or cannot think of themselves as European’ (p20). Most of the book is then devoted to the historical evidence that bears out this ‘externally exclusive’ character of the project of European integration. And the evidence is impressive.

Europhiles tend to understand the EU as a turn away from Europe’s warlike past, but Kundnani argues it is only a turn away from what is regarded as Europe’s bad past – its nationalism and internal division. As he demonstrates, the idea of European integration has from the beginning relied upon a very longstanding theme in European civilisation, its assumed superiority over the rest of the world. From the ancient Greeks right up to the present, the idea of Europe has always been closely associated with an idea of its superiority: over the Persians, the barbarians, the Muslims, the colonised peoples of Asia and Africa, the Americans and the communists. At times, this idea has been pursued aggressively, as in the Crusades, the maritime empires or more recently during the high neoliberal era of humanitarian intervention. At other times, it has been more defensively adhered to, as in the Hapsburg’s struggle with the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, most of the ‘short 20th century’ between 1914 and 1989, and right now in the wake of the rise of China, the migrant crisis and the war in Ukraine.

Kundnani explores how the idea of European integration first emerged in aristocratic circles in the 1920s as a defensive response to the disaster of the First World War and the cataclysmic destruction of the German, Austrian and Russian empires. In the face of the rise of communism, on the one hand, and the USA, on the other, the idea was from the beginning closely connected to defending Europe’s colonial project, particularly in Africa. Thinkers like Jose Ortega y Gasset rejected the nationalism that had led to the destruction of the old European order because it set back Europeans’ ‘destiny to rule the world’ (p61). French general Hubert Luautey sought ‘a union of all the colonizing nations’. Richard von Coudenove-Kalergi saw nationalism as ‘the gravedigger of European civilisation’ (p63) and he backed the call for Europeans to collaborate in exploiting Africa’s resources.

After the Second World War, the idea of European integration, that had been posed by reactionaries in the interwar years, took off. Closer European co-operation and eventual integration provided a way in which the ruling classes of Western Europe could overcome the disastrous legacy of their collaboration with the Nazis, and the damage it had done to their prestige both nationally and globally. Kundnani shows how the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community, and later the European Economic Community, was seen in France and Belgium as a way to strengthen their weakened hold on their African colonies, and by the other participants as a way to gain access to Africa’s resources. One of the founding fathers of postwar integration, French foreign minister Robert Schuman, was explicit that Europe’s development of Africa was a key part of his purpose. The Dutch foreign minister greeted the signing of the Treaty of Rome with the hope that the EEC would allow Europe to continue its “grand and global civilising mission” (p74). At the same moment as its supporters greeted the moves towards European integration as bringing peace to Europe, both France and Belgium were fighting vicious wars against the peoples they had colonised in Algeria, Vietnam and the Congo.

Within five years of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the colonial wars had been lost by France and Belgium, and their empires were gone. Kundnani observes that if European integration had begun as a part of an imperial project, it quickly became a mechanism for ‘imperial amnesia’ (p95). Over the course of the 1960s, attention turned inwards. With the Cold War at its coldest, European integration was increasingly understood by Europe’s Christian Democrats as a bulwark against Soviet atheism and a counterweight to a dominant America: a renewal of Christian civilisation in a territory almost identical to that united by Charlemagne at the foundation of Christian Europe. While the liberal themes of a civic Europe that are heavily promoted by British Europhiles also came to the fore during this period, even the idea of Europe as the home of the welfare state and the social market could be promoted as markers of Europe’s continuing civilisational superiority.

By the end of the Cold War, the Nazi Holocaust had come to play a central role in Europe’s memory, imagined as a terrible aberration in the story of European civilisation that European integration ensured would never happen again. As Kundnani puts it ‘the emerging official narrative of the EU was based on the internal lessons of European history, ie, what Europeans had done to each other, but not the external lessons, ie, what Europeans had done to the rest of the world’ (p94).

The EEC and the EU were further able to flatter themselves that European integration was itself an aspect of Europe’s broader civilising mission as, first, the EEC expanded to include the now democratised former dictatorships of southern Europe (Greece, Spain and Portugal), and, later, the EU absorbed the former one-party states of the Soviet bloc after the end of the Cold War. However, significantly, while Europe may still have been imagined as a civilising force, the process of actual integration into its institutions turned out to have distinctly European limits. Despite the efforts of first Morocco and then Turkey to join, neither was accepted. The eastern borders of the EU in Europe itself proved to be flexible, but the southern border was hard. The ancient civilisational boundaries remained, and neither the EEC nor the EU proved able to extend themselves to Muslim-majority countries.

Kundnani’s story might be no more than an interesting corrective to the liberal history of the EU but for the fact that recent events suggest that a defensive civilisational aspect of European integration looks likely to play a major role in its future. After adapting to the first wave of Syrian migrants in 2015, uber-centrist Angela Merkel did a deal with Turkey to keep further refugees and migrants out of Europe. With anti-immigrant parties surging in member-states, the EU Commission vice-president was given the portfolio of Commissioner for Promoting a European Way of Life. In the official EU imagination, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not merely an attack on Ukrainian sovereignty but has joined the migrant ‘invasion’ as another threat to ‘the European way of life’ that it exists to defend. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has declared that the Ukranians are “one of us”. As Kundnani notes, this is an idea that is enthusiastically endorsed by the neo-Nazi militants leading Ukraine’s defence of its territory, while EU officials have demonised Russians as less than European for their failure to value human life as Europeans do (p150).

It seems that Angela Merkel’s centrist neoliberal vision of a ‘competitive Europe’ is slowly merging with Viktor Orban’s vision of a Christian Europe as the centrist mainstream of European politics has taken up the themes of right populists. At the same time, populists like Orban, Le Pen or Meloni have abandoned any lingering pretensions to real national sovereignty in favour of culture war within the EU.  Kundnani calls the last few years a ‘civilisational turn in the European project’, as this longstanding theme in European integration that has largely been overlooked by mainstream liberal opinion becomes increasingly central.

As well as providing historical perspective to contemporary developments in the EU, Kundnani also makes an original contribution to our understanding of Brexit because key elements of his story about European integration also apply to Britain and put Brexit in a new light. For Britain too, joining the EEC and later the EU was part of a process of imperial amnesia. As Richard Tuck has pointed out, while Britain remained aloof from the early phase of European integration, and the postwar left opposed it into the 1980s, the British establishment changed its view in the face of imperial decline from the late 1950s onwards [2]. Fearing that Britain would become merely ‘a Greater Sweden’, as Britain’s ambassador to the EEC put it, joining the bloc was seen as a way to project British influence in the world as the Empire retreated. And indeed it is Remainers who, while castigating Brexiteers for imperial nostalgia, have vociferously bemoaned Brexit for reducing Britain’s power and influence in international affairs. It was always the EU rather than Brexit that represented Empire 2.0 for Britain.

Kundnani’s distinctive contribution is to consider this relation between Brexit and Empire from the standpoint of immigration to Britain. He argues that European identity and the European project never resonated much with Britain’s postwar immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean or their descendants. Those who travelled at all within the EU tended to experience ‘a more virulent’ racism than they did in the UK (p162), but more to the point Britain’s participation in the EU tended to subordinate the UK’s relation with the Commonwealth countries from which they had come. And this shift was experienced quite directly by Britain’s immigrant communities.

After World War Two migrants from the colonies had a right to settle in the UK as British citizens. Immigration increased along with the appetite for labour during the postwar boom while, at the same time, the Empire came to an end and migrants became citizens of Commonwealth states. The right to move to the UK began to be restricted over the course of the 1960s just as the idea of joining the EEC was gathering momentum. However, the period of postwar primary immigration from the Commonwealth came to an end with the passing of the Immigration Act 1971. It was enacted by the government of the passionate Europhile Ted Heath. The new regime imposed by the act came into force on the very same day that the UK joined the EEC in 1973. From then on, while it steadily became harder for Indians, Pakistanis or Caribbeans to live and work in Britain, it became steadily easier for Europeans to do so.

For Kundnani, Britain’s participation in the regionalist, civilisational project of European integration is closely connected to the process of reconceiving migrants from Britain’s former colonies as immigrants rather than as citizens (p176). This not only helps to explain the large minority of voters from ethnic minorities who supported Brexit but, more significantly, it means that Brexit is an opportunity to ‘remember’ the Empire, and to reset the UK’s relation with its former colonies. In place of freedom of movement, the UK’s immigration policy could be transformed into a policy of ‘post-imperial preference’. He even suggests that this might be thought of as a form of ‘reparations’ (p178). Since Brexit, such a  shift in the pattern of immigration appears to be under way.  Kundnani concludes the book with the thought that Brexit could be a way in which Britain becomes ‘a less Eurocentric country’ (p179).

Kundnani describes the aim of his book as being ‘to stimulate debate’ and it certainly should do that. Beyond his striking proposal about Britain’s immigration policy, Kundnani draws no political conclusions from his critique of European integration. It is not entirely clear in which direction his argument points: to a more genuine cosmopolitanism or to something else? To a universalist politics or to a particularist critique of politics? In elaborating on his largely overlooked themes of race and civilisation in European integration, his critique can have ambiguous political implications. This is because he underplays the contradictory character of Europe’s rise and fall as the centre of world power.

One example is his treatment of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century to which he attributes an important role in establishing the modern and specifically racial idea of European superiority. He rightly points out the contribution of some of the Enlightenment’s leading thinkers to the emerging racial hierarchies that would come to dominate in the age of Empire. However, while he notes the complexity of the Enlightenment, and that it had a more radical side, he puts no emphasis on the fact that the Enlightenment provided intellectual impetus to the modern universalism that underpinned the struggle against racism. That secular universalism happened to arise first in Europe is a persistent basis for the ironically contradictory idea that modern Europe is somehow superior as a result. However, the contemporary critique of the Enlightenment for the espousal of racial hierarchy by some of its leading lights is often associated with a particularist attack on universalism as such, an attack that fetishes racial and cultural difference and weakens the type of universalist critique of contemporary institutions that Kundnani appears to make of the EU. The irony is that the civilisational idea of Europe’s superiority is a self-defeating betrayal of the radical implications of its greatest thinkers, even if it is one that some of those thinkers themselves indulged.

Along with this ambiguity concerning how we should relate to the intellectual traditions that civilisational thinkers often construct as a key part of European identity, there is an unexplored uncertainty regarding the continuing significance of the category of race itself, of the ‘whiteness’ that gives Kundnani his arresting title. Kundnani makes plain the important role of race in the origins of the idea of European integration and in its early days as a complement to persistent European colonial aspirations. However, as time goes on, the civilisational aspect of Europe’s Eurocentricity comes to the fore in his story, and the specifically racial aspect seems to play a less prominent role. A great deal of contemporary hostility to many of the immigrants into Europe is directed at their Muslim religion rather than at their race as such. More striking still is the ‘Othering’ of Russia and Russians as un-European in the course of the conflict over Ukraine. Kundnani rightly sees this as an important moment in the development of the civilisational idea of European integration. But, while Russiaphobes might like to think of Russia as somehow ‘Asiatic’, most Russians remain stubbornly white, and exhibit only the most minor ethno-linguistic differences from Ukrainians, those great exemplars of contemporary European values. To what extent is ‘whiteness’ still the category that underpins Europe’s narcissism?

Critically, Kundnani’s critique of the idea that the EU is cosmopolitan might lead us to reject the EU’s fake cosmopolitanism in favour of a genuine one, but his interesting conclusion about Brexit being an opportunity for Britain to engage in post-imperial preference in its immigration policy suggests otherwise. Such a preferential policy seems to be oriented to questions that concern the British nation rather than a more consistent cosmopolitanism. Which way should we go?

Kundnani provides an important corrective to those of us who have relied on the term cosmopolitan to describe the EU’s project, whether to affirm or to criticise it. However there is a danger of overstating the claim when he reduces the EU’s cosmopolitanism to a ‘myth’. Kundnani compels us to accept that the EU is characterised by a decided Eurocentricity and always has been. The attribution of cosmopolitanism to its process of integration is, therefore, also Eurocentric because, as he points out, it mistakes Europe for the world. It is nevertheless a Eurocentric cosmopolitanism, in the sense that the EU project very explicitly celebrates the construction of a loyalty to an entity above and beyond the nation-states of Europe, albeit to a European entity. The strength of this aspiration to something beyond the nation-state among the middle classes (or at least the strength of their repulsion from the nation) was amply demonstrated in Britain in the wake of the Brexit referendum. If ‘Eurocentric cosmopolitanism’ is a contradiction in terms, the contradiction lies in the politics that the terms describe, the politics of mistaking Europe for the world. Nevertheless, the maintenance of these contradictory cosmopolitan loyalties among national elites has been a crucial aspect of insulating those elites—culturally, psychologically and politically—from the influence of the masses of working people. And this partial, negative cosmopolitanism has been important in undermining national coherence in Europe.

Overlooking the contradictory, strictly ideological character of the EU’s cosmopolitanism leaves another of Kundnani’s striking formulations underexplored, his proposition that the EU’s regionalism ‘is analogous to nationalism rather than the opposite of it’. The analogy is a limited one. His evidence of a persistent strain of European chauvinism in the process of integration is again compelling, and that chauvinism has strengthened recently. But this chauvinism is obviously not like nationalism in so far as it does not proclaim the superiority of a nation. The EU is not a nation-state. Not being a nation-state is part of its raison d’etre. It has always lacked the representative structures of sovereignty that characterise a nation-state. (Kundnani notes the talk of a ‘geopolitical Europe’ and European ‘sovereignty’ in recent years – but this talk has been decisively squashed by the USA unleashing its proxy war with Russia.) As Kundnani recognises, the EU is a mechanism for constraining democratic processes at the national level (pp103-04). In condemning the EU’s chauvinism as analogous to nationalism, he plays down the fact that the EU is nevertheless an effort to escape the political structure of nation-statehood. In other words, the EU is analogous only with the downsides of the nation: the chauvinistic inflation of national honour and destiny in the era of imperialism, and the resulting disrespect of some nations for the sovereignty of others. There is no analogy between the EU and the virtues of nationhood: the nation’s singular locus of sovereign political authority which alone provides the potential to subject state power to democratic control.

On the contrary, the EU has degraded the nation-states that make it up, diminishing the power and authority of their domestic structures of political accountability. In so doing the EU’s contradictory cosmopolitanism has set back the cause of true international solidarity, and not only with respect to the non-European world. The EU’s recent history has complicated the idea of a simple contrast between the EU as ‘internally inclusive’ and ‘externally exclusive’. As the financial crisis and the subsequent sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone demonstrated, the EU lacks much in the way of internal solidarity between the wealthy creditor countries of its highly industrialised North and the debtors in its poorer South. The Greeks’ and Italians’ experience of European inclusivity over the past two decades has been no more than their freedom as individuals to move in search of a better life to the very states whose policies have eliminated opportunities for them at home. It is the tensions generated by this absence of internal political solidarity between the member-states of the EU that is to some extent smoothed over by, and motivates, the convergence of Europe’s neoliberal centrists with the cultural chauvinism of its right-populists.

The EU may not be truly cosmopolitan. And the experience of its endeavour to escape the nation-state certainly proves Habermas wrong: further extension of the EU’s forms of government will not lead to broader international solidarity, let alone true political integration. However, it is only through building solidarity within nations, the solidarity that is enabled by respect for national sovereignty as such, that a universal solidarity between the nations of the whole world might be achieved. Eurowhiteness provides a valuable resource for those who want to think through how that can be done.

[1] See P Cunliffe et al, Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023) Chapter 3

[2] R Tuck, The Left Case for Brexit (2017) pp.57-58.

This book review originally appeared at The Northern Star

Hans Kundnani, Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project

Publisher: Hurst

ISBN-13: 9781787389328

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