Does it get more transparent than this?

A recalled EU propaganda video reveals more about 'the idea of Europe' than its makers intended

A few days ago the EU Directorate General for Enlargement released, only to recall it three days later, this video clip, entitled Growing Together, aimed at young audiences with the intention of promoting EU policies.

Costing a whopping €127,000 ($167,000), this video did much more than that. It made transparent the all-too-often implicit xenophobia that is constitutive of ‘the idea of Europe’. The video not only taps into Europe’s foundational myth, it seems to justify the current existence of the European Union on the same grounds that once justified Europe’s imperialist adventures which led to its colonization of 85% of the globe. According to the relevant European Commission Director General, Stefano Sannino, the clip featured typical characters from the martial arts genre: kung fu, capoeira and kalaripayattu masters; it started with a demonstration of their skills and ended with all characters showing their mutual respect, concluding in a position of peace and harmony.

In this clip Europe is symbolized as a white woman walking and wading through puddles of water in a warehouse. For those that know their Greek mythology, this cannot simply be a coincidence. Europa, the virgin daughter of an Asian king, was frolicking in the ocean when whisked away by the Greek God Zeus, disguised as a white bull, who then raped and abandoned her. The night before she was assaulted, Europa dreamt of being attacked by the continents of Asia and Libya (the Greek name for what is now Africa) and finally being rescued by ‘civilization’. Just as in the myth, Europe – in the EU video – is attacked by three ‘barbaric’ men. First comes the attack from the East, an aggressive Asian looking kung-fu fighter. Next Europe is attacked from the Orient by a sultan with a massive blade that cannot but convey images of the Crusades and the fight against the infidels. Last but not least comes that half-naked African. Enough said. Europe, reminding the world of its superiority and its ability to put violence in the past in the name of Reason simply stares condescendingly at the barbarians.  She multiplies herself – as a good woman ‘created’ to reproduce it implies ought to do – and encircles her enemies who relinquish their weapons. Each of the ‘identical’ women then becomes a star on the European flag and the three barbarians , that is the world in all its diversity, are erased – they vanish. 

While one can, and should, be shocked by this, what is even more appalling is that this was not obvious to those that filmed it – those same people who are currently constructing Europe. Yet, the point I want to make is that this video does in fact symbolically depict one version of the painfully ‘true’ story of the idea of Europe.

What’s interesting for our story is that it was the threat of the infidels and the Orient that often helped to keep Christian Europe together.  First, in the period of the schisms between the Eastern and Western Churches, it was the Crusades that reminded Europe that our enemies were more important than our differences. Exemplified by the call to arms by Pope Urban II (1088-99) to join the Crusades, the most potent expression of this reality was captured in the Song of Roland ‘Pagans are wrong and Christians right’ (v.1015). In the 15th century, Europe sought to both purify itself of its unwanted siblings, both older and younger, by means of the Spanish inquisition.

Similarly, in the sixteenth century, the threat of the Orient – specifically the Ottoman Turks – ‘helped’ Europe to resolve its internal conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. This brings us to the last part of our story. The Europe of today, in the aftermath of Auschwitz and Srebrenica, seems to want to define itself by means of the history of the Enlightenment, its ability to be rational, civilized, and secular. In doing so, it not only covers over its horrendous history of violence both within and beyond its borders, it also denies that secularism is simply another imperial Christian or should I say, European, project.

While the EU certainly did not wish to tell this story, perhaps the story can be of some greater service to Europe if it only forces us to ask the question: what does ‘unity in diversity’ really mean? If it is nothing more than the cunning encircling of otherness by an abstract universal clone, then the narrative of imperialism has not changed, merely the dress. Quite literally.  It’s the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes all over again. I can only hope that this video might actually be both what the people want – transparency – and what the politicians need – a mirror. Unfortunately for those of us who are, have been, or will be Europe’s others, it is much easier to recall a video than it is to recall one’s history.

About the author

Anya Topolski is a FWO postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy of the Higher Institute of Philosophy at the KU Leuven, Belgium. Her current research involves the deconstruction of the discourse of Judeo-Christianity in relation to European identity formation and its symbolic role in propagating Islamophobia. In 2008 defended her PhD thesis entitled: A Political Ethics of Intersubjectivity: Between Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas and the Judaic (KU Leuven). Her thesis was awarded the 2009 Auschwitz Stichting prize and is being prepared for publication.