Xenophobia: Europe’s death knell

The Europe that is dying is the one that remains hostage to its past. Another Europe is not only possible but is in fact fast becoming an urgent necessity. This would be a Europe of vitality, open to connections, that has let go of its civilisational conceits

How do today’s forms of anti-immigrant rhetoric or exclusive nationalism connect to the twin legacies of Europe’s colonial past and history of racism? The idea of race itself – as a European achievement – was closely tied to the ideological justification of racial power and the ordering of humankind with the white European on top. That two hundred year history links the justifications for chattel slavery, colonial rule, Jim Crow America and apartheid South Africa. In the late twentieth century, racism has functioned as a means to create scapegoats – asylum seekers, refugees, ‘illegal immigrants’ – whose unwanted presence could both explain the source of social and political crisis at the same time as carrying the blame for it.  We want to argue that the rising tide of xenophobic sentiment is less about the presence of strangers and more about a crisis within Europe’s relationship to itself.

 

Twenty-first century hatreds

 More careful thought is required to situate the present conditions of European xenophobia and its relationship to the historical conjuncture of our times. European racism cannot be merely denounced as unchanging and eternally rooted in its territory. It seems as if the rhetorical power contained in the notion of racism itself has stopped us thinking precisely about what we mean by it. As a consequence we are not alert to racism’s protean and scavenger-like quality, the ‘family of resemblances’ Umberto Eco suggested that we might find within its various accents as well as local and regional peculiarity. The level of competence and ideological sophistication required to be a racist in our time has changed. The challenge is to think about how a racist discourse of automatic belonging can operate alongside and sometimes within forms of inclusiveness and even ‘diversity’.

 We suggest that contemporary forms of xenophobia emerge from three geopolitical situations. The first is Europe’s post-colonial and post-communist context. Understanding xenophobia today necessitates being able to comprehend simultaneously the lasting impact of these two unfinished legacies in the present. Equally, the channels of migration in Europe were in large part channels of imperial relations, and the same is true in part of the Communist block. Those patterns of people flow have now been destabilised and, as a result, international mobility is both more heterogeneous and complicated.

 Second, the ‘war on terror’ and continued military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan impact on the language of hate and resentment in Europe. As a result securitization, terrorism and the politics of fear have become important drivers of contemporary suspicion and hatred, sometimes articulated in the defense of liberal gender values and European tolerance.

 The third is the political integration of Europe in the context of economic instability and decline. Unemployment in the EU rose from 7.9% in October 2008 to 9.8% in October 2009, to a total figure of 25 million. While unemployment has decreased by approximately 0.5 % since this high point, economic uncertainty remains an important factor in the fuelling of  anti-immigrant sentiment. Moreover, the unevenness with which the crisis has hit Europe's diverse economies, and the necessity of bail-outs from Europe's north to its south, have intensified xenophobic sentiment between some of its constitutive populations.

 The European Union and the harmonisation of European migration has not only changed where the significant borders of Europe are marked. It has also transformed the dynamics of internal migration and responses to it. In the UK, for example, the last decade and a half has seen perhaps the most intense phase of migration in Britain’s history with some 2.3 million migrants entering the country. In 1951 the ‘foreign born’ population of Britain was 4.2% of the total population including some 2.1 million people. By 2001 that figure had increased to 8.3% numbering some 4.9 million people. This migration encompasses greater inflows of asylum seekers and refugees, often coming from places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya where European nations are engaged in military conflicts. It also includes migrants that arrived as the EU respectively enveloped first the Accession 8 (or A8) and subsequently the A10 countries from Central and Eastern Europe.

 Some contemporary forms of hatred mutate or evolve from colonial racisms, while new hierarchies of belonging are emerging that sift and rank in novel ways.  Ambalavaner Sivanandan argues that such new forms of xenoracism can vilify the stranger even if they are white and physically indistinguishable from their ‘hosts.’ He had in mind the forms of xenophobia directed towards EU migrants in the United Kingdom. Across Europe there are other examples like Estonia where Russians are vilified as ‘immigrants’ even if they were born there. During World War 2 it was occupied and annexed first by the Soviet Union and subsequently by the Third Reich and then re-occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944.  Estonia was a Soviet colony up until it regained independence in 1991. Since then it has experienced rapid economic growth and until recently was amongst the world's fastest growing economies. However, Estonia's economy was hit hard by the financial crisis of 2008-2009, coming second to Latvia as one of the most adversely affected economies in the EU. 

 Estonia has very low rates of immigration. This may change as the Baltic border contributes potential entry points to the Schengen area, but at present just a few hundred people settle in Estonia each year.  However, there is a significant Russian minority that was largely relocated to Estonia to meet labour demands during the Soviet period of forced industrialisation under Stalin. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lived in Estonia during the 1960s to escape the attention of the Soviet secret police. Between 1965–1967 while in hiding, he prepared the early drafts of The Gulag Archipelago. But by 1991 Estonia was not necessarily a hospitable place for a Russian - even a dissident - to take refuge. The new independent parliament decreed that Russian Soviet-era migrants and their descendants (around 35 per cent of the population) would not be accorded automatic citizenship. Russians became ‘immigrants’ despite the fact that many were born in Estonia. They did not emigrate. The border moved around them. 

 Today our research reveals that Russians in Estonia live in highly segregated circumstances, concentrated mainly in the city of Tallinn and experience considerable suspicion, resentment and discrimination as ‘enemies within’ and ‘agents of Russia’. Levels of unemployment amongst Russians are two to three times higher than the levels experienced in the wider population. High levels of drug and alcohol abuse are evident in the Russian community as are high levels of prostitution and sex work. While the specific mechanisms of sifting and ordering insiders and outsiders may differ, they share the same pattern of dividing their populations into two camps ie. those who are granted automatic belonging like Estonia’s president while others are ‘out of place’ or only passing through.    

 

The far right and border control

 Two important patterns have emerged in Europe as a whole.  The first of these is the rise in the 2009 European elections of a non-aligned ‘group’ that captures most of the votes of openly xenophobic political parties. Successful far right groups include Hungary’s JOBBIK (3 seats), BNP (2 seats) Bulgaria’s ATAKA (3 seats), the Slovak National Party (3 seats), Geert Wilders’ populist far right Freedom Party (4 seats), Austrian Freedom Party, (2 seats), Romanian Nationalist Party (3 seats). Despite increasing their number of seats, not all of these parties have won more votes than they had previously. For instance, where they won seats, the BNP actually had less votes than they had achieved previously. Moreover non-aligned far right parties are unable to form a coalition in the European Parliament owing to a division between far right populist parties such as Wilders, and more avowedly fascist parties such as JOBBIK. Moreover, it is also significant that 27 EU countries did not elect a single far-right MEP.

 More recently, however, national elections and polls do suggest a shift of political gravity from the centre towards the far right. The Swedish Democrats and the Danish People’s party have both experienced gains in support and nearby, True Finns (Finland's answer to The Tea Party), gained 19% of the vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections – a significant gain from 4.5%. The residue of antagonisms and nationalist commitments inhibit these groups from joining forces under the banner of a pan-white European movement.  However, these nationalist movements acknowledge they belong to the same European family and even boast a measure of white cultural hybridity. A recent example is the devotion of Timo Soini, leader of the True Finns, to the south London football team Millwall FC.  The club has long lived with its notoriety as a bastion of English football hooliganism and nationalism, although the issue of racism there is much more complex than the caricature. Soini recently posted a film on youtube that documented a recent pilgrimage to his beloved Millwall. 

 Further south, Austria’s Freedom party is also gaining support, securing 15% of the vote in recent presidential elections, and to the west, France's Front National is experiencing a remarkable growth in support, with Marie LePen edging ahead of Sarkozy in pre election polls. In each instance, the gains of the far right are correlated with abstention and apathy amongst former supporters of centre right parties; parties whose transnational economic policies jar with the populist national sentiments through which they won their vote.  However, media attention devoted to the ‘rise of the far right in Europe,’ distracts from the second feature of the current political situation fortified by growing xenophobia.

 The second key aspect we want to foreground is the adoption of migration policies typically associated with the right by centrist governments in western Europe, but also on a Europe-wide level, enshrined in European legislation and directives. Europe-wide developments include the recently ratified Lisbon Treaty, The Returns Directive, and the proposal for a European Blue Card, all developed over the last two years. Under the European Blue Card scheme immigration policy is more selective, favouring those migrants who will provide Europe with specific forms of human capital and skills. The Returns Directive adopted on 16 December 2008 aimed to produce a Europe-wide policy for regulating the treatment and return of ‘illegal immigrants’. This directive, anti-migrant and with a focus on national interests, marks a significant shift within the politics of the European Parliament that had hitherto “consistently argued for a comprehensive and migrant-friendly approach”. Taken together these shifts have notably hardened the attitude of European states on the issues of border control.  In April 2011 French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have lobbied European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Commission President José Manuel Barroso to make changes to the treaty establishing the Schengen border-free area so that member states will have greater power to control their borders.

 In his essay Reflection on Racism Cornelius Castoriadis comments that hatred is best understood as having two sides.  The first of these he calls the ‘flip side of self-love’. European power resulted in an inflation of self-worth and an arrogant sense of being in the possession of superior moral values and civilisation: affirming the value of white Europeans meant also affirming the non-value of non-white Europeans. The other side of this sense of superiority is what Casdoriadis calls “un-conscious self hatred”.  The presence of the other becomes a cipher for self-doubt and ontological insecurity.  Castoriadis writes “in the deepest recesses of one’s egocentric fortress a voice softly but tirelessly repeats ‘our walls are made of plastic, our acropolis of paper-mâché.’” The twentieth century, after all, saw not only de-colonisation in Latin America, Africa and the Indian sub-continent and the collapse of the Soviet Empire but also de-industrialisation and the shift eastwards of productive power. The rise of xenophobia projects out onto the body of the unwanted stranger the welter of other insecurities about the loss of power.  Paul Gilroy refers to this as an inability to mourn the loss of empire that results in a kind of melancholia that is at once phobic and euphoric. The rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment is the death knell of the melancholic nationalisms of Old Europe.  Through concerted forms of immigration control at a European level, governments are doing little more than pandering to populist xenophobia.  As the European polity clings to its former power and civilisational glory it is missing a historic opportunity.  This might be described as the possibility to reckon with the ghosts of the past, finding a different position within the global order. 

    

A different future

 Recent events in Portugal suggest the future direction of this shift. Many from the Global south continue to move north to access economic opportunities in Europe. However, as The Guardian newspaper commented recently, young Europeans are now looking for opportunities in the South. As domestic crisis in Portugal deepens, educated Portuguese are converging on the Angolan consulate in Lisbon to apply for work permits.  They are heading out of Europe to seek opportunities in emerging economies such as Angola and also Brazil.  Interestingly for our purposes here the Socialist minority government led by José Sócrates did not immediately embrace an EU bailout similar to the one offered to Greece and Ireland. Initially at least they entertained proposals to buy Portugal’s debts from China and to accept help from its former colony, Brazil. These offers were not in the end taken up but the fact that Sócrates entertained them as a possibility indicates something important about the shifts within global economic power. When satirists in Lisbon suggested the best option in the current circumstances would be to leave the EU and merge with Brazil. They were only half joking.

Jan Nederveen Pieterse argues that we are witnessing both the re-balancing of the global order in which emerging powers are accommodated by the west, but also new forms of multipolar economic power that challenge the global dominance of Europe. The new East/ South axis of economic power simply bypasses Europe. He told a seminar in London recently “when you speak to people in China they are very careful to say, ‘let the old powers down easy’ - let them die quietly.’” From the noisy and violent assertions of the English Defense League and JOBBIK, to the rumbling hostility of Europe's centre, melancholic and hateful voices protest against diminishing power and influence, economic decline, and lost international standing. This chorus of hate suggests that Europe will not go quietly. 

 The current political situation is best characterized by the dual emergence of populist right-wing parties, mobilising xenophobia to their political advantage; and mainstream centrist and centre-right political parties adopting draconian forms of immigration control. In this sense, we can understand the rising tides of outspoken hatred and unspoken disgust, less a popular stirring but rather, as a coordination of the European powers that are facing political and economic crisis.  We are not suggesting that this crisis is short term or confined to the toxic financial dealings of recent times. Rather, we are suggesting that it signals a longer term civilisational shift.

 The Europe that is dying is the one that remains hostage to its past. Another Europe is not only possible but is in fact fast becoming an urgent necessity.  This would be a Europe of vitality, open to connections, that has let go of its civilisational conceits - a Europe that can be aligned in new ways and ultimately one that has a new vision of its place in the world.  Europe Day is an opportune moment to hope for such a future and a different conception of what it means to be a European.

About the authors

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His books include The Art of Listening (Berg, 2007), Theories of Race and Racism (Routledge, 2001), an on-line multi-media book entitled Academic Diary (Free Thought, 2011), and recently, Live Methods (2013, with Nirmal Puwar).

 

Alex Rhys-Taylor is a lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths. He is also an affiliate of NYLON, working with NYU, London School of Economics and Goldsmiths  and his research revolves around class, race and multiculture within the context of urban development.