Can Europe Make It?

From migrant to citizen: reimagining democracy in the European Union

Public intellectuals in the EU should help to reimagine the meaning of democracy by questioning the division between citizen and migrant.

Filippo Menozzi
19 May 2015

Ellis Island. The most common entry point for the millions of Italians that emigrated to the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wikimedia. Public domain.

Citizens and non-citizens

The current debate on migration in Europe presents two opposing views. On the one hand, there are organisations like Amnesty International, which denounce the suffering of migrants and manifest solidarity with them. They raise awareness and promote actions to protect people escaping from war, poverty and oppression. On the other hand, there are anti-immigration movements. They argue that Europe cannot and should not accept most of the people seeking refuge and hospitality at Europe’s Southern frontiers.

At the root of this debate, however, there is a much deeper opposition between the migrant and the EU citizen. The migrant is usually represented as a body in distress. Migrant bodies are portrayed on board of overcrowded ships trying to reach the Southern shores of the EU. They are exhausted bodies arriving from Africa, from Asia, from the Middle East after long and perilous journeys. The migrants do not usually speak; sometimes they stare silently at the camera. If they speak, they respond to questions, tell their condition and their hopes. But most of the time they are spoken for. Someone else narrates their journeys, displays them and exhibits their suffering and desperation.

The citizen is the opposite of the migrant. Citizens express their anger and their frustration. They take part in protests, lament ineffective European governance and contest the politicians that should represent them. Citizens are not bodies, but persons. They are usually well-dressed, well-nourished, self-confident and vocal. Citizens speak, protest and vote. In anti-immigration demonstrations, citizens address the migrants as their ‘others,’ that is, their contraries. Migrants do not work, migrants do not speak, migrants have needs but do not produce wealth, though it is widely known that they are trafficked and exploited. Anti-immigration rhetoric argues that migrants come to Europe to steal jobs and claim rights that do not belong to them.

But today’s migrants are non-citizens or non-persons, to use a term adopted by sociologist Alessandro Dal Lago. They are excluded from the institutions of democracy and not recognised as equal to citizens. For this reason, the borders of Europe have become central to Europe: the body of the migrant is the place where the very meaning of European democracy is at issue. Will Europe be able to recognise migrants as citizens, rather than strangers or just bodies in pain?

The body of the migrant illustrates the blind-spots and exclusions of really-existing democracy. As known and practised in Europe today, democratic government is not yet universal and inclusive. Democracy is valid for citizens only; there cannot be democracy for the non-citizen. In ancient Greece, the non-citizen was the slave. In contemporary Europe, the non-citizen is the enslaved migrant. How can European nations change this situation?

The role of the intellectual

Since the times of the Dreyfus Affair in the nineteenth century, public intellectuals have played a crucial role in Europe. Intellectuals have voiced the exclusions, injustice and inequalities of European societies. Yet, Jennifer Allsopp writes in her article Philosophies of Migration, there seems to be a want of intellectuals eager to engage with the broader implications of the migration issue. How can intellectuals help to challenge the exclusions of European democracy?

recent controversy sparked by the message posted on facebook on 21 April by Italian singer and presenter Gianni Morandi can indicate a starting point and a way forward.

Gianni Morandi is a renowned Italian pop singer and presenter of a popular music event, the San Remo festival. He is loved by millions of Italians, and has helped to shape Italian pop music in the last four decades. Morandi is not known for being a public intellectual. He cannot be compared to prominent and erudite Italian public intellectuals such as, for example, Gianni Vattimo or Massimo Cacciari. And yet, a few days ago Morandi did what a public intellectual should do. He questioned the assumption of the contemporary debate on migration. He made people think twice about the distinction between migrant and citizen.

Morandi wrote a brief post that elicited hundreds of replies, mostly of hostility, anger, and insult, but also many expressions of support. He wrote that, for at least one century, Italians have been migrants too. Between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, Italians were received by other countries, especially in North America, in the same way as Italians now perceive African and Middle Eastern migrants. They arrived on overcrowded ships in search of work and a better life for themselves and their families. They had hopes and aspirations, and wanted a decent life. And Italians often were treated badly: they suffered discrimination, stereotyping, exclusion. The Italians who migrated a century ago did not hold MBA degrees and were not that upper-class, ‘right sort of immigration’ to whom politicians like David Cameron would give unconditional welcome and red carpets. They were poor, uneducated, and job-seeking.

Morandi’s message is accompanied by two pictures, without caption. One is the black-and-white photograph of a ship teeming with migrants – perhaps Italian migrants, dating to the early twentieth century. Below, he posted a picture of contemporary migrants in an overloaded boat in the Mediterranean. There are more affinities than differences. Citizens were once migrants. How can people get upset for this tiny reminder of historical evidence that cannot be refuted?

This awareness should not be limited to Italy. All European peoples have constantly moved. They very often were less peaceful than contemporary migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Since the fifteenth century, European ‘migrants’ – settlers, colonisers, invaders – have exploited, damaged and dominated a great part of the planet.

From the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of Latin America to the Dutch, German, Belgian, British, French and Italian territorial empires, since when have European citizens stayed quietly at home? And who is responsible for the political volatility that compels today’s African migrants to escape from their native countries? Just seventy years ago, a large number of nations in Africa and Asia were colonies of European empires. The same countries are today neo-colonised by new forms of imperialism. Citizens and migrants are part of the same brutal history.

Morandi wrote an important message. He did what European intellectuals should do in current controversies over migration. Intellectuals should not reinforce the display of the migrant as silent other, as body in pain, as non-citizen. Instead, it is time to address what democratic societies could be if they were based on inclusion rather than on exclusion. The body of the migrant can be the beginning of a new idea of democracy without excluded, without others, without non-citizens. It is time to question an idea of Europe that still divide ‘us’ Europeans from ‘them’ non-Europeans: different and ‘other’ but in the end so close.

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