Xenophobic Europe

Our guest editor introduced his special feature on the ‘Uses of Xenophobia’, on Europe Day. Here, he maps the new relevance of an open and shared commons to a continent that is once again meeting economic, political and cultural insecurity with a resurgence of aggressive political demagoguery

Ash Amin
9 May 2011

There is a familiar pattern to xenophobia.  When societies face hard times, the stranger/outsider gets blamed for the situation and is portrayed as a threat to the well being of the community, however defined.  The community is told – and tells itself – that things will only get better when the stranger is removed, when a glorious past during which the stranger was kept in check is restored.  Looking back becomes the means of going forward.  Xenophobia is made productive, a necessity for survival.  Its ugliness is made over, even beautified.  When times are prosperous and a society feels generally good about itself, the stranger/outsider becomes a figure of benign indifference or qualified interest.  The community is told – and tells itself – that the stranger at home and abroad is not an enemy, but perhaps a purveyor of new skills and energies, perhaps in need of succour and recognition, perhaps worth leaving alone, perhaps an object of desire. 

Xenophobia recedes into the background, its uses are attenuated, and the stranger is allowed to breathe again.  Frequently though, and especially in societies with a colonial legacy, the right of the stranger to be recognised is seen as a concession, an act of magnanimity or ethical obligation.  The stranger is tolerated, afforded space, given a role, but still not treated as a free and equal subject, natural to the open and plural community.  In the good times, the overt harms and exclusions of xenophobia are kept at bay – bringing real material and cultural benefits to the stranger – but the culture of condescension seems to remain intact, expecting the stranger to behave in certain ways, and always as an interloper, an aspirant, on borrowed rights.  The stranger is told to assimilate, learn the rules of the game, not take his or her autonomy for granted, and be thankful for the rights conceded.

In the last decade, Europe has travelled fast and far from a culture of condescension to one of revulsion.  The essays profiled on this week’s theme and written by prominent European intellectuals on the uses of xenophobia, explain the spreading corrosions and discuss their implications.  They speak of the active mobilisation – political and popular – of aversion against a vicariously defined stranger, of the harms caused to the targeted subjects and to Europe itself and of the tenuous connection between this figure and Europe’s contemporary problems and associated anxieties affecting majorities and minorities alike.  Xenophobia, despite its historical moorings, is read as a political doing, a wrong that can and must be tackled. 

However, the thrust of the essays is not to recommend a return to the culture of condescension, with all its tacit hubris.  Instead, it is to press for a more open and democratic continent, which turns to face the turbulent and uncertain future together with the stranger, treated as an ally and equal. 

At a time of heightened anxiety and aversion, such a suggestion seems wishful, but it is one these essays consider necessary for peace and prosperity in a constitutively plural Europe and also possible if backed by an active and credible politics of support for the open and shared commons.  This introduction to the essays summarises the corrosions of contemporary xenophobia in Europe and traces the outlines of another way of being European.  It develops the tenets of an Open Letter to Europe endorsed by a group of concerned citizens, including most of the contributors to this collection, calling on thinking Europeans beginning with Europe’s opinion-makers and its political leaders to resist the culture of fear settling in Europe.  The Open Letter, accompanied by a shorter Manifesto, can be read and endorsed here


Aggressive political demagoguery is on the march again in Europe, targeting people and cultures deemed to be incompatible with and dangerous to its diverse national traditions.  Faced with growing economic insecurity, social diversity and international exposure, more and more European governments are adopting their own version of a disturbingly uniform tone against minorities and strangers, fanned by endless talk of usurping immigrants and asylum seekers, dangerous minorities and incompatible cultures, and the illusory desire to return to founding principles and values.  Uncompromising lines of separation are being drawn, blaming the victims of unfettered financial speculation, poverty, inequality and authoritarianism on a global scale, and pretending to ignore the centrality of the outsider to European economic and cultural life.  Xenophobia is spreading far and fast, no longer confined to the mischief of the far right in countries such as Britain, France, Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary.  In these countries and others such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, aversion is becoming a staple of electoral victory and the holding of power, part of the national consensus.

The evidence is more than anecdotal.  In 1997 - the European Year against Racism – the EU commissioned a large-scale survey of majority opinion in all the member states, which revealed that nearly a third of the respondents described themselves as ‘quite racist’ or ‘very racist’.  These tended to be people who were dissatisfied with their life circumstances, feared the threat of unemployment, were insecure about the future, and lacked confidence in the public and political authorities of their country.  The stranger emerged as the focal point of fear, anxiety and national disaffection.  Another survey six years later raised the tempo, with two-thirds agreeing that multicultural society had reached its limits, a quarter wanting illegal immigrants to be repatriated, half opposing immigration and cultural diversity and a third asylum seeking, and a significant majority labelling minorities a collective ethnic threat.  Worryingly, such intolerance runs parallel to a majority view of Europe as tolerant.  Over two-thirds of EU citizens surveyed in 2007 cited values such as peace (61%), respect for nature and the environment (50%), social equality and solidarity (37%), freedom of expression (37%), and tolerance and openness to others (37%), as distinctly European values worth preserving.  The vilification of the stranger emerges as consistent with, perhaps even necessary for, defending liberal Europe.   

This coupling is dangerous, and ultimately self-defeating.  To confront the challenges of a turbulent and interdependent world through geographical and cultural closure, is to reduce the complexities of a changing European public sphere to a battle between deserving insiders and disrupting outsiders, between settled traditions and foreign influences.  This will do little to tackle the fears and anxieties shared by majorities and minorities linked to the very real problems of growing economic and welfare insecurity, diminishing hope in the future, the disappearing or privatized commons, heightened risk and insecurity, neo-liberal expectation and isolation.  The problems are simply masked, while a new and damaging culture of the future seen as catastrophic takes root, at the expense not only of the stranger but also of Europe’s capacity to address the future in a lucid, non-alarmist fashion. The closures of xenophobia are symptomatic of a deeper and darker development, which is the stealthy advancement of a war-like stance towards a future considered to be tempestuously hazardous, demanding constant surveillance and decisive intervention.  In this way, violence towards the anomalous and foreign – and all its supporting technologies, from surveillance to encampment and alarmism to the suspension of democracy itself – is naturalised as a necessity, and normalised as an everyday precaution.  The parallels with darker periods of intolerance in Europe’s modern history are disturbing. 


Europe is now home to millions of people from non-European backgrounds, many religious and cultural dispositions, and affiliations of global reach that incorporate almost all its citizens and residents.  It is as much a space of felt myths of origin and tradition, as it is a space of cosmopolitan identities and attachments.  In such a Europe it seems anachronistic and potentially incendiary to close the borders, to play the game of good insiders and bad outsiders, to defend ethnic and cultural purity, to demonise everything alien. 

The EU opinion surveys that reveal a public anxious about its future show this public to be at once xenophobic and liberal.  Is it possible, before it is too late, to enact a politics that slowly squeezes out the former by expanding the ‘infrastructure’ and affective orbit of the latter?  What should the staples of a new compact with diversity and difference look like, beyond the appeal of positive sentiments? 

A place to start – unglamorous though it may sound - is the restoration of the ethos and provisions of the European social state; the tradition of universal welfare and social justice so comprehensively demonised by the ideology of the market society, despite the latter’s contribution to economic and social insecurity and inequality over the last 25 years.  The collective protections of the European social model need to be restored to underwrite everyday life, so that the basic needs and future prospects of all those who find themselves on the shores of Europe can be secured without prejudice, and so that an ethic of care for the plural communal can be restored. We must rebuild – at national and European level – a commitment to known provisions such as universal rights, the living wage, comprehensive welfare, personal and collective security, decent public services, a protected commons, and humane forms of social integration – no less. 

The social state throughout Europe has become detached from its original aim to tackle want and uncertainty and build a capable democracy. Instead, through its silent orderings, it has become taken for granted and abused. Today, any effective renewal depends upon public desire for the collective society.  The viability of the social model as a first step in tackling xenophobia depends on building a public culture that understands ‘community’ - national or European - as a gathering of multiple and contested interests and affiliations, as a space of practiced contribution rather than automatic right, as providing a commons protected from divisive appropriations, and as a space of concerns and values that cut across the divisions of class, ethnicity and culture. 

Such a shift will require heroic efforts on the part of many different constituencies at every level of society, for, as suggested, there are entrenched and vigorous oppositions (even the failings of the current economic crisis, increasingly traced to the excesses of deregulation, have finished up with more, rather than less, of the market economy). 

Europe is generally projected - politically and popularly - as a coming together of already formed entities, a community of communities, each one preconfigured in its arrangements and ambitions, clear about its wary stand-off with the stranger.  Change, meanwhile, the change that is taking place all around us – Is an unwanted guest. But is there not a politics to be voiced out of the multiple cohabitations and crossings of daily European life, presented as a counter-culture of new beginnings based on multiplicity and the harnessing of the shared commons?  The fact of Europe as a zone of encounter, an amalgamation of multiple geographies of association, and a space of flow and transit, could be projected by progressive political and social forces as proof of the variety and vitality that the science of complexity recommends in facing future uncertainty. 

And the provisions of the social state – from its shared public spaces to its universal guarantees – could be justified as the means of ensuring that the freedoms of pluralism are channelled towards collective goals and solidarities that cross the demarcations of settled community and refresh them. If the momentum can be built and sustained through the efforts and passions of politicians and publics, activists, intellectuals, opinion makers and policymakers, the necessary reforms will follow, returning the stranger as in and of Europe.  

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