European Identity Isn’t an Antidote to Nationalism

The European Union’s supporters often call it an antidote to nationalism — yet today the bloc is hardening its borders against the outside world. With citizens unable to change its basic economic orientation, the EU is ever more obsessed by identity.

European Union flags fly outside the European Commission building in Brussels, on December 7, 2020. (Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP via Getty Images)

“When Germany took over the six-month presidency of the [European Union] in 2020, it chose the slogan ‘Making Europe strong again together,’” Hans Kundnani tells us in his new book, Eurowhiteness. “The German government had therefore adopted the Trump administration’s slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ but, because it now applied to a region rather than a nation, imagined that this would transform its meaning into the opposite of that signified by Trump.”

Indeed, the EU’s supporters often like to claim that the continental bloc is an antidote to nationalism. But Kundnani sees it as something else: a project mutating into a regional polity based on a civilizational identity. This regionalism is not entirely new, drawing on both modern and premodern myths of European cultural homogeneity and racial superiority. But it signals a departure from the postwar civic project — a turn that has accelerated in the last couple of decades, particularly since the Eurozone crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Kundnani labels this new, disturbing, political form “Eurowhiteness.” Crucially, he argues that Eurowhiteness is bolstered not only by the usual suspects of right-wing populism but also a political center that has co-opted its rhetoric, defending a “Christian Europe” or a European “way of life” against outsiders, whether Muslim, Russian, or from countries on Europe’s borders. Each bolsters the other: just as many confirmed pro-Europeans are willing to work with far-right parties, from Warsaw to Rome, these latter have also taken up pro-Europeanism in their identity posturing against the non-European.

Kundnani deftly bursts the bubble of those who idealize the EU as a cosmopolitan project — one much-inflated by intellectuals such as Jürgen Habermas, even as they target the bloc’s democratic deficit and neoliberal political economy. Rather, European regionalism has come to resemble a nationalism “writ large,” which replicates the worst aspects of national chauvinism, exclusivity, and hard borders, but without the mitigating factors of a social project or the democratic structures to fulfill it. Indeed, the traditional contrasting of the EU’s openness with a specific history of (German) nationalism, which sees nationalism only as leading to war and occludes its emancipatory backstory, is part of the problem.

Deepening his critique of the EU’s sham cosmopolitanism, Kundnani diagnoses its underlying cause: the neoliberalization of the EU has hollowed out domestic democracy, leaving only the simulacra of identity politics in its wake. Building on powerful existing critiques of the EU’s democratic legitimacy, Kundnani connects de-politicization to a renewal of more troubling political forms based on culture and ethnicity, in a word, based on “whiteness” as a common unifier. As the promise of a civic, democratic Europe has receded, so “Eurowhiteness” has taken its place.

Civilizing Missions

What kind of a substitution is this? What connects “Eurowhiteness” to the EU’s democratic deficit? Kundnani outlines the long and evolving history of European “civilizing missions.” When medieval ideas of Christendom were replaced — gradually and far from completely — with the modernizing ideology of the Enlightenment and its racial notions of Europe, which retained, and in many ways exaggerated, premodern features of exclusivity and superiority, “whiteness” became synonymous with “civilized.”

This in turn was used to justify imperial expansion and then scientific racism and eugenics. This dark aspect of European identity, which peaked in the interwar period, was never fully exorcised. But Kundnani implies that there was a postwar period in which a civic rather than civilizational ethos prevailed, which valued democracy, the rule of law, and a social market economy. According to Kundnani, this peaked “between the loss of European colonies in the 1960s and the beginning of the euro crisis in 2010.” With neoliberalism’s ascendency in the 1980s and ’90s, turbo-charged into the new millennium and the financial crisis, this civic ethos waned as ethnic-civilizational ideas were restored.

Kundnani is careful not to dismiss the Enlightenment entirely. Nor does he suffer from nostalgia for a postwar golden age. In fact, he suggests that social democracy concealed rather than healed the limits of European inclusiveness. But this means that some work is required to draw out the connections between “Eurowhiteness” and political democracy.

The crucial hinge is the period between the two World Wars. Kundnani himself evokes some of its salient features. It was then, he notes, that the arguments of pro-European federalist movements first emerged. From the perspective of the Great Powers, Europe’s various individual nationalisms had become an obstacle to European greatness, foreclosing its destiny to rule the world on behalf of humanity. For the aristocrats of the Pan-European movement, personified in the figure of Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, nationalism had become “the gravedigger of European civilization” and needed to be overcome.

Europeanist sentiment also reflected interwar anxiety about the decline of European civilization in the face of growing US and Russian geopolitical power. In this era, Carl Schmitt theorized the idea of a German Mitteleuropa based on Catholicism and anti-communism as an antidote to civilizational decline, a trope shared by many on the political right. Conservative counterrevolutionaries such as Oswald Spengler, whose Decline of the West was first published in 1918, envisaged civilizations as biological entities that would naturally rise and fall.

For a successful Pan-Europeanism to materialize, Africa would be essential in providing a source of raw materials and physical space for cooperative exploitation of European nations rather than the competitive imperialism that had culminated in World War I. This neo-imperial modernization project was captured in the label “Eurafrica.”

Aside from the European federalist arguments circulating among resistance movements, defeated, or tamed in the immediate aftermath of 1945, such ideas were often based on a sense of European superiority. Pan-Europeanism morphed into a more defensive attitude in light of Cold War recognition of Europe’s relative geopolitical weakness, exacerbated by decolonization. It would then become an article of faith for left-wing parties, with Eurocommunists and social democrats alike believing in Europe as the only path to socialism.

Whether in the guise of lesser-evilism in comparison to the nation-state, a scalarist eschatology bolstered by Commission president Jacques Delors’s promise of “social Europe,” or a more general technocratic thrust, Europeanism led the Left down a maze of blind alleys. At the end of the twentieth century, Europeanism comes to take more diluted forms, but Europe would be proclaimed as a model for the nations of the world by liberals in awe of its soft power and apparent political stability. We can hear the echoes of this sentiment in those who claim that membership of the EU is essential to maintain global influence or at least to stem its loss. But in each of these cases, from the beginning to the present day, “the European project was not just about peace, as post war ‘pro-Europeans’ would often later claim. It was, always, also about power.”

Kundnani gives short shrift to peace-project Messianism, not least given the violence perpetuated by core European states after World War II, notably by France in its brutal suppression of Algerian independence and war in Indochina. With the end of the “European era” of public international law signaled by the new geopolitics of the Cold War, European integration in the imperial center can be understood as the reflex of decolonization in the imperial periphery. As France became more anxious about its colonies, it turned toward European integration in an attempt to maintain its geopolitical status. French and Belgian colonial possessions were included as part of the Common Market, albeit with restrictions on labor migration, a forerunner to the Eastern enlargement program several decades later.

As Kundnani shows, Europe, despite its self-image and rhetoric, made no clean break with its late-nineteenth-century “civilizing” mission. It retained it in variation, based on a conviction that it had fully learned the lessons of history. The Holocaust would play a key role, Europe’s “memory culture” becoming inward-looking and parochial, emphasizing acts of cruelty within, while neglecting those performed without.

Fascism was presented as an exceptional stain on an otherwise untainted biography, instead of inexorably rooted in its history of colonialism, as Hannah Arendt had argued, or as part of European civilization, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer had suggested. Yet in a parallel way, Nazism would also come be seen as unexceptional, conflated with a generic totalitarianism that incorporated Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The postwar EU thus became, in Kundnani’s words, a “vehicle of imperial amnesia.” But he is careful not to view it only in relation to this dimension. It also, he argues, became a “technocratic mission.” This is key, and it leads to asking whether a technocratic mindset is compatible with a civic democratic mission at all.

Kundnani considers “the depoliticised mode of governance embodied by the EU,” along with the postwar social market economy and welfare state, as an element of civic rule. That he harbors his own doubts about this is later revealed when he considers the antidote to ethnic regionalism to be a “repoliticization of economic policy,” in order to reverse the civilizational turn in the European project. In other words, a civic Europe must be one in which politics is returned to its rightful and primary place. When did such a Europe exist?

Lineages of Neoliberalism

Kundnani is surely right to present Europe’s slide toward identity politics as a reflex of neoliberalization and its depoliticizing tendencies. But these are not features that have surfaced only in the last decade or two. While attending to the longer lineages of “whiteness,” from Christianity through to modern imperialism, Eurowhiteness devotes less attention to the longer-term lineages of neoliberalism.

Pan-Europeanism emerged to maintain the position of Europe’s ruling elites with respect not only to the outside world, but to the domestic threat presented by their own dominated classes. Another feature of the interwar period is thus equally necessary to foreground: European elites’ fear of mass democracy and popular sovereignty in an epoch of universal suffrage and working-class consciousness. This was a period when liberals, as well as conservatives, announced their divorce from democracy, and then, as now, were willing to work with the far right to suppress dissenting voices.

European integration was a means to constrain the democratic impulse from the start of postwar construction, albeit unfolding over several decades, and in tandem with other counter-majoritarian ideas and institutions in the process of constitution-building. It is not only that the EU was never constructed in a civic mold but that it was constructed in a way that would repress this feature of democratic life.

Postwar politics in Europe was about containing the political passions and demobilizing the people, in line with a Cold War liberalism of fear. The path of de-politicization in Europe took different national forms. But European integration played a crucial consolidating role, buttressed by various myths of interwar collapse and a new set of “passions”: a belief in expertise, and in the power and authority of law and of lawyers. This technocratic Europe was bolstered by the harder power and technology of American imperialism. It was based on a very skewed history lesson; one which offered up democracy as having committed suicide rather than having been sacrificed from above by fearful elites.

The Cold War context invites an analysis of the European project not only in relation to the external dimension — European decline in an age of superpower rivalry — but also to its internal dimension, suppressing powerful anti-systemic political forces. In his classic analysis of postwar European integration, historian Alan Milward ascribes West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s view of Russia as a “barbaric non-European country” to a racial prejudice prevalent in mainstream German conservatism. But Adenauer was also vehemently anti-communist, seeing it as a threat to Europe’s Christian civilization. The Cold War idea of “the West” fused the civilizational with the ideological under the umbrella of the military protection of the United States and the auspices of NATO as well as domestic programs of deradicalization.

In Kundnani’s narrative, the joining of neoliberalism and Eurowhiteness begins only with the end of the Cold War. The Treaty of Maastricht, as in so many accounts, is presented as a turning point. But it can also be considered as a staging post. It was a turn onto a path that led deeper in a direction that Europe had been traveling since the Treaties of Paris and Rome.

Neoliberalism and the New Culture Wars

Kundnani hits the mark in highlighting the jarring disconnect that took place after Maastricht. In official accounts, Europe was proclaimed a normative power, based on fundamental rights and human dignity, capable of promoting civilization not just within its own porous borders but the whole field of international relations. It was held forth as a model of open cosmopolitanism, as ideas such as post-nationalism and post-sovereignty began to reign supreme in the academy.

The political reality was very different. With the end of the Cold War, a new version of regionalism came to dominate. The Europe that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were to join was by then distinct from the embedded liberalism of its foundational stage. By the 1990s, neoliberalism was hegemonic, and the single market had become a Trojan horse that would destabilize national welfare and collective bargaining regimes.

This is a story familiar to EU scholars, and particularly lawyers, given the special role that the European Court of Justice played in liberalizing the market by expanding the free flow of the factors of production. In conjunction with economic and monetary union (EMU), the post-Maastricht EU would help to rip up the postwar social contract between labor and capital. But at the same time as it tended toward a homogenization of the Anglo-Saxon economic model, it would contribute to growing cleavages within the EU, between different growth regimes, and regionally between north and south, east and west.

Throughout the recent decade of “polycrisis,” a more defensive, unsettled, and anxious Europe emerged. The EU was no longer a model for the nations of the world, but a body struggling to deal with a series of crises that looked at various points like becoming existential. It was declared to be a competitor in a global race, in which it appeared to be doing rather poorly.

The euro crisis signaled a “sink or swim” moment, which for chancellor Angela Merkel, supported by a bloc of countries tied to Germany’s economic model, initially meant austerity and avoidance of moral hazard, destroying any remnants of international solidarity. To fit Emmanuel Macron’s agenda, the project would later be recast as a “Europe that protects.” In both cases, it meant an EU that was more hierarchical and more coercive even as its rigid adherence to market liberalism was suspended through the pandemic. It was also a Europe whose southern borders were becoming increasingly hard, and with tragic consequences.

For Kundnani, this decade meant that “whiteness” itself became more central to the European project. European elites, although rhetorically contesting the far right’s surge across the continent, adopted its frame of thinking in civilizational and competitive terms. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party remained in the European People’s Party in the EU parliament long after years of vocal condemnations (eventually quitting in 2021), and its superficial Euroskepticism would come to be emulated by right-wing formations in Poland and Italy. Centrist liberalism and right-wing offered the impression of mutual opposition while embraced in a well-timed tango. A soft Euroskepticism of left populists also emerged, equally superficial but far less successful in leading the moves, as the choreography favored its opponents at every step.

Increasing uncertainty occasioned by the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU, Donald Trump’s unsettling of the liberal international order, and the growing Russian threat, provoked a return to interwar rhetoric, of Europe needing to express its own geopolitical identity and pursue strategic autonomy and even its own “sovereignty.”

This notion, pushed by Macron, failed to move Merkel and others. Disappointed with the lack of centralizing movement in the eurozone and EU foreign affairs and facing turbulent battles in his attempt to neoliberalize the domestic economy, Macron turned toward a culture war of his own, to defend the French Republic against Islam. “As political contestation shifted from economic to cultural issues,” Kundnani notes, the “far right was becoming stronger.”

The Political Economy of Eurowhiteness

The subtitle of Eurowhiteness is Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project. Conspicuously absent, however, is any account of the role played by race, or even by “whiteness” itself, in conditioning the political form of Europe; instead, the term functions as a kind of negative signifier. It is not a constant in European affairs, but neither is it entirely contingent. It bears some causal relationship with neoliberalism, but the connection is vague in outline.

The label “Eurowhiteness” might suggest a contrast with a different non-European “whiteness” — a transatlantic whiteness perhaps — but this is not cashed out. Neither are any differences in the concept of whiteness across the continent. It is significant that Eurowhiteness was coined initially by Hungarian sociologist József Böröcz to signal a hierarchy of whiteness within Europe, to contrast Western or Northern European whiteness with the “dirty whiteness” of Central and Eastern Europe.

The discourse of whiteness itself, as Kundnani also notes, is born in the attempt to split the working class in the antebellum United States. In traditional Marxist idiom, it functions as a superstructural ideology, representing but also distorting the underlying material reality of the exploitation of labor and class conflict. But even though Kundnani notes that the origins of whiteness lie in a ruling-class strategy to place a wedge between the dominated classes and obstruct their solidarity, class does not feature in his book.

Throughout the euro crisis, the political movement in Greece against the EU’s austerity regime was micromanaged and effectively destroyed, although in significant part it self-destructed. At the same time, the center and right joined forces, combining neoliberalism and culturalism, just as Kundnani argues. Eurowhiteness, however, mostly elides the political economy of the hierarchies that have permeated the EU ever since German reunification and the introduction of the single currency.

The internal neo-colonialism that emerged through the euro crisis, exacerbating cleavages between debtor and creditor, as well as north and south, east and west, is gestured toward but the repercussions for domestic politics are not fully integrated into the analysis. This is surprising because the issue of German semi-hegemony is one Kundnani has elsewhere made a profound contribution to.

“Eurowhiteness,” then, remains at the level of an ideology, or a discourse, associated with those who advocate a European regionalism based on ethnicity or religion, but also by Kundnani to critique the hypocrisy of European elites, and to debunk the myth of cosmopolitan Europe. To invoke “Eurowhiteness” in this second sense is to cast a skeptical light on the project. But this is reinforced by Kundnani’s positive claim that in leaving the EU, the opportunity, at least for the UK, is to become less “white.”

What does this really mean, beyond the empty slogans of “global Britain” evoked by some Brexiteers? For Kundnani it means the possibility of a rebalancing, not only in terms of repaying the historical debt with the Commonwealth and encouraging immigration from outside Europe, but in terms of a re-politicization of society.

The conceptual argument here is rather implicit. Kundnani contrasts an ethnic regionalism with a democratic one. This bifurcation functions by suggesting a contrast between an illiberal civilizing ethos and liberal civic one. But there is also a civic-republican ethos, which prioritizes the citizen as a political animal, or in a representative model, which prioritizes political parties as mediators between state and society.

Is a republican kind of civic regionalism really a possibility? The various failed attempts to create a European “demos” or even just to resolve the EU’s democratic deficit suggest it is a tall order. But why should exiting a regional bloc make the possibility of a vibrant civic life more likely? Why not just a reversion to an ethnic nationalism “writ small”?

Democracy as the Antidote to Eurowhiteness

The answer — missed by some commentators on the book — lies in democracy and politics, and it demands an account of how interwar and postwar ideas of Europe have repressed these. Kundnani notes how ethnic regionalism is inversely related to politicization. It is not the case that if only the EU functioned as it is meant to, it would be a cosmopolitan paradise; that if not for the hypocrisy of its elites, its deficiencies would be overcome. It is functioning precisely as it is meant to function, replete of course with unintended glitches, big and small.

Kundnani rejects the view that Brexit must be seen through either a cultural or economic lens, or even a hybrid of both. In reality, he argues, political issues dominated; Brexit was fundamentally about democracy and popular sovereignty. Concerns about sovereignty indicated less an “authoritarian reflex,” as some who looked at Brexit through the prism of “populism” saw it, than a “democratic reflex” and in particular “a sense that democracy had been hollowed out.” For at least some British citizens, Brexit was not so much an expression of white anger as the opposite: the rejection of a bloc that was itself perceived as racist.

Kundnani does not offer Brexit as a panacea; it might well be a necessary but is far from a sufficient condition to restore a civic nationalism. But it does perhaps point to what is required: an alternative universalism, inter-national and re-politicized, and which is pitched in opposition to, and most probably requiring rupture from the EU.

In his classic account of Eurocentrism, the Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin notes how peripheral ruling classes are bound to the system of imperialism because imperialism reproduces the material conditions for their domestic positions of power vis-à-vis their own populations. Amin takes great care not to simply substitute Eurocentrism with an inverted picture of the world that prioritizes the non-European, but to critique Eurocentrism as a form of “culturalism.”

This is to avoid the descent into relativism and parochialism, and to call for a more fully “universal universalism,” just as Kundnani does. For Amin, this is to call for emancipation from the system of global capitalism. To navigate this complex whole, he develops the concept of a “second modernity”: that is, the modernity of Marx and radical democracy, as opposed to the bourgeois version which promised freedom for all, but only allowed it for the few.

This helps to reveal a key point. Racialization itself is a route to de-politicization. The antidote to Eurowhiteness is a political dialectic where differences — of class, of race, of sex — can be debated, discussed, and determined democratically. If, in an important sense, the EU functions exactly as it was meant to, the problem is less Europe’s whiteness than its EU-ness: the combination of ideas and institutions which serves to constrain democracy in an increasingly authoritarian fashion.