In Need of a New Colour Scheme

Eurowhiteness, by Hans Kundnani

The EU bills itself as the cosmopolitan project of our time, proof that nation-states can overcome their differences and become the basis for a civilised order based on shared values.

It's their country, too. Sablon, Brussels.

In practice, as well as when viewed against the background of its historical development, the European Union is different from the universalistic project that its proponents say it is.

Hans Kundnani’s Eurowhiteness presents a longitudinal history of the EU from its prehistory in ideas of Christendom through the various threads of the ideological skein in which it is currently bound up. The narrative skews rather heavily, as one might expect, toward the more modern end of the story.

Kundnani begins by noting the manifold deficiencies in terms of universalism in the Enlightenment thought to which the cosmopolitan ideal refers.

Immanuel Kant, whose essay “Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Purpose” is one of the founding texts of modern cosmopolitanism, is rightly taken to task for racist views about Africans and Native Americans, predominantly expressed in the 1770s.

Kundnani does not attempt to parse, except in a footnote, the complexities of Kant’s intellectual trajectory. Kant seems to have changed his views on race by the 1790s, and his earlier positions are clearly out of plumb with works such as The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.

Eurowhiteness’ take on the Enlightenment in modern thinking is in line with critical views running through the work of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno into broader streams of critical thought. Debates between these views and more affirmative approaches to the Enlightenment are ongoing.

The book’s discussion of Kant forms only a small part of Kundnani’s larger narrative, so it makes sense that he doesn’t want to pursue it into the scholarly weeds. But this leaves hanging his rather problematic assertion that Kant’s philosophy was instrumental in the development of biological racism.

This is a view that has been expressed before, but it seems harsh to blame Kant for tendentious appropriations of his thought arising decades after his death. Hans Kundnani is on firmer ground when he gets to the origins of the European Union.

As much as the bloc is seen as a project with universalist intentions, its origins in the decades after the Second World War had much more to do with European states’ need for a “soft landing after empire”, as Timothy Snyder once put it.

Decolonisation in the first postwar decades compelled the former imperial powers to reconceive their models of economic development as they were progressively cut off from both sources of cheap labour and resources as well as captive markets for their excess production.

The project of building the EU became an excuse for not confronting the brutality of colonialism as much in Germany (which had been stripped of its colonies after the First World War) as in Britain, France, and the Netherlands.

The immediate postwar era saw the floating of ideas like “Eurafrica,” in which West German capital would be used to develop the content and thus to build a third force between the United States and the USSR.

Kundnani notes appositely the French view in the 1950s that Africa would be presented to West Germany in the nature of a dowry as the two countries forged closer relations.

The central issue raised by Eurowhiteness is that the union is more properly viewed as a regional organisation with a pronounced ethno-normative component.

It is in no way coincidental that countries in which right-wing populist movements continually agitate against the immigration of people from Africa and the Middle East have provided succour to considerable numbers of refugees from Ukraine.

This casts the universalistic pretensions of the European Union in a queer light. The readiness of Germany and other EU member states to accommodate displaced people from the former Soviet territory has both to do with their “European” appearance and their notional cultural compatibility.

One can see this dynamic with particular clarity in the handwringing that accompanied the Russian invasion, with pundits lamenting that such things were taking place “even in Europe”.

The underlying premise that violence and brutality were common and expected occurrences in places not graced by European “civilisation” was so obvious as not to require overt expression. Still, the question of borders is complex.

While the southern frontier of the EU is more or less fixed (Albania is currently negotiating accession, Montenegro is on hold,) Morocco, parts of which are occupied by Spain, was refused membership because it isn’t Europe, and Turkey, which is half in Europe, has been trying to join since 1987.

Matters to the east are another question. While Central and Eastern Europe have mostly been brought into the fold, their integration has not been smooth, and the accession of countries directly in the orbit of Putin’s Russia, such as Georgia and Ukraine, has been a lot more problematic.

Kyiv’s candidacy, which was formalised in June 2022, has little to do with its congruency with European norms (though it must assimilate them to accede) and everything to do with its desire to escape Russia. From its oligarch-heavy governing classes to its pro-democracy movement, the push has been complex.

Eurowhiteness has an important point to make: it behoves the European Union to be honest about what it is and what it has become.

For its intellectual boosters, such as Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, who see it as the leading edge of a cosmopolitan ideal, it’s important to remember that the EU is also a technocratic, regional bloc and a developing democracy that has serious work to do to become more representative and accountable.

The European Union is not meant to be universal. The clue is in the name. The problem with its universalism is the problem of Enlightenment universalism more generally. It can only work by effacing the values of those viewed as others – minorities and refugees, for example. And there are always others.

If the point of the exercise were merely to uplift the human condition, that would be one thing. But the reality is that the EU exists to function as a pressure group for a collection of states often unwilling to examine the history of how they and their institutions came together.

To imagine newer member states like Hungary or Poland’s former PiS government doing this is, of course, impossible. The same goes for the bloc’s founding members in their failing approaches to issues like racism and immigration. France, Germany or Italy, anybody? The situation begs for an EU 2.0.

Can the European Union become more and better than it is? Perhaps, but if it is to do so, it will have to embrace the process of working through the past more and find a practical purpose beyond prioritising the interests of Paris and Berlin, who exercise far too much institutional power.

Most importantly, the EU will need to abandon its default centrism.

As it stands, the European Commission is unable to confront the threat posed by right-wing populism, all too often adopting its language and concerns while attempting to stave off its consequences by, for example, withholding funds to Budapest. We need ideological solutions, not bandages.

That means tacking left. Inequality and discrimination are universals, after all.

I can’t think of a better argument than the ‘remigration’ policy planned by Germany’s second-most popular party, Alternative für Deutschland. That’s what’s coming. Cosying up to Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni will only make things more white.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.