Who is really ‘wrecking’ Europe?

The ‘nationalist onslaught’ is a symptom, not a cause of Europe’s crisis.

EU protets
Far-right protesters attempt to dismantle the EU flag mast at European Commission headquarters during a protest against Marrakesh Migration Pact in Brussels on Dec 16, 2018 [Reuters/Francois Lenoir]

“The idea of Europe is in peril.”

So wrote 30 leading intellectuals in the Guardian last week – including an assortment of Nobel laureates and other literary prize winners and a sprinkle of philosophers – as the threat of Brexit and the May European Parliament elections loom on the horizon.

Europe indeed appears to be in bad shape. An Italian-Austrian-Hungarian-Polish axis of xenophobic populism is coalescing in the heart of the continent, Swedish Democrats are threatening to derail what’s left of the quintessential European liberal welfare state in the north, and a powerful far right is tearing apart the centrist German political establishment. To the west, Brexit UK and Trumpian US are a cause of much anxiety, to the east, scheming Russia and an increasingly authoritarian Turkey are a constant source of tension. And from the south, millions of forced migrants are on the move seeking safe haven on European shores.

So who can blame Europe’s most creative writers for worrying deeply about the future of humanity’s most important political experiment since the Russian, if not the French, revolution?

But what precisely is the idea of Europe that is “coming apart before our eyes”? What is the “cause” from which so many are “deserting”, the “national soul” and “lost identity” whose failing conditions the authors believe have fed the “rising, swelling, insistent tide” of illiberal, anti-European sentiments threatening the continent’s future?

What is Europe?

It’s too much to ask a manifesto-like polemic to provide a monograph’s worth of historical analysis. But acknowledging and accounting for Europe’s bastardised, highly problematic history is, in fact, a sine qua non for moving towards the liberal Imaginarium the signatories seek to enable. 

Laying aside the evident elision in the text between Europe and the EU (which isn’t mentioned in the manifesto though it’s clearly the idea more in danger today), even the origin of the word points to a core problem faced by “European patriots” such as the signatories.

Did Europe arise from the idea of “eruba”, the Akkadian/Mesopotamian term for the western horizon or the Phoenician “erub” meaning evening or west? And did the Ancient Greeks adopt it into the myth about Phoenician princess Europa of Sidon (modern-day Lebanon), who was kidnapped by Zeus and brought to Crete? Or did they come up with the word combining “eurus” (broad) and “opt” (eye)?

Although various uses of the word can be found as far back as the Roman Empire and became more common with the Reformation, it was Napoleon who first imagined a politically “United States of Europe” with one overarching identity and set of laws and culture. In the centuries before and after Napoleon’s grand imperial vision, millions would die fighting over precisely who had a legitimate right to define European identity. That definition was never arrived to.

Europe has always had fluid frontiers. On its eastern flank, the Russian and Ottoman Empire were both a core part of the political geography of Europe and its most dangerous “other”. To the south, the Mediterranean Sea was never a wide enough barrier to serve as a definite and impenetrable border that would establish with certainty the identity of the inhabitants on its southern shores. 

By the early 20th century, well over a million poor Europeans wound up in North Africa, with cities like Tunis, Tripoli and Alexandria becoming home to hundreds of thousands of Italians, Greeks, French, Maltese and other migrants from the north. At the same time, both France and Italy offered at some point full citizenship to colonised Algerians and Libyans (“Muslim Italians” as Benito Mussolini would say) in return for supporting continued metropolitan rule. 

From illiberal empires to neoliberal fantasies

Indeed, Europe’s colonial past is also completely absent from the discourse of the manifesto, even though the “idea” of Europe has always been inseparable from the nearly half millennium of inhumanly brutal, massively exploitative and often genocidal imperialism, colonialism and slavery. 

In this context, it’s tellingly ironic that when the Italian deputy prime minister, Luigi di Maio, wanted to blame France for the migrant crisis that has sent untold tens of thousands of Africans towards Italy’s shores, he accused the French government of “taking the lead” in “never stopp[ing] colonising tens of African states” and “impoverishing Africa.” “Africans should be in Africa,” he continued, “not at the bottom of the Mediterranean.” Of course, Italy was no less brutal in its own colonial wars and rule in Africa (nor were any other European colonial powers). 

Ultimately, Europe is both deeply and implicately related (to borrow a sadly underused concept from Israeli geographer Juval Portugali) to its Muslim and African neighbours and could not have become the bastion of liberal and Enlightenment ideals the present manifesto’s signatories rightly strive for without the massive violence perpetrated or supported by European states during the last half millennium.

More to the current point, the financial and broader corporate elites of every EU member state have benefited greatly from the policies of neoliberal “openness”, “export-led-growth” and “foreign investment” imposed on the very countries that currently threaten to flood it with refugees, often with the support of brutal and corrupt authoritarian regimes that enriched themselves mightily in the process. 

None of this is mentioned in the manifesto, even though the policies at the root of the political “wreckage” across Europe today lie in neoliberal policies, which, in fact, have been visited directly upon European populations as well. Indeed, neoliberalism in the Euro-American contexts can be well understood as the application of colonial ideologies and policies to metropolitan populations.

Here it’s not surprising that Dominque Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former head of the IMF, which along with the World Bank helped lay the groundwork for so much of the misery that pushed millions to flee towards Europe from Africa and Western Asia, said, “Europe is not about borders, Europe is an idea.” Were it not for one brave hotel maid in New York, one could imagine Strauss-Kahn proudly adding his name to this document (indeed, one of the primary signatories, Bernard Henri-Levy, publicly defended his friend when news of abuses first became public).

Even without him, it’s clear that IMF/World Bank policies that have devastated Europe’s former colonial hinterlands are, today, increasing precarity and insecurity among large segments of the populations of the European countries under greatest risk of turning against the EU. One doesn’t need to be a Marxist to understand that the present wave of hypernationalism and xenophobia in Europe have economic roots that must be addressed if the imagination of Europe as a space of liberal freedom and prosperity is to stand a chance of being preserved, never mind be achieved in practice. 

Sadly, but not surprisingly, when the signatories of this manifesto talk about the need to “make a clean break” with the conviction that the European idea could defend itself, they seem blind to the direct line leading from the tear gas and beatings of activists at the first great anti-neoliberal protests in Prague at the September 2000 IMF meetings, and the even more extreme violence and killing at the G8 meeting in Genoa the following summer, to the rise of the extreme right today.

If any of the signatories were on the front lines of these conveniently forgotten struggles for a different post-Cold War world and European order, they seem to have forgotten that when it mattered most, European leaders viciously turned on the very people who were struggling to preserve the idea of Europe the signatories endorse.

And so when Salman Rushdie, Bernard Henri-Levy, Leila Slimani, Herta Mueller and the other signers warn that “Europe is being attacked by false prophets,” let’s remember that Tony Blair belongs in the same circle of Dante’s Hell as Victor Orban, that the “wreckers” of their – and most of our – beloved European idea are neoliberals as much as they’re neopopulists or neofascists, and that the “new battle for civilization” in which they’ve asked us to choose sides is, in fact, a battle to create a culture that is far more radical, and will take far more sacrifice than, the liberal order whose demise they so regret.

Europe and the world don’t need “patriots”, they need revolutionaries with the ability to turn words, music, art and knowledge into weapons in the struggle to create a Europe, and a world, whose contours and character most of us, including the signers of the manifesto, have barely begun to outline.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.