The ins and outs of the European project

  • Themes: Geopolitics

A fresh, exciting but flawed analysis of the EU’s civilisational mission.

The EU flag.
The EU flag. Credit: BuzzB / Alamy Stock Photo

Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project, Hans Kundnani, Hurst, £14.99

In 1975, in the throes of Britain’s first referendum on the Question of Europe, the Labour MP Barbara Castle spoke passionately at the Oxford Union for the cause that came to be known much later as ‘Brexit’. Her opponents in that debate, Ted Heath and Jeremy Thorpe, liked to present membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) as a token of outward-facing internationalism. But ‘what kind of internationalism is it’, Castle asked, ‘that says that henceforth this country must give priority to a Frenchman over an Indian, a German over an Australian, an Italian over a Malaysian?’ Her side lost the debate and, two days later, the referendum.

Castle’s strain of Euroscepticism can seem strange to modern ears. In the last half-century there has been, to use the technical term, a ‘vibe shift’. By the time 2016 rolled around, most people, on both sides, fundamentally bought into the European Union’s self-image of high-minded cosmopolitanism; the debate turned simply on whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. All this intensified in the years following the referendum. Some Remainers, who had originally voted more with their heads than with their hearts, came to adopt a ‘European identity’, rooted in a set of liberal values, which they believed the EU embodied. Castle’s critique of the European project, on its own self-flattering terms, thus appears to have fallen by the wayside. Yet it retains much of its potency, and, if revived, might give some ‘pro-Europeans’ serious cause for introspection.

Hans Kundnani has made the most effective attempt at such a revival to date. He is in prime position to pull off such a feat. His time working at the heart of the EU’s myth-making machine, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), disabused him of his juvenile ‘pro-Europeanism’. In Eurowhiteness he launches his attack on his erstwhile comrades, the ‘pro-Europeans’, with the zeal not just of a convert, but an apostate.

His attack is two-pronged. At the heart of his argument is the concept of ‘regionalism’. ‘Pro-Europeans’ like to imagine that they rise above ‘nationalism’, but in fact, as Kundnani shows, their attachment to the EU is, in many respects, analogous to nationalism. When France and Germany imposed restrictions on the export of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the early phase of the pandemic, for example, this was widely denounced by ‘pro-Europeans’ as ‘dangerous nationalism’. But when these policies were mimicked at the supranational level – when the EU itself restricted the export of PPE beyond its borders – this was heralded as a triumph of European cooperation. Few gave serious thought to the implications of this discrepancy. When the EU behaves as a sovereign state, it can be as jealous, protectionist, and cruel as any other – and is hardly the sort of state that ‘pro-Europeans’ would typically profess to like.

Indeed, as Kundnani illustrates in the most interesting part of his book, a type of ‘regionalism’ exhibiting the ugliest characteristics of nationalism was ingrained in the pan- and pro-European ideology from its very genesis. Much like many modern British pro-Europeans, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset saw nationalism as ‘nothing but a mania’. Yet one of his reasons for opposing nationalism was that it prevented Europe from heeding its higher calling to ‘rule the world on behalf of humanity’ as one. Likewise, Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, the Austro-Japanese philosopher and politician, who was the first recipient of the Charlemagne Prize ‘for work done in the service of European unification’, hoped that, once rid of petty nationalist rivalries, Europe would be able more effectively to ‘bring light’ to Africa, ‘this darkest of continents’.

This brings us to the second prong of Kundnani’s attack, emblazoned on the book’s cover. The term ‘Eurowhiteness’ comes from a 2021 essay by the Hungarian sociologist József Böröcz, which I waded through despite my severe allergy to phrases like ‘perspectives of postcolonial global historical sociologies’. Böröcz adduces a disparate array of evidence – an exhibit he saw at a museum in Paris in the 1990s; some illustrations from the German magazine Focus; a map from a French geography textbook which he found on Twitter and which he misdates – to support his hypothesis that there exists a ‘world model’ by which western Europeans have placed themselves at the head of a racial hierarchy, and asserted themselves as the quintessence of ‘whiteness’. In this model, eastern Europeans are not fully white but ‘dirty white’; part of the EU’s raison d’être, to continue Böröcz’s metaphor, is to ‘clean them up’.

This does not strike me as a sturdy foundation for Kundnani’s analysis, and consequently the weakest parts of his book (unfortunately, given its title) are those that criticise the EU through the prism of ‘Eurowhiteness’. The concept straitjackets arguments like Castle’s. The EU is a club of predominantly white countries, and so policies such as the freedom of movement do, in a sense, privilege ‘whiteness’. But the club also excludes people from majority-white non-European countries, like the US and the former dominions (Castle made a point of mentioning Australia in her Oxford Union speech): ‘whiteness’ here does not seem to be the most relevant factor.

Nor do I think ‘Eurowhiteness’ is the key to understanding why the EU has a ‘soft east’ and a ‘hard south’ – why it was possible for the EU to expand eastwards after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but impossible for it to expand beyond the Mediterranean. Morocco applied to join the EEC in 1987 and was rejected out of hand on the grounds that it was not a ‘European state’. Kundnani points out that Algeria had once been part of the EEC, and therefore suggests that the exclusion of Morocco was arbitrary, and perhaps even grounded in racism. But Algeria was in the EEC as part of France; once it had ceased to be a part of France, it became the first country to ‘exit’. There is no hypocrisy here: the notion that Morocco is not a ‘European state’, even in the tenuous sense that Algeria was when it was part of France, is as much a factual, geographic claim as it is a racial one.

‘There was never any question’, Kundnani declares, ‘of North African or Middle Eastern countries joining the EU, however aligned they were with the EU’s values’. Of course this has something to do with the conception of ‘European civilisation’, which in turn has something to do with race. Much more pressingly, however, there are, by any metric, no North African or Middle Eastern countries that presently ‘align with the EU’s values’ anyway. To return to the example of Morocco, it is right and good that its application was rejected in 1987: not only because Morocco is not a ‘European state’ (however reasonable or unreasonable this may be), but also because Morocco in 1987 was an oppressive monarchy, still mired in its ‘Years of Lead’ and its war in the Western Sahara. There are likewise many unprejudiced reasons for liberal pro-Europeans to be relieved that Erdogan’s Turkey still hasn’t been brought into the fold – even though it has now enjoyed ‘candidate status’ for almost 25 years.

The title of Kundnani’s book thus encapsulates its central problem: fusing together the two distinct concepts of ‘Europeanness’ and ‘whiteness’ into a single portmanteau. Because he sees ‘whiteness’ lurking beneath the surface of all ‘pro-European’ discourse, he can be rather uncharitable to his interlocutors. In a 2021 New Statesman article, out of which the present book emerged, he drew a parallel between his former colleagues at the ECFR and adherents of Renaud Camus’s ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory: ‘when [they] say that the EU must become more strategic or “sovereign” or talk about “European power”, I hear the analogous idea that, unless Europeans unite and assert themselves, they will be replaced by other (non-white) powers’. If racial anxieties are at play here, their role is very minor indeed. It is in the EU’s interests to pursue a ‘strategic’ foreign policy and stake out an advantageous place in the world; and anyway, when the EU talks about ‘sovereignty’, they are often obliquely referring to America. There are likewise plenty of good, non-racist reasons for EU countries to fear the rise of China on the global stage, and to act in concert accordingly. I am therefore dubious that Kundnani’s colleagues at the ECFR were making arguments about the EU’s foreign policy that were, in any meaningful sense, ‘analogous’ to racism and white supremacy.

Fortunately this formulation doesn’t appear in the book itself, but there, too, Kundnani makes some unfair claims, springing from his emphasis on ‘Eurowhiteness’. It is true that many ‘pro-Europeans’ would be ‘horrified at the suggestion that their idea of Europe had anything to do with whiteness’ – just as they would be horrified at Kundnani’s more compelling suggestion that they are motivated by a certain ‘regionalism’. But these ‘pro-Europeans’ needn’t, in my view, be too exercised by the fact that the EU’s Enlightenment values are ‘not… unrelated to the history of European colonialism, from which the idea of whiteness emerged’.

The debate over Europe often plays out on autopilot: it is all too easy to go through the motions with stale old arguments, mindlessly intoned by the usual suspects, without questioning the premises that undergird them. Fresh and exciting perspectives like Kundnani’s are hard to come by: his final chapter, picking apart the relationship between Brexit and ‘imperial nostalgia’, is particularly welcome. For a certain type of sentimental ‘pro-European’, who waves the EU flag at the Proms, sings Ode to Joy in the shower, and still dreams about Baroness Hale’s spider brooch, Eurowhiteness will be important and challenging reading. But for this rather more hard-nosed Remainer reviewer, the less careful of Kundnani’s punches had the curious effect of provoking some defensive sympathy for the European project.


Samuel Rubinstein