What is “Eurowhiteness”? How do EU member states deal with their colonial pasts? How does the far right function in the EU? What is the structure of power within the EU? How was Brexit racially structured?
Hans Kundnani speaks about his recent publication – Eurowhiteness: Culture Empire and Race in the European Project – with RevDem editor Kasia Krzyżanowska.
Hans Kundnani is an Open Society Foundations Ideas Workshop fellow and an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, where he previously directed the Europe programme. He also teaches at the Collège d’Europe in Natolin, Poland. He tweets @hanskundnani.
Kasia Krzyżanowska: In your book you try to conceive of Europe as a regional project rather than the cosmopolitan one. You argue that regionalism is analogous to nationalism, but on a larger, continental scale – just as the nation state is an expression of nationalism, so the EU is an expression of nationalism. In your opinion, what does this reconceptualization change in our outlook on the EU? Why do you think it is high time to abandon cosmopolitan thinking about the EU?
Hans Kundnani: In a way it’s quite a simple idea. The reason that I propose this different way of thinking about Europe and the EU is precisely because it has always seemed a bit odd to me that we think of Europe in the way we do, which often is this idea that it’s an expression of cosmopolitanism. In particular, Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck wrote about this idea of a cosmopolitan Europe, but it’s a more widely shared idea amongst pro-Europeans that somehow the EU is an expression of cosmopolitanism.
That always seemed a bit odd to me for the very simple reason that Europe is not the world. There are different ways of thinking about what cosmopolitanism is, but to me it has to involve something to do with the whole world as opposed to a particular region of the world. It’s clearly true that the EU has had policies towards the rest of the world in the same way that nation states have foreign policies.
But the EU was never a global project at all. It was always a regional project.
To me, it seemed almost obvious to say, well, this is actually quite like nationalism. The project of building Europe is a lot like the nation building project. It’s just that it’s on a larger, continental scale. The idea that it’s the opposite of nationalism — which is often the implication of the idea of the EU standing for cosmopolitanism — has always seemed to me to be wrong.
As well as a tendency to conflate Europe and the world, I think that it also leads to an idealization of the European project. So, for example, when the EU removes barriers within Europe, there’s this sense that this must be good for the whole world, whereas actually it’s debatable whether it’s good for the rest of the world. Thinking of it in terms of an expression of regionalism enables us to distinguish more clearly between Europe and the rest of the world – and between what’s good for Europe and what’s good for the rest of the world.
There are also a couple of other reasons why I think it’s helpful to think of the EU as an expression of regionalism. In particular, I think it allows us to see more clearly of different elements of the European project. What I do in the book is take one of the most common ways of distinguishing different kinds of nationalism — between a civic nationalism on the one hand, and an ethnic-cultural nationalism on the other hand. This is a distinction that goes back to a book written by Hans Kohn in 1944. I try to suggest that you can apply that distinction to the idea of Europe and to the European project as well. If you look at the history of the ideas of Europe and the history of the European project in the post-war period, it’s had both of these elements: a civic element and an ethnic-cultural element.
The final piece of my argument is to say that in the last 10 years or so the ethnic-cultural components of European identity, rather than getting weaker – which is what one would hope or expect – may actually be getting stronger, for some complex reasons.
That analogy with nationalism just opens up a whole set of ways of thinking about European regionalism. We can apply all the resources there that we have from the study of nationalism to European identity and to the EU, which I just think helps us think in a much clearer and granular way about European identity and the European project.
A recurring figure in your book is a group of “pro-Europeans” that you put in inverted comas. Who are they and what are their intellectual inspirations? How has their inner circle developed since the establishment of the European Communities?
It’s not a particularly mysterious concept – and I haven’t invented it either. I use the term “pro-Europeans” roughly to describe people who think of themselves as being pro-European. In that sense, it’s a self-description rather than a description I’m attributing to people. Nobody is a pro-European in my book who doesn’t think of themselves as being a pro-European. This is a term that pro-Europeans themselves use — at least that’s my experience over the last 15 years working in the European policy world and also from reading about the history of the EU.
I put the term it in inverted commas because I think “pro-Europeans” make a claim to speak on behalf of Europe and tend to conflate Europe and the EU – and I think one has to slightly distance oneself from this. What I think they mean by the term is somebody who supports European integration or the European project.
Now, where I think this gets a little bit complicated is that the European project or European integration is a process. So it means slightly different things at certain times depending on how far the European project has gone. But nevertheless, if you step back a little bit from that, I think it’s a relatively unproblematic term to use for people who support the idea of an ever-closer union. That would be one other way of putting it.
I accept that it’s quite a broad term, but I don’t think it’s any broader than most of the other terms that we have in our political discourse. If I talk about nationalists or conservatives or socialists, these are all groups that have lots of internal heterogeneity too. I’m not denying there’s some heterogeneity among pro-Europeans, but I think it does make sense as a meaningful group of people. It’s roughly those people in the history of the European project who have supported further European integration. In that sense, I think it’s a relatively unproblematic term.
Do you think that their existence is detrimental to the EU project or rather boosts it?
That’s very debatable depending on essentially where you stand on the spectrum from “pro-Europeans” at one end to Eurosceptics on the other. If you’re a Eurosceptic, you’ll tend to think this has been bad for Europe. If you’re pro-European, you think it’s been good. I think what we can say quite clearly is that without them there would have been no European integration. They are the people who have driven European integration.
Do you see any changes within the group as the European integration project has developed?
Yes. That’s part of what I try to describe in the book – how the views of the people at any given time who you would call pro-Europeans have changed. There are multiple ways in which you could describe those changes.
For me, one of the most significant ones is in the last 10 years or so: the emergence of the discourse around European sovereignty. If you went back to the nineties or even 2000s, pro-Europeans at that time – and here you can even look at individuals who have changed their positions on these questions – would never have talked about European sovereignty and they wouldn’t have believed in sovereignty at all as a concept. They would have seen it as being anachronistic. In fact, they would associate it with Eurosceptics.
I don’t just mean national sovereignty, which they still would identify with Eurosceptics, but the concept of sovereignty in general. At that time, many pro-Europeans thought of what the EU was doing was overcoming sovereignty in general, not just national sovereignty. The idea of European sovereignty would have struck quite a lot of pro-Europeans at that time as being almost a contradiction in terms, which I think does tell you something about the evolution of the pro-European discourse.
You also mention the concept of defensive civilizationalism that you ascribe to the group of pro-Europeans. Could you elaborate on this concept?
I will start with civilizationalism. Again, there’s an analogy here with nationalism.
If we look at the far right in Europe, to some extent they’re nationalists and they speak on behalf of the nation. Take Viktor Orbán — he sometimes he speaks on behalf of Hungary as a nation. But often he – and other far right leaders in Europe – will also speak on behalf of Europe as a civilization.
So it’s not just that they speak of behalf the nation against Europe. I think we had a tendency to think of the far right in Europe in that way, but it’s a little bit simplistic. They speak on behalf of Europe too; they just believe in a different kind of Europe than some other people do. Part of the story I try to tell in the book is how that thinking around European civilization—to link it to the earlier point about regionalism—is an ethnic-cultural version of regionalism as opposed to civic one. That’s how I think about civilizationalism: it begins with the European far right, but it’s been creeping more and more into center-right discourse about Europe and its role in the world as well.
In other words, when I talk about the civilizational turn in the European project, it’s not just the far right that’s driving it. It is also center-right figures and parties who are increasingly speaking about European civilization. One example of that is the new European Commissioner for Promoting the European Way of Life; that job has existed since 2019 when Ursula von der Leyen became European Commission president. And that I think is a very good example of how this kind of civilizational thinking has been creeping into the European project.
I call it defensive civilizationism because there’s a much longer history of civilizational thinking in Europe that goes back to the medieval period. But during some of those earlier periods in European history, it was what one might call an offensive civilizationalism in the sense that it was about Europe trying to spread its civilization through the world. If you think about the crusades or even the colonial period, you would think of that as being an offensive moment in which Europe was spreading outwards.
What I think we have roughly since 2010 is a much more defensive moment in the EU and in pro-European thinking where the EU is on the defensive. The reason I date it around 2010 is because that’s when the euro crisis began and you had this series of crises that hit Europe and the EU quite hard and led to this more defensive project. In the two decades before then, after the end of the Cold War until 2010, the EU had again been in this an expansive mode. It had quite an optimistic vision about transforming the world in the image of the EU. This was the period of enlargement, and so on.
That optimistic, expansive or offensive moment roughly comes to an end in 2010 and the EU goes into a much more defensive mode. From around the time of the refugee crisis onwards, there is an increasing sense that the Europe is threatened by the outside. Especially since the refugee crisis in 2015, these threats have been seen in civilizational terms – and that’s what I call defensive civilizationalsm.
What does the title of your book— Eurowhiteness — mean? You mention in this context József Böröcz, who used this concept to denote an “internal structuring of the category of whiteness.” How much did the idea of Eurowhiteness played a role in rejecting Morocco’s application to the EC in 1987 or keeping Turkey in the accession limbo? Is it a useful concept in today’s internal and foreign politics of the EU?
To explain, I need to take a little bit of a step back again. I already mentioned the medieval period when Europe essentially meant Christendom and what it meant to be European was roughly to be Christian. That’s the medieval version of European identity. What then happens in the modern period is that you get a new, much more complex idea of European identity — what Europe is, what Europe stands for — which is partly connected to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution and above all, the idea of rationality. But it’s also very closely connected to the emergence of the concept of whiteness. It happens in the same context, which is the European encounter with the populations of Africa, Asia, and, in particular, the Americas.
It is kind of obvious when you think about it that there is a connection between Europe and whiteness. I think this is probably more obvious to people outside of Europe than it is to people within Europe. But if you think now about the common sense way in which the term “white” is used in the United States or wherever – as an adjective it basically means people of European origin, right? But although there an obvious connection between Europe and whiteness, it’s not something we really talk about very much.
In particular, we don’t talk about it when we talk about the European Union. Whiteness is somehow seen as being completely irrelevant to post-war European identity that emerged around the European Union. And so really, for me, the phrase Eurowhiteness was a way of capturing that kind of connection between Europe and whiteness, and particularly to capture the idea of a version of European identity centered on the EU in the post-WWII period – to be more precise, an ethnic-cultural version of that European identity.
So, when I talk about Eurowhiteness, I don’t mean the civic version of European identity centered on the social market economy and the welfare state. That’s not Eurowhiteness. What I’m absolutely not saying is that any European identity is an ethnic-cultural one or that Eurowhiteness can be used to describe any European identity.
It’s specifically this ethnic-cultural idea of European identity, centered on the EU, that I think we can call Eurowhiteness. That differs slightly from the way that József Böröcz uses the term as you mentioned. He’s using it specifically in relation to the internal hierarchy within this broad category of whiteness.
What do you think about “Eurowhiteness” as a concept used in “othering” in discussions about the accession countries? For example, how useful it is in the context of the debates about the Balkans, Turkey, or Ukraine?
When you look at any of these countries outside Western Europe, even to some extent Southern European countries, there are two sides to the story. One is that
there’s clearly a way in which the EU – which begins obviously as a western European project with the original Six, although Italy is a southern European country – tend to look down on some of these other European countries, whether it’s Central and Eastern European countries, or other Southern European countries, or Western Balkan countries or Turkey.
They see them as being essentially in need of civilization. The EU itself plays this role — which I think you have to look at in the context of the longer history of the idea of a European civilizing mission. It’s a kind of postmodern version of that civilizing mission. The EU and in particular Western Europeans have tended to look down on those peripheral countries. There is the idea that they’re not fully European. But here’s the crucial thing: they can become European if they are civilized.
I think this is a very is a very different case from countries in North Africa like Morocco. Morocco applied to join the EC in 1987 and was just told flatly that it couldn’t because it’s not a European country. So however much it did the structural reform that accession countries are required to do, however much it signed up to European values, it could simply never have become a European country in the sense of an EU member state.
But as I say, nevertheless, there is a way in which even for those Central and Eastern European countries, Western Europe embodied by the EU tends to look down on them a little.
It gets quite tricky to discuss this, but I think the flip side of that – and this is part of what József Böröcz is referring to in the way that he uses the concept of Eurowhiteness – is there’s a certain way in which by becoming members of the EU, those countries are in a sense becoming fully white from a position where they were partially white.
I think one very interesting illustration of this is the phrase “return to Europe” that was used in the context of the accession of Central Eastern European countries to the EU in the in the 2000s. This was a phrase that was used by the accession countries themselves. But if you think about that phrase and you interrogate it a little bit, it’s really interesting — one has to ask: in what sense was a country like Poland returning to Europe? If Europe here just means the EU, then Poland wasn’t returning to it because it had never been a member of it.. The EU didn’t even exist before World War Two. So I think that the question then becomes: what Europe was it that Polish people, or Czechs or whoever, thought they were returning to? I think it becomes quite difficult to conclude that this wasn’t at least partially a kind of ethnic-cultural idea of Europe that they were part of, but not fully – and that by joining the EU they are fully rejoining that idea of Europe understood in ethnic-cultural terms.
Perhaps the concept of ethnic whiteness might be helpful to understand the outrage that was spurred after the annunciation of the concept of two-speed Europe proposed some years ago by Macron and how it was received in Central and Eastern Europe.
Yes, and that again gets to this sense of insecurity, right? The idea of being second-class Europeans — that’s very much how József Böröcz uses the term Eurowhiteness. But, as I say, I think it’s important to emphasize the other side of it as well. Because if people in Poland worry about being second-class Europeans, the flip side of that is that by becoming first-class Europeans, they’re clearly trying to differentiate themselves from people who are not Europeans at all.
Brexit is particularly interesting here. You argue that a third of non-white British people voted Leave, and rejected the EU because they perceived it as a “white fortress”’ that mistreats migrants and over-regulates religious norms. In the perspective of many British ethnic minorities, continental Europe is more racist than the UK. You discuss some British debates dating back to the pre-accession period, when some politicians expressed views that it was the left that identified with the Commonwealth (naming it a “remarkable multi-racial association”). In this regard, what is your non-populist reading of Brexit?
First of all, I’m not sure whether it’s a non-populist reading or not. It’s interesting, because I talk a little bit about populism in the book, but just in passing – and I think I have a very different take on populism than a lot of people do. We tend to think about this in a very simplistic way. Often populism can be a corrective for democracy as well as a threat. I think it’s important to recognize that ambivalence instead of just seeing populism as being a bad thing. Frankly, populism often reveals the mistakes that centrists have made. That’s precisely how we ought to understand populism in Europe today. So, I wouldn’t take it as an insult if you did see this as being populist.
But what I was trying to do in that chapter around Brexit was really to just give us a slightly different interpretation of Brexit, especially in terms of how we think about Brexit in relation to questions around race and empire. There was a tendency both in Britain itself and in the rest of the world to see Brexit as an expression of white anger in an analogous way to the election of Donald Trump. I always thought that missed some important aspects of what was going on in Britain, in particular the way that non-white Brits viewed Europe.
If you look at the raw numbers in the Brexit referendum, non-white Brits voted to remain or leave in the EU roughly in the same numbers as white Brits. There’s not a huge difference, but if anything, non-white Brits tended to vote remain more than white Brits did, though the turnout was much lower.
But if it’s the case that Brexit was an expression of white anger, which is how a lot of people see it, then it’s surprising that even a third of Black and Asian Brits would vote to leave.
It doesn’t really add up. It’s a much higher number than the number of non-white Americans say who vote voted for Trump. So I think you have to think about this a little bit more carefully.
When you look at the history of immigration from the Commonwealth to Britain from 1948 roughly onwards to the very early 1970s, and then the development of freedom of movement once Britain had joined the European Union, the story starts to look a little bit different than it is usually seen.
You have this period in for 20 or 30 years after World War Two. where is mass immigration to Britain, but it’s coming mainly from the Commonwealth, in particular from the Caribbean and from the Indian subcontinent – and this really transforms Britain into a multicultural society in the post-war period. But this comes to an end in a way that’s connected to British membership in the European Community.
Having basically become a multicultural society, based in particular on immigration from Britain’s former colonies, Britain almost brings that to an end in the 1970s and then tries to reimagine itself as a European country, as being part of this “European community”.
Immigration of non-white people becomes harder and harder – and immigration of Europeans from within the European Union becomes much easier. You can see it even in specific parts of London that I’ve lived in — there used to be communities where you had lots of people from Commonwealth countries, but those people have disappeared and European migrants have replaced them. That is part of why some people from these non-white communities in Britain will look at freedom of movement – this played into the Brexit referendum in 2017 – and they’ll say, this feels like discrimination against us, because historically, we could all come to Britain automatically. We weren’t even immigrants, we were citizens – and now anybody from a country like Bulgaria can come to Britain tomorrow, but I can’t bring my own family members here.
So, there’s this perception, rightly or wrongly, that freedom of movement discriminates against those communities, which I think is part of the reason why a third of Black and Asian Brits vote to leave.
You touch upon the topic that is only now slowly being excavated by the researchers: the colonial origins of the European integration project (with an example of a recent book by Megan Brown). You state that post-1945 Europe did not clearly break with the colonial past. Some founding states fought colonial wars back then, even the Treaty of Rome included some colonies as “associated territories”. The rejection of colonialism has never become a foundational moral norm for the EU. You even write that “the emerging official narrative of the EU was based on the internal lessons of European history, i.e., what Europeans had done to each other, but not the external lessons, i.e., what Europeans had done to rest of world—in particular colonialism.” What do these colonial origins mean for the today’s EU? How should the EU member states approach their colonial past?
As you say, lots of other scholars have done really important work excavating the colonial origins of the European Union and the way that, at the beginning, part of the point of European integration was to consolidate Belgian and French colonies in Central and West Africa at a time when they could no longer maintain them on their own. Over the last 10 years, there’s been lots of really good scholarship on this.
What I’ve been struck by is that this scholarship hasn’t really penetrated much into the European policy world that I was part of the last of 10-15 years. A lot of people simply don’t know about this history and they haven’t heard of some of these key texts like Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson’s book, Eurafrica, which I think is probably the definitive account of this history. Part of what I was trying to do in the book was to make people more aware of it, because I think it does change the way that you think about the European project in general – and in particular the idealization of the European project as a “peace project”.
It’s also important because there is tendency to think about European colonialism as a problem of the member states – countries like France have a colonial history, but the EU has nothing to do with that.
If you actually go back and look at this history, you realize the EU is itself implicated in it. I think it changes the way you think about the responsibility for it. It’s not just the responsibility of member states like France, it’s a responsibility of the EU.
That in turn has some huge implications in terms of some of the countries that have joined the European project that may not have themselves had colonial histories.
I think part of what it means for Poland, for example, to join the European Union is to assume a certain kind of responsibility, a shared responsibility, for that European colonial history, even if Poland as a state wasn’t involved in that.
(Obviously, Polish individuals were involved in colonialism in all kinds of ways, but the Polish state wasn’t in quite the same way that France, Britain, or other Western European countries were.)
Then there are huge implications for all kinds of policy areas. I guess the most important one would be migration. The EU is essentially building a wall around itself, particularly on the southern border. Part of the implicit justification for that is that it doesn’t feel that it owes Africa anything in particular.
But I think if you think for a little bit about the history of European colonialism and then about the role that the EU has played in that, it changes the way you think about that responsibility, and then about those policies as well.
Would you state that the EU should treat the decolonization as a common struggle alongside with the defense of the rule of law?
I suppose so. I mean, they’re different categories of things, aren’t they? The history of European colonialism is a historical fact about the EU. I’m slightly critical of the way in which the EU says the rule of law is a European value that we must defend. But that’s maybe a separate discussion.
I’d like to add something on what you said about the internal and external lessons of European history because this is a key part of my argument in the book. I try to show the way that the Holocaust increasingly becomes a central collective memory for the EU. That’s partly because the Holocaust fits very neatly into the narrative which goes back to the Schuman plan in 1950 and the peace project: the EU brings to an end centuries conflict within Europe, particularly between France and Germany, that culminates in World War One and World War Two. The Holocaust fits very neatly into that, not least because the Holocaust itself takes place in the context of World War Two.
This becomes a really central way in which the EU imagines itself and its achievements.
But despite these colonial origins of the EU and the way that the EU is implicated in the history of European colonialism, it never becomes a central element of the narrative of the EU in the same kind of way as the Holocaust does.
European leaders will routinely say that part of the point of the EU is to prevent these conflicts within Europe and to prevent a repeat of the Holocaust and so on. But there’s never anything analogous in the way that European leaders talk about the history of European colonialism, that somehow the European project was based on learning the lessons of European colonialism or that part of the point of that is to prevent a continuation or a repeat of European colonialism.
I think part of the reason for that is that if you actually look at the history in the way that I try to do the book,
you start to realize that European integration is actually completely compatible with European colonialism.
Actually, part of the original thinking around European integration was as a way to hold on to the remaining European colonial possessions. So in a way I think it’s right that European leaders don’t claim that the European project was based on learning lessons from European colonialism – because it wasn’t. It never has been.
You mentioned the centrality of the Holocaust in the narrative of the European project. You also talk in your book about The Declaration of European Identity from the 1970s that was an early expression of the values of the Communities of that time. But do you think that the values have changed since then or that the countries had to somehow align to the set of values that was already established? Sometimes Central and Eastern countries find it hard to put anti-communist or anti-Russian sentiments into the EU policy guidelines. This different approach is quite visible in governing the past through legal means, as conducted by the ECHR.
If you go back to the early Cold War period – when the European integration project begins – to a large extent the EU is from the beginning is an anti-communist project. I think you have to emphasize that.
It’s a Christian Democrat project in the 1950s, but very much in the context of the Cold War. At that time, pro-Europeans, particularly Christian Democrats, think in both civilizational and the ideological terms.
Take Konrad Adenauer: he talks partly about Christian civilization and partly about communism. Their idea of the EC is as a kind of Christian anti-communist bulwark. I think it’s important to emphasize that this anti-Communist element was there from the beginning – it doesn’t suddenly appear with the accession of central and eastern European countries in the 2000s. It’s always been quite a strong element.
Then, as the project develops from the 1960s onwards, the Christian elements probably become a little bit less visible. In the post-Cold War period, the anti-communist elements probably become a little bit less visible too with the end of the Soviet Union. Both of those things have come back now. The anti-communist sentiments have come back in a slightly different form because there’s this complicated mixture of continuity and change between the Soviet Union and present-day Russia. So, you do see some of those old tropes from the Cold War period being used against Russia now, even though it’s no longer a communist country. You get this complicated mixture of the two.
The idea of European values is elastic. It can mean really whatever you want it to mean. Especially once you reduce these values to a level of generality—democracy, freedom, human rights – they can mean so many different things. I haven’t looked at this in a systematic way, but I think it probably is true that the values that European leaders choose to emphasize do change over time.
For example, one of the things I’m very struck by is how, since the war in Ukraine began, European leaders talk about territorial integrity as being a European value, which they never used to do.
The EU itself was in the business of blurring boundaries, which takes us back to the discussion we had earlier about sovereignty. The way that this discourse around European values works is that politicians just pick whichever concepts are useful at that particular time and then claim them to be European values.
There’s also a tendency for Europeans to think that they own all these concepts, that they invented all of them. Often they’re completely ignorant about the parallel histories of these concepts outside of the West – whether it’s democracy or cosmopolitanism or any of these ideas. For example, these concepts exist in Indian intellectual history too. So, in that sense, I think they are universal values. The problem in the way that they’re used by pro-Europeans is to think that they’re European concepts that are also universal. By the way, this is also where the idea of a civilizing mission comes from — we have these values, but they’re also universal. It’s then one step away from thinking that we have to impose these values on the rest of the world.
You observe a silent convergence between the center right and the far right that has occurred in the last decade. You write that because of this process, the EU became more neoliberal in economic terms (competitive Europe, proposed by Merkel) and more protectionist in cultural terms (Christian Europe, put forward by Orbán). In your opinion, what does the rise of the far-right mean for the internal dynamics of the EU and the attempt to do away with the unanimity voting in the Council? What this trend would mean for the EU foreign policy?
In the part of the book that you were alluding to, I described what I think was happening in the 2010s within the EU.
Essentially, I describe it as a battle between these three different visions for the EU. You have the Merkel vision, which is this neoliberal competitive EU.You have the Emmanuel Macron vision, which is ‘l’Europe qui protège’ — Europe that protects. Then you have the Viktor Orbán idea of this Christian Europe of sovereign states.
There was this complex battle, or negotiation, between these three visions. To put it very reductively, the way I think of Macron is as the last desperate attempt to try to make the French idea of a social Europe, which went all the way back to Delors and Mitterand, a reality, and basically Merkel just ignores him. The original version of this idea of ‘l’Europe qui protège’ just disappears.
Then you get this compromise between Merkel and Orbán. It’s worth emphasizing that until 2001 they were political allies, because they were both in the European People’s Party. To come back to this concept of populism, this is partly why find the concept really unhelpful and misleading. We think of Merkel as a centrist and Orbán as a populist, or Merkel as this figurehead of liberalism and Orbán as this figurehead of illiberalism – in other words, we think of them political opposites.
There’s a little bit of truth to that, particularly when you look at the very specific issue around migration that they were arguing about at the time of the refugee crisis.
But if you take a broader look at Merkel and Orbán, you realize that they actually are aligned on many questions, particularly economic policy questions.
To take it a step further, if you look at the relationship between the German CDU and Fidesz, mediated by the CSU, the Bavarian Christian Democrats, and at the role that the automobile industry plays in terms of that relationship, you realize this is a much tighter relationship than a lot of the media coverage would have you believe.
My argument is essentially that, in economic terms, Orbán and Merkel are very much aligned. It was really only on this rather narrow question of the secondary movement of asylum seekers within Europe that they were opposed. By the way, they were also aligned in terms of migration policy in a wider sense because they both agreed that they wanted to keep migrants out. The only thing they really disagreed about was what do you do with all these migrants who want to go to Germany, and whether you should redistribute them around the rest of the EU – that’s really the only thing that they disagreed about.
So you get a compromise between Merkel and Orbán which produces an EU that is neoliberal in economic terms and protective in cultural terms. That cultural protection is Orbán’s contribution. He famously said that he won those arguments and I think he’s right. The views that he was arguing for in 2015-16, they have become the mainstream, at least on the center right.
Then finally, just to close the circle on Macron: he reinvents the idea of ‘l’Europe qui protège’, but not so much in terms of economic protection from the market, but in terms of cultural protection – again, from immigration and Islam or, as he would put it, Islamism. He ends up fitting in to the compromise between Merkel and Orbán. That’s roughly the direction that the EU is going in now.
I guess the figure who really embodies this more than anyone else is Giorgia Meloni. I don’t talk about Giorgia Meloni very much in the book because she was elected as I’d almost finished the book, but I think
Meloni really embodies this way in which the center right and the far right have now converged around these issues on identity, immigration, and Islam.
Orbán had, and still has, a quite fractious relationship that had with the EU even though, as I mentioned, he was in the European People’s Party with Merkel. But Meloni’s relationship with the EU is very harmonious. That’s partly a function of Meloni having moderated her Euroscepticism. But it’s also a function of the way that the EU has essentially come around to the Orbán view of migration. Basically, what you have is something like Fortress Europe.
Do you think Meloni’s position is actually the opposition within the European project that Peter Mair wanted to see, the opposition that doesn’t want to disintegrate the European Union but is in a legitimate opposition within the project?
For those listeners who may not be familiar, Peter Mair wrote this book called Ruling the Void. Towards the end of it, he talks about the European Union and the specific problem of opposition within the European Union. The argument is that
there’s something about the structure of the EU that produces Euroscepticism. The reason that it does that is because it turns opposition to particular policies into fundamental opposition to the EU as a polity.
One very good example of that would be the fiscal rules. It is perfectly legitimate to oppose them from a left perspective because this is essentially a right-wing economic policy. So if I’m on the left, I want to oppose it from a left-wing perspective. But if you do that, you become a Eurosceptic. You’re not just opposing a particular policy that the EU is following, but you’re essentially arguing for a step in European integration to be reversed. So then in a sense you become in a sense a Eurosceptic. I think what this again has to do with is the way that the EU is this rather strange construct, which is conceived of not just as a process, but specifically as a one-way process. It’s a very unusual polity in that sense.
You basically don’t have a proper opposition within the EU except the Eurosceptics. You see that in the European Parliament. By the way, to come back to my use of the term pro-European, this is exactly how the Parliament functions. It is basically divided between pros-Europeans and Eurosceptics.
For the EU to have a more “normal” relationship between government and opposition, it’s not just a matter of having fights between people who disagree, it’s what kinds of fights they have. This is the thing that’s really missing from the EU — the normal left-right competition around distributional questions that you get in most nation states. Arguably, that’s really what democracy is there to do: to find ways to reach agreement or to have a fight over those distributional questions. You don’t really have that in the EU.
All you have is a battle between pro-Europeans on the one hand, and Eurosceptics on the other hand — and battles on national or regional lines, for example between the north and the south, or the east and the west, on particular questions. But unless you have a proper left-right competition around distributional questions, then you’re not moving towards a much more functional relationship between government and opposition.
The possibility that I think is now emerging with Meloni is that you get a convergence between the center-right and the far-right. They themselves might form a ruling bloc, as it were, within Brussels. I agree with you that this could produce a more straightforward left-right competition, which I think would be healthy.
But the precondition for that is not just that the center-right and the far-right converge, but also what the center-left does in response to that. If it chooses to distance itself from this new ruling bloc of the center-right and the far-right, then you could potentially move to something that would look a little bit more like the kind of healthy relationship between government and opposition that that that Peter Mair had in mind.
But I think it would take the center left to say, we want to have nothing to do with this new European Commission, for example, we want to go into opposition. I don’t see much sign of them doing that so far.
Do you think that the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine changes the German position within the EU? Does the German response to the war challenge its leadership position?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. Long before the war in Ukraine began, I think there had been a change in the way that other EU member states view Germany. Actually, Poland is the perfect example.
Think back to the famous speech that Radek Sikorski gave in 2012, in which he famously said “I fear German inaction more than I fear Germany leadership.” Now, Poland no longer wants Germany to lead, it just want Germany to follow – to do what it’s told.
I was always very critical of the idea of urging Germany to lead. I always thought that was a terrible idea, actually. It does seem as if lots of other people have now come around to that view.
But I don’t think that much of that has to do with the war in Ukraine. In the last 18 months since the Russian invasion, there’s been a lot of discussion about the idea of the center of gravity within the EU shifting from West to East, and particularly to Poland. I think most of that’s been exaggerated. I don’t see that shift, even in security policy, let alone if you get into other areas—say economic questions, where Poland is not even in the eurozone, so it’s completely marginalized on those kinds of questions.
Just because you feel vindicated and you feel you’ve got the moral high ground, that doesn’t give you real power. Power in the EU is very structural. In my last book – which was on precisely this question, German power in the EU – I argued that German power has nothing to do with Merkel or her leadership, it was just a function of German economic power, essentially. I don’t think that has changed as a consequence of the war in Ukraine.
However, there is a broader, bigger question about the future of the German economy. There’s a lot of discussion right now about an economic crisis in Germany. In fact, the cover of this week’s Economist is about Germany being a sick man of Europe, again. That potentially changes Germany’s position of power within Europe more than the war in Ukraine.
The final thing, which I think absolutely makes a difference, is the United States. After Trump got elected, I think Germany was massively weakened. If Trump or some Trumpian candidate were to be elected as US president, then I think again it weakens Germany.
But to some extent, it weakens Germany above all relative to France rather than Poland. I think the question that really comes on the table if Trump were to be re-elected is around European security—ultimately, the question of a European nuclear deterrent. That’s been the big question that’s always loomed in the background. Among EU member states, it’s only France that has a nuclear deterrent. So France will be strengthened and Germany will be weakened.
Where that leaves Poland and Central and Eastern European countries, I’m not sure. I think that will depend largely on how the United States interacts with those countries. You can imagine a scenario where Trump would move a bunch of US troops from Germany to Poland, as the Polish government was encouraging the United States to do when Trump was president before. That does have consequences for these internal dynamics, but we’re a little bit away from that right now.
In collaboration with Lucie Hunter and Hannah Vos.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.