October 10, 2017
Guest post by Mahama Tawat is Research Associate at the Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare and Assistant Professor at the Higher School of Economics.
One way Hurricane Irma is making waves these days in the US is through the revelation that about half the American population on the mainland does not know that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens. Pundits and columnists have poured ink on the fate of the neglected stepchild, its debts, its uncertain status while reminding everyone of its attachment to the motherland, often with West Side Story line “Puerto Rico is also America”.
Surprisingly, little parallel has been established by the media with the number of Islands in the region which belong to EU member states and have suffered equally if not, more damages than Puerto Rico. How many EU citizens on the mainland, east and west, know that St-Marteen/St-Martin, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Saint Barts, Guadeloupe, Martinique or Turks and Caicos are parts and parcels of the EU? How many consider their inhabitants as fellow nationals? To my knowledge, there aren’t any attitudinal surveys available but given the raging debate on European identity foisted by the 2015 European refugee “crisis” and the swell of radical right parties at elections, the most plausible answer is “few”.
After Syrian asylum-seekers started to arrive in mass in the summer of 2015, Eastern EU leaders led by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban closed their borders. They proffered a conception of European identity laced with ethnicity that viewed Syrian asylum seekers and by extension Islam and non-European immigration as incompatible and a grave threat to their countries’ integrity. They vigorously opposed the relocation scheme put in place by the EU that aimed to redistribute about 160,000 asylum seekers over two years. Slovakia and Hungary even appealed the measure in the European Court of Justice. Western EU member-states and the European Commission, by contrast, pushed for the redistribution mechanism, admonishing their Eastern counterparts for their lack of solidarity and threatening retaliatory measures. They offered a vision of European identity that ties together controlled immigration, human rights and anti-discrimination. On 26 September 2017, the scheme expired with about 20,000 relocations undertaken mostly to Western EU (Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden…). Thus giving a Pyrrhic victory to the group of Eastern member states. Dimitri Avramopoulos, the EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship signalled that the scheme will not be renewed. Certainly not in the same form. However, the issue will not go away any soon. Almost completing the circle of far-right parties sitting in national parliaments, Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag a few weeks ago. The first such instance in the political history of Europe’s behemoth since World War 2. The question today is: Can the EU afford this kind of vision to become mainstream?
The answer is simply “no.” The many voters who choose far-right parties do not think of Europe as a land of immigration like the US, Canada, Brazil, Australia or New Zealand. But as overseas EU citizens pointedly remind us, it has always been so. While Caribbean populations in their overwhelming majority are Afro-descendants, their belonging to France, Britain and the Netherlands was forged in blood. From a time that precedes the French Revolution and the birth of modern European states with their adoption of democratic constitutions, the inception of the EU in 1957, the accession of the A 10 (Central and Eastern European countries, Malta and Cyprus) 13 years ago, the A 2 (Bulgaria and Romania) in 2007 and Croatia three years ago. As such, their presence in the EU fold is irrefutable and not just the fact of recent immigration and some lofty humanitarian values. To paraphrase the writer James Baldwin’s 1965 speech on the American Dream at the Cambridge Union, “by their very presence”, they “wreck” an ethnic-based conception of EU identity. In no way, will inclusiveness wither away European identity. Rather, as history reminds us, ethno-nationalism is portent of grave dangers. It spares no one as the Brexit campaign that saw intra-EU migrants from Eastern Europe becoming the lightning rod of the Leave camp illustrates.
A Civic European Identity must be Cushioned
EU’s official policy is unequivocal. As its motto “United in Diversity” says it plainly, it embraces ethnic and cultural pluralism. It made 2008 its Year of Intercultural Dialogue. However, in these trying times, actions must speak louder than words. As extremism makes inroads, complacency carries great risks. As usual, education is one key. This entails the implementation of curricular education and public communication on the geography and the history of the Union in all its diversity. EU’s ethnic pluralism must be displayed in its visual representations and prejudices must be purposefully undone. As the British scholar Bhikhu Parekh writes a monocultural education is Euro-centric and more likely to “breed arrogance, insensitivity and racism. Putting students in “contact” with other cultures and histories, in terms which are positive, opens students’ imagination and increases their respect and understanding of other cultures. Ibram Kendi, the 2016 winner of the American National Book Award for Non-fiction for his book Stamped from the Beginning… also notes that racial ideas spring from “self-interest, particularly economic, and political and cultural” and are spread to shore these self-interests. So must they be unmasked? Simply said, many from recent accession countries, for example, would not know that EU territory extends beyond its continental self to the Reunion Island off the coast of East Africa or British Guyana in Central America unless they are taught so. This is hardly surprising. For most of them, growing up or going to school, their countries belonged to a different sphere. In Western Europe, many would not know that the Union finds some of its roots in its colonial relations with Africa as shown by Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson in their book EurAfrica. These propositions have nothing to do with political correctness or identity politics. A civic identity as Oxford philosopher David Miller explains, also means that one has to be a responsible citizen: pay taxes, be patriotic and engaged in one’s community… whether one is from the Caribbean, Poland or the Middle-East.
Mahama Tawat is Research Associate at the Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare and Assistant Professor at the Higher School of Economics. He was a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at San Diego and Jagiellonian University in Krakow.Guest contributor