The ideology of Europeanism and Europe’s migrant other

Issue: 152

Céline Cantat

Europe is more present than ever in the media and in political discourse.1 The recent decision by Britain to leave the European Union (EU) is perhaps the most serious blow to the European project yet. However, it is in continuity with a long series of popular consultations through which the EU project and its institutions have been repeatedly heavily criticised or outright rejected by people of its member states. In 2015, the Greek people rejected the EU’s bailout conditions en masse. But as early as 1992 and the Danish vote against the Maastricht Treaty, referendums suggested that the EU triggers at most a very weak sense of identification—and often downright hostility. In 2005, in both the Netherlands and France, people voted against the European Constitution. To avoid similar results, a referendum that should have been held in Ireland was cancelled. Yet a few years later, in 2008, the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty by 53 percent.

In spite of this clear democratic pitfall, crucial questions regarding the nature of the EU project, and the ideologies animating its trajectory and setting its goals, hardly ever seem to be raised. Official accounts of European integration by its architects and pro-EU politicians insist on presenting “Europe” as an internationalist or a post-national project, confining to the past the excesses of nationalism and national rivalries and promoting cooperation and friendship among its member states and their people. In turn, criticisms and rejections of the EU are only ever explained through accusations of nationalist insularism. Not only do these discourses betray profound class contempt, they also fail to acknowledge the persistent resonance of race and territory in the project and idea of “Europe.”

A political economy of the origins and process of European integration can help deconstruct official accounts of the European project. It reveals the complex and contradictory relationship between the EU and its member states and calls into question ideas of an “internationalist Europe”. It allows for an understanding of how official narratives of Europe and European identity have been constructed and mobilised in order to produce popular identification towards an unpopular European project. This ideological operation becomes particularly visible when assessing discourses of Europe from the perspective of the forms of marginalisation that they produce. I argue that official narratives of Europe have been based on a notion of European belonging premised on the idea of a distinct and recognisable European character that could set aside Europeans from non-Europeans. This is what I call the ideology of Europeanism. This narrative has led to the production of new figures of otherness at the regional level, among which the “migrant” has played a central role.

Post-war capitalist crises and the origins of the EU

Recently, the negative outcome of the Syriza-led government’s attempt at negotiating anti-austerity policies within the framework of the EU clearly demonstrated that the Union would not allow the implementation of a programme challenging the prerogatives of neoliberal capitalism. This temporarily opened up space for a much needed debate on the capitalist ideologies at the heart of the EU. Yet left-wing critiques of the European project have overwhelmingly called for “Europe to be fixed” and have formulated a narrative whereby the European project was hijacked by forces of neoliberal capitalist globalisation sometime in the 1980s.2

Indeed, according to official accounts, the process of European construction was initiated and pushed forward in the post-war period by its benevolent founding fathers: “visionary leaders” who offered “their energy and motivation” so that European citizens could enjoy a “climate of peace and stability”.3 The European project thus started from the dream of a “peaceful Europe” to reach a “Europe without frontiers” by the 1990s.4 The Jean Monnet and the Robert Schuman Foundations, as well as political organisations including the European Movement and Christian Democrat parties, have participated in the elaboration and the diffusion of this dominant historical account.

Accordingly, one of the dominant explanations put forward to account for the ruthlessness demonstrated by the EU, and more particularly Germany, towards both Greece and the people of the member states who have been subjected to severe austerity measures since 2010 has been the idea of a shift—a turning point when the utopian project of a Europe of peace and prosperity was seized by forces of neoliberal capitalism.

However, an examination of its origins rather shows that the European project has always been shaped by, and has shaped, modes of capitalist development in the region and beyond. The European Community (EC) was established to restore European capitalism and contain the cyclical crises caused by capital’s tendency to internationalisation in the post-war period. Its evolution into the EU and its growing association with the neoliberal project was not caused by a sharp shift away from its original objectives, as much as it reflected the embeddedness of the European project, since its inception, into global capitalist processes.

Alan Milward convincingly argues that the origins of the European Community have been one of the most “ill-understood aspects of recent history and present political life”.5 This is, he suggests, because of the commonly held assumption that the EC was in antithesis to the nation-state. Quite the opposite, the establishment of the EC was central to the reassertion of the post-war capitalist state in Europe—this was, in Milward’s words “the European rescue of the nation-state”.6 Western European economies emerged from the Second World War devastated, with severely decreased levels of industrial output in Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, France and the Netherlands, and growing social agitation due to high levels of unemployment and inflation.7 The instability of Western European capitalism was all the more worrying for the European bourgeoisie because Moscow had made clear its intention to incorporate Eastern Europe.

These concerns were shared by the US administration of the time, who wanted to restructure European economies on a regional basis so as to avoid the resurrection of rivalries between nationally-tied firms and capital of the inter-war period. The first building block of the European project, the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), came about as a conditionality attached to the 1947 European Recovery Program (better known as the Marshall Plan after then-US secretary of state, George Marshall). In 1949, NATO was established as another pillar of the US post-war vision of a capitalist West to which the EC/EU was central.

In other words, the origins of the European project reflect the changing nature of the post Second World War international system dominated by the US and the realisation by the ruling classes of capitalist nation-states that they needed to internationalise some of their economic activities in order to remain competitive. This also means that the EC (later EU) has been marked from its very beginning by tension, reflecting the relation between the national organisation of capital and the tendency towards its internationalisation. The EC was used as an arena for cooperation but also for competition by Europe’s national politicians and as a means to pursue domestic agendas. This resulted in endless disputes about the distribution of subsidies or the definition of European common standards for production, reflecting the conflicting national interests at stake in the EC. Bernard Connolly, a key Eurocrat, described this as “the rotten heart of Europe”.8 As a result, the EC structure was highly unstable.

The neoliberal turn: building the European Union

In 1957, the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community (EEC) which established a European common market. One of the aims of the EEC was to overcome this instability by encouraging cross-border mergers, supported by the establishment of a form of supra-state and further integration of the European capitalist classes at the European level. However, this proved a difficult task and the desired Europeanisation of capital kept clashing with national state boundaries.9 Though the trend of systems of production was to exceed national boundaries, the majority of firms continued to be owned and to operate from particular national bases.

As global capitalism kept internationalising, the contradiction between national and international organisation became increasingly problematic for European capitalist classes. In particular, the movement of capital had to be deregulated so as to promote intra-European investments. This also required that the investment environment across Europe be harmonised. Throughout the 1970s, several attempts at fixing exchange rates among European currencies failed due to member states’ resistance. It is only in 1986 that the project of a monetary union succeeded: the Single European Act (SEA) was signed in order to create a Single Market by 1992. The governors of the central banks of the twelve EEC member states set out a plan to establish the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), which paved the way for the adoption of a single currency—the euro. The agreement around the EMU essentially emerged as a compromise reflecting the interest of the two dominant economic powers in the EEC—France and Germany.10

Shortly after, the Maastricht Treaty created the European Union (EU), which replaced the EC. The establishment of the EU reflected the need for further integration between European member states at a time when the global economy was changing. It mirrors the global shift towards neoliberalism in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, by the 1970s, the post-war Keynesian compromise was quickly losing ground to neoliberal approaches and the so-called “golden age” of capitalism seemed to be coming to an end. In the US, the hundred-year period of rising wages was permanently over, while privatisation of production and deregulation of markets were reaching unprecedented levels. In the UK, the 1979 appointment of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister inaugurated a programme of privatisation, market deregulation, liberalisation and trade union marginalisation. The reorganisation of traditional economic sectors (and complete dismantlement of others) in the UK was paralleled by similar restructuring processes in other Western European countries.11 With the relaunch of the single market project and the Maastricht Treaty, neoliberalism became firmly embedded into the structure of the European project.12

Since the late 1970s the EU has actively embraced neoliberalism. Yet rather than a sharp turning point, the shift towards neoliberal capitalism mirrored the dialectical relation of the European project to global processes of capitalist accumulation and reproduction. In this sense, the racialised, capitalist and territorial ideologies that have been central to the constitution of the European nation-state have always been embedded in the ostensibly supra-national figure of “Europe.”

“You don’t fall in love with a single market”

A consequence of its capitalist nature and class violence, the European project has been the object of popular hostility. This has constituted a major challenge for pro-European politicians. One of their responses has been to engage in the production of discourses of European identity and belonging in the aim of legitimising the European project and triggering identification among the people of its member states.

The issue of popular mistrust towards the European project became an object of growing concern in the mid 1970s. At the time, the EC became the target of rising hostility from people of the member states and segments of national capitalist classes.13 Yet European politicians, such as Helmut Kohl and Jacques Delors, remained firmly convinced that more integration was needed for European economies to survive. The idea of a “legitimacy deficit” of the Community gained currency and attention started being paid to “European public opinion”. As further economic and political integration was encouraged by leading European politicians, a fear emerged that it would be limited unless people started feeling “more European”.

As Delors put it, “you don’t fall in love with a common market; you need something else”.14 Indeed, as observed by Philip Marfleet:

The EC was not a nation-state in which an ideology of “belonging” could be mobilised during periods of instability or crisis. It lacked a framework for nationalism: myths of common origin, a national religious community, a monarchy. The Community had been constructed upon nation-states which had emerged from centuries of local rivalry: there could be no reference point for an EC patriotism, no European Jeanne d’Arc.15

The issues of mistrust towards the European project and of its lack of democracy have furthered over the last two to three decades. Since its “neoliberal turn”, the EU has indeed been increasingly associated with authoritarian modes of governing—as happened elsewhere in the neoliberal world. As state functions once dominant in the context of Keynesian, developmental and socialist national states (such as welfare provision and social support) have been rolled back, other state interventions geared towards preserving the market-driven, neoliberal global order have gained precedence.16

This has been particularly visible since 2008 and the advent of the economic crisis in Europe. The neoliberal structural reshaping of the state has been led with virtually no democratic deliberation under the banner of “austerity”. This lack of popular consultation illustrates the anti-democratic and increasingly authoritarian nature of the neoliberal state and of the European project; it also indicates the overall inability of neoliberalism to garner popular consent and support. Where resistance movements and social struggles have erupted to oppose austerity, European states have engaged in intensified repression, including police deployment and the passing of laws criminalising protest.17 This is in line with Loïc Wacquant’s observation about the neoliberal state, which has become increasingly “liberal at the top and paternalistic at the bottom”.18 This new formation “presents radically different faces at the two ends of the social hierarchy: a comely and caring visage toward the middle and upper classes, and a fearsome and frowning mug toward the lower class”.19 Those at the bottom of the class and ethnic structure are faced with an increasingly punitive logic, coupled with particular forms of “disciplinary philosophy of behaviorism and moralism”.20

The politics of Europeanism

As popular hostility towards the EU grew, a key strategy deployed by Europe’s architects has been to insist on the need for a cultural European identity to emerge. Yet, in a formation as contradictory as the European Union, what are the available ideological resources that can be mobilised in order to produce a sense of unity?

As of the 1970s, a set of symbols aimed at signifying a common European history and culture, and at triggering affection towards Europe among the people of its member states, was introduced. These include a European flag, adopted in 1983, a European anthem (the prelude to the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s ninth symphony chosen in 1972), a motto (“Unity in Diversity”) as well as “Europe Day”, adopted in 1985. In addition, a range of cultural activities supposedly related to Europe were implemented and a number of cultural institutions aimed at promoting European ties established.

This new European culture brought together an odd mix of populist initiatives, with little anchorage in the region’s history, and symbols of high culture, with little chance of triggering popular attachment. Gerard Delanty describes such attempts at producing European cultural identity as: “pathetic exercises in cultural engineering: the Eurovision Song Contest, Euro-Disney, the Ecu, the Annual European City of Culture and the cultural apparatus of the new institutions was not the stuff out of which new symbolic structures could be built”.21 Delanty observes that the mobilisation of emblems inspired from the traditional appendage of nationalism is largely inadequate. What this indeed reveals is the lack of meaningful material and popular ideology within the European Community which could generate an emotional response or a sense of belonging towards “Europe”.

Europe’s existential quest for meaning also took on the form of historical narratives keen on tracing back the roots of the European Community/Union to ancient times. These would draw on a putative European past to present the current EU project as the logical continuation, in fact the culmination, of a European historical and cultural spirit in motion. Such accounts also tend to sanctify Europe, upholding it as a desirable model with universal validity. In the UK, no group expressed better the mythology of Europeanism than New Labour. In Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, Mark Leonard, a close friend and adviser to Tony Blair at the time, claims that:

Europe represents a synthesis of the energy and freedom that come from liberalism with the stability and welfare that come from social democracy. As the world becomes richer and moves beyond satisfying basic needs such as hunger and health, the European way of life will become irresistible.22

Such or similar claims have been made by most mainstream parties across member states. They present Europe and its history as characterised by enlightenment, attachment to liberties and social justice. The European Union is then the logical and desirable expression of the values of an identifiable European cultural space. These narratives attempt to identify common historical and cultural features bringing together Europeans and produce a discourse of “Europeanity”. They form dominant discourses of Europe or, in other words, the ideology of Europeanism.

This narrative routinely features in political discourses and the media. It translates into widespread references to “European values”, “European ­culture”, to the idea of a “European way of life” or the notion of a specific form of “European solidarity”. On the left side of such liberal arguments, a discourse embracing the putative cosmopolitanism offered by the European project is also commonplace. The idea of “Europe” being a cosmopolitan project relies, on the one hand, on an attachment to rather prosaic initiatives developed by the European Union in order to buttress a sense of European identity among people of its member states. These include the Erasmus student exchange schemes and town twinning projects, designed in the hope that cross-border interactions between citizens of EU member states would form the basis from which familiarity, trust and a collective European identity would emerge and translate into support for European integration.

Student mobility programmes are an interesting case in point. EU policy makers have claimed that education was “one of the key elements in European integration”23—again in a move mimicking one of the key strategies of nation-building processes at the pan-European level. Yet, even enthusiastic pro-EU advocates have questioned the potential of these short student mobility programmes to constitute the basis for a consistent feeling of “being European” to emerge.24 Besides being limited in scope and time, they only concern a small elite of university-educated students. They are thus far from providing a conduit for workers and less privileged people to experience and identify with “Europe”. The shallow nature of such efforts has been likened to a “balloons and flags” strategy by Ole Weaver and Morten Kelstrup.25

More importantly, the argument according to which the European project promotes progressive cosmopolitanism reveals a lack of understanding of the relationship between the European project and the nation-state. As seen, the EU may be “more than the nation-state but [it is] never detached from it”.26 The EU operates from the top down, and works through the structures and ruling classes of its member states. In this sense, there is no place within the EU project for internationalist ideas promoting forms of cross-border solidarity from below. Rather than a cosmopolitan project with the potential for the emergence of internationalist solidarities, the EU operates as a supra-national apparatus ruling from above and based on national structures that are hierarchically linked to one another.

The limited mobility permitted within the Schengen Area may resemble the manifestation of a progressive right to movement when exercised by privileged EU citizens. Yet freedom of movement within Schengen was above all designed —and expresses—capital’s need for cheap labour and the exploitative labour relation linking Western and Northern European countries to their Southern and Eastern counterparts. As argued by Czech economist Ilona Švíhlíková, Eastern and Central post-communist economies have entered into a neoliberal/neo-colonial relationship with their Western European counterparts (and more particularly Germany), characterised by economic dependence and the exportation of cheap human labour.27 The dismantlement of Eastern and Central European welfare systems under the auspices of the World Bank and the IMF during the transition to a market economy in the region (a prerequisite to enter the EU) also means that the local labour force lacks the basic means for its social reproduction and is pushed into exploitative forms of westward mobility. As will be discussed, this also reveals the extent to which “Europe” is characterised by and produces inequalities and uneven development, and is based on complex intra-EU hierarchies.

Far from progressive cosmopolitanism, the process of forging “European identity” has in fact relied on mechanisms of exclusion inspired from national identity projects and on the production of enemies and Others, in order to set “Europe” apart from its imagined outside.

Europe and its Others

The idea of Europe has a long history of producing Others. Gerard Delanty claims that defining and representing Europe has always relied on representations of what it is not and of its boundaries and borders. “Europe” has always been characterised by its lack of unity besides that achieved through adversity. Europe’s cultural and political identity has historically been articulated in relation to Others, and through a process of constant reconstruction of “ins” and “outs” reflecting particular sets of power relations at given points in time. Ideas of Europe have thus been characterised by their production of differences, on both geographical and “mythological” terms.28 Delanty’s conclusion is that these dynamics of exclusion are more than ever at work in the project of the EU:

Who is a European is largely a matter of exclusion, and in the dichotomy of self and Other which constitutes the discourse of European identity, Europeanity is constructed in opposition with the non-European, in particular Islam. This sense of the uniqueness of the European is today emerging as a basis for a kind of supranational identity and citizenship which European integration does not have.29

Philip Marfleet looks back at the history of the notion of European civilisation and identifies the Enlightenment in the 18th century as a turning point, when ideas of Europe started to take a specific political and cultural shape. These new ideas resulted from the experience of European bourgeois classes in the world and were hence closely related to colonial expansion, of which merchants were the prime beneficiaries. The idea of a superior European civilisation provided a moral legitimisation for their colonial ventures and the oppression of people seen as inferior. Marfleet concludes that “to this extent, the idea of Europe was one generated by those who wished to assert a universal mission for capitalism”.30

Early forms of “Europeanism” already bore heavy contradictions in the context of the intense rivalries opposing European colonial powers. In effect, different ideas of Europe were mobilised by national ideologies in order to serve their own national interests. Delanty refers to colonial France’s concept of Europe as “a thoroughly French affair…proclaim[ing] ‘the superiority of the European religion, the white race and the French language’.”31 In the first half of the 20th century, it is the fascist vision of a culturally uniform, unified European continent that gained prominence over other visions of Europe. Adolf Hitler’s “European New Order”, which would be imposed on the world by Nazi Germany, entailed the supremacy of the “master race” and the physical annihilation of those considered “racially inferior”.

Europe’s migrant Other

Throughout the Cold War, Europe’s obvious Other was the Soviet system; the notion of Western civilisation bringing together Europe and the US against the Communist enemy was a crucial part of Western propaganda. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which constituted its key ideological counterpoint, “Europe” yet again had to reinvent its Other so as to define itself.

As seen, the contradictions characterising the European project and the centuries of national rivalries opposing the states that now constituted its “core” members made it difficult to come up with a unifying ideology. In this context, the “migrant” emerged as a key figure around and against which European ­cooperation was pushed forward. Immigration and asylum became central policy areas for joint action between highly divided member states. Accounts inspired by Samuel Huntington’s theory of a “clash of civilisations” started playing a key role in the construction of a new sense of Europeanity.32 The “clash theory” relies on a primordialist reading of history and of the world, which is seen as divided into closed and homogeneous areas of “culture”. In an era of decreasing influence by nation-states, it is these cultural blocks that shape global relations. In Huntington’s view, those belonging to other “civilisations” are constructed as absolute Others. It is in the mirror of these Others from non-Western “cultural areas” that European politicians have tried to anchor an ever-fleeting sense of a European identity.

Liz Fekete also evidences the intrinsic relation linking practices of racism against migrants in Europe, and the strengthening of a shared sense of European belonging and identity. She speaks of “xeno-racism” to describe:

a racism that is not just directed at those with darker skins, from the former colonial territories, but at the newer categories of the displaced, the dispossessed and the uprooted, who are beating at Western Europe’s doors, the Europe that helped to displace them in the first place.33

This demonstrates the centrality of racism to the idea of Europe and to the ideology of Europeanism, bringing to mind reflections by Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, who observe that racism, while a persistent mechanism of control and exclusion, evolves in its objects and articulations depending on historical, social and political conjunctures.34 But the shift towards forms of “cultural racism” does not mean that older forms of racism have disappeared, nor that the fundamental structure and functions of racism have changed.

This broad definition of racism looks beyond the specifically “ethnic” and “biological” forms taken by racism at particular points in history and analyses the origin and genealogy of the “race myth”. It helps in evidencing the persistence of deeply racist ideologies in contemporary official discourses of Europe. As argued by Mike Haynes, “it is here, in both the ideas and practice of immigration control, perpetuated both at the intergovernmental level and at the level of the EU, that the new ‘Europe’ is being forged, as much as in the debates and celebrations of internal unity”.35 European identity is thus created at its external and internal borders—in its regime of visa and residence permits, detention centres and discrimination towards migrants in member states.

Mitteleuropa and Europeanity

Another civilisational myth of and in Europe in the post-1989 era revolves around the revival of the notion of Mitteleuropa. These discourses, which prepared for and underpinned so-called eastern enlargement processes, claimed that Central and (some) Eastern European countries had been “kidnapped, displaced and brainwashed”36 by Soviet Communism and needed to return to their natural “European home”. A notorious expression of the Mitteleuropa narrative was Milan Kundera’s essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe”—published a few years before 1989. Kundera conjures the image of a Western-oriented Mitteleuropa rooted in Roman Christianity and democracy. The tragedy of Mitteleuropa, Kundera claims, was to be “culturally in the West but politically in the East”.37 For Kundera, Western Europe must be sharply distinguished from its oriental parts—an eastern European space of Byzantine heritage centered around Orthodox Russia and culturally incompatible with the West.

The Mitteleuropa narratives develop a homogenising and essentialist view of Europe and the West. They are based on the assumption that there exist shared socio-cultural and historical characteristics that define those belonging to Europe and set them apart from (and above) non-Europeans. This produces a strict separation between what is perceived as (Western) Europe and its imaginary outside. As noticed by cultural theorist Dino Murtic, discourses of Europe in post-Yugoslav and Central European spaces have activated “a chain of othering”. In Serbia, Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars are the Others against which Christian Europe has to be defended. In turn, Serbia is deemed chaotic, corrupted and of Byzantine heritage by its Croatian neighbour, itself a threat to the peaceful Mitteleuropa in the eyes of Slovenia. Yet ultimately, for Western European countries, Central and Eastern European states (and perhaps even more, former Yugoslavia) are all seen as “not quite European” yet.38 Moreover, the discourse of Mitteleuropa, with its insistence on identifying distinctively European cultural traits associated with Christianity and certain imaginations of the West, has revived millennial figures of internal otherness, most prominently the Roma and the Jew. Again, this shows that the notions of belonging and identity underpinning discourses of Europe have borrowed from processes of inclusion/exclusion mobilised in the construction of national ideas. This is far from what a real internationalism from below could look like.

The idea of Mitteleuropa belonged to an elite discourse, circulated by politicians and intellectuals such as Milan Kundera and Václav Havel, and recycling Western European ideological representations of a superior European culture. Yet it did echo forms of popular enthusiasm in Central and Eastern Europe towards the prospect of joining the EU in the 1990s. More than a call to return to a long lost cultural home,39 joining “Europe” was perceived by some as a potential way out of economic difficulties and a distancing from the legacy of Stalinism. Nowadays, although support for the EU is relatively higher in Central and Eastern European countries than in Western and Southern member states, distrust is also growing across the region. For example, in 2015 63 percent of Czechs, 51 percent of Slovaks and 61 percent of Slovenians reported that they did not trust the EU.40 As elsewhere in Europe, such rejection can be associated with aggressive forms of nationalism, on the erroneous basis that “Europe” and the nation-state are antithetical. Yet, as shown, the exclusionary narratives of European belonging, and particularly the notion of Mitteleuropa, which gained currency in the late 1980s and 1990s, in fact prepared the ground for the forms of conservative Europeanism and nationalism that have recently spread across Central and Eastern European countries.

Core and peripheries in the EU

The process of separating “Europe” from its alleged “outside” has implications “inside” Europe itself illustrating that “Europeanity”, while a transnational claim, is in fact always understood and articulated locally—in ­relation to specific social, political, economic and historical contexts. As seen with the notion of Mitteleuropa, different discourses of Europeanity produce different geographies, hierarchies and imaginations of Europe. This is particularly striking in relation to the “east” of the EU, an uncertain space where the borders of Europe and the boundaries of Europeanity are questioned and reshaped.41

In the summer of 2015, in the context of the so-called migrant crisis, a particular articulation of the tension and contradiction generated by different discourses of “Europeanity” was manifested. A number of Western European media and political commentators developed a narrative opposing, on the one hand, the compassionate and progressive Western member states trying to find “collective solutions” to receive migrants in respect of “European values”, and on the other, nationalist and xenophobic Central and Eastern EU countries and most notably Hungary (as well as other countries of the V442).

This narrative reacted to such atrocious images as the Hungarian police containing groups of exhausted migrants with water cannons, or the infamous footage of a journalist from a Jobbik-affiliated TV channel tripping up a Syrian man carrying his young son in his arms.43 They also came in the context of a government-orchestrated anti-immigrant campaign of which some of the most shocking manifestations were billboards carrying messages such as “If you come to Hungary do not take the jobs of Hungarians” and a national consultation on immigration and terrorism featuring questions such as: “We hear different views on the issue of immigration. There are some who think that economic migrants jeopardise the jobs and livelihoods of Hungarians. Do you agree?” or “Do you agree with the view that migrants illegally crossing the Hungarian border should be returned to their own countries within the shortest possible time?”.

It is therefore in a context of particularly spectacular physical and symbolic violence against migrants that French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius claimed that Eastern European countries “did not respect Europe’s common values”44 and that Angela Merkel called on their governments to “[show that] Europe…is a continent of values, a continent of solidarity”.45 Yet these accusations, that Eastern European countries lacked solidarity and were not being “genuinely European” in their treatment of migrants, betray a particular cynicism considering that the borders of these very countries have been reinforced over the past ten years with EU money and through Frontex joint operations.46

Moreover, the bordering practices enacted over the summer of 2015 by and in Central and Eastern Europe have been in large part justified precisely in the name of Europe and the preservation of “Europeanity”. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has repeatedly stated that Hungary was defending “Hungarian and European culture” against “an invasion of outsiders”.47 Of interest here is the distinction made by Orbán between Europe, whose identity and culture he claims are based on its Christian roots, and the EU, which he recently stated was in the “grip of madness” over immigration.48 Orbán indeed represents Hungary and Eastern EU member states as being in between two fires: migrants coming “from the outside” and the “troublesome and inadequate” policies coming from Brussels.49 This has allowed Orbán to position the V4 countries as the “vanguard” in leading Europe back to its “true”, genuine origins and values, which have to be protected against outsiders and more particularly Muslims.50

Discourses around migration and “Europe” produced by Hungarian authorities can thus be looked at as attempts at challenging intra-European hierarchies. Also at stake is the preservation of an economic relationship based on exporting cheap labour to Western and Northern member states. While understandably shocking to many, nationalist-like narratives of a white and Christian Europe that have emerged from Central and Eastern Europe over the last couple of years are largely consistent with the Mitteleuropa narratives celebrated by EU supporters in the 1990s. Again, claims to European identity are articulated around racialised, anti-migrant discourses.

Operationalising difference

Such racist discourses targeting particular groups on the grounds of “civilisational difference” and “cultural incompatibility” are premised on the idea of fundamental differences between putative Europeans and non-Europeans.

This is reminiscent of Edward Said’s remarks on orientalist discourses and the way in which they construct people as being of different value based on essentialist, racialised representations. Importantly, Said shows that such discourses naturalise inequalities, strikingly demonstrating how the discursive construction of the “Orient” by the West was a political tool of domination. Orientalist representations lent themselves to European imperialist ambitions in the East and legitimised European control. The discourse of Orientalism, Said contends, was essential to the way European culture “was able to manage and even produce the Orient, politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively”.51

Today, the structural marginalisation of particular groups is justified in the name of insurmountable cultural and civilisational differences. This has implications both inside and outside the territories of Western nation-states. On the one hand, this new Orientalism has paved the way for and been mobilised in support of (global) military campaigns, including George W Bush and his allies’ so-called “War on Terror”. These military interventions, portrayed as landmarks of a new era of global governance in the post-Cold War “new world order”, have served the purpose of neo-imperialist expansion.52

On the other hand, in an era of intense international migrations where the geographical separation between East and West is blurred by people’s mobility and global integration, the new Orientalism has mobilised new representations which naturalise the exploitation and oppression of certain groups.53 The figure of the migrant, endowed with a range of characteristics pointing to the impossibility of her cultural assimilation into a supposedly consistent set of European values, is a key image of this new Orientalism. Since the end of the Cold War, one of the main features of this revamped “oriental” Other—whether in a faraway land that requires Western intervention or inside Western territory as a migrant—has been its association with representations of Islam. This Islam is framed as dangerous, ubiquitous and homogenous and functions as the antithesis to Western and European “civilisation”.

The operationalisation of Europe’s racist discourses is also visible in another way. Increasingly, nationalist xenophobic discourses are framed around notions of Europeanity or European civilisation. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National, recently took a position in favour of Russian president Vladimir Putin over the crisis in Ukraine, on the basis that he was “a defender of the Christian heritage of European civilisation”.54 Similarly, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in which several French cartoonists were killed in January 2015, argued that there was a need to defend “Europe’s Judeo-Christian culture”.55 In a similar vein, Viktor Orbán has called for “Europe to be preserved for the Europeans”.56 Such racist discourses also routinely target groups such as children of migrants and European Muslims.

As seen, the EU project does not only erect external borders of absolute otherness. It also creates different shades of valuation against the formation of “Europeanity” and produces internal borders. The use by mainstream media of the derogatory acronym PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) to refer to the Mediterranean countries of the EU is illustrative of an operation of marginalisation of the peripheries of the new Europe.57 Similarly, if Europe’s new racism primarily targets migrants coming from outside the EU, it also identifies “internal enemies”. Roma people, who were the victims of aggravated persecution in the 1920s and 1930s, and of Nazi oppression in the 1940s, have faced new forms of extreme marginalisation in the last two decades. In Central and Eastern Europe, the post-1989 transition has led to heightened racism and violence against Roma communities, and pogroms and mob attacks have multiplied. In Western Europe, Roma migrants have also been subject to incredible levels of media hostility as well as physical abuse. Many Roma people coming to Western Europe have been expelled, in spite of many of them being EU citizens. France in particular has engaged in a policy of deportation of Romani communities, under the pretext of removing “illegal camps” across the country.58

Europe, borders and territoriality

The founding treaties of the European Community do not contain rules concerned with the harmonisation of border control. This was perceived as being exclusively the responsibility of nation-states. During the so-called “guest-worker” epoch,59 the industrial needs of Western European economies meant that large numbers of migrant workers were encouraged to come and work in Europe. At the time, the legal status of working migrants was not a salient political issue. Internally, the idea of the free movement of people remained secondary to the project of market development.60

In the late 1960s and 1970s, as the post-war boom came to an end, the situation started changing. In Western European countries there was a surge in political and media concern about immigration. Policies shifted from relatively permissive approaches to being increasingly restrictive and control-oriented.61 This move partly aimed at institutionalising and controlling migrant mobilities that exceeded Western states’ formal regimes of labour.

Simultaneously, as the European Economic Community pushed for further integration, the idea emerged that a framework for the convergence and harmonisation of immigration policies62 and border control policies63 across European member states was necessary. While the EC was still marked by tension and competition between national economies, immigration and border policies became a key area within which member states could further cooperate.

Since the mid-1980s, the task of harmonising immigration policies and of commonalising border control has been the rationale behind the creation of a vast number of European bodies—from research and experts groups to specialised agencies such as the aforementioned Frontex agency. In 2002, Spanish prime minister José María Aznar stated that common migration policy in the EU was “the most important question in European politics at the moment”. One of the key justifications behind the reinforcement of the EU’s borders has been the claim that it is essential to maintain free circulation within the Union. The (partial and incomplete) suspension of intra-EU national borders through the Schengen Treaty has been heralded as the ultimate illustration of the progressive potential of the Union. Yet, from the perspective of its external borders, Schengen is far from the embodiment of postnational cosmopolitanism that it is claimed to be. In fact, the Schengen area operates as a single state for international travel and has matched the elimination of internal borders with a reinforcement of Europe’s external borders (those with non-EU member-states).

European politicians have also argued that the move towards the supranationalisation of border management was necessary to match the new realities of globalisation—including new forms of mobility resulting in new “global threats”. The rationale here is that in a world in flow, the material definition and functioning of the border as physical demarcation becomes obsolete. It is time to move away from traditional understanding and to adopt a globalised and dynamic view of space and territories. To address the new “challenges” facing states, borders must change into more diffuse webs of regulations, better able to anticipate and apprehend undesirable and potentially dangerous mobilities. In this sense, customary understandings of borders as physical lines clearly delimiting the boundaries of states and their sovereignty are argued to be increasingly irrelevant.64

The EU is presented as a case in point to show the obsolescence of traditional concepts of territory, sovereignty and identity. A complex matrix of rules and regulations concerned with the right to enter the Union has been developed. It is matched internally by an equally intricate topology of residence permits, with associated rights and restrictions. The borders of the EU are also continuously reshaped, both through successive enlargements and through subtler processes of reconfiguration.

In fact, the EU border regime is centred around two complementary processes. On the one hand, Europe is increasingly projecting its borders outside its territory and geographical delineations. This is in large part done through European authorities’ intervention in the policies of border and migration controls of peripheral countries. Provisions for “extra-territorial processing” of asylum claims, whereby transit camps are set up in strategically located sites in order to assess asylum applications before allowing potential refugees to enter Europe, are also an example of this externalisation of Europe’s borders. On the other hand, the borders of Europe are increasingly reproduced inside its territories, including through the multiplication of detention centres for migrants. As pro-migrant activists have claimed for some time, these camps are no longer exceptions or anomalies. Rather, they have become key institutions of the EU and its migration policies.

Europe’s rebordering processes have been so brutal that the notions of “a war against migrants” and “Fortress Europe” have been coined. Although a powerful metaphor for those meaning to highlight the dynamics of exclusion in the EU and at its borders, “Fortress Europe” does not, however, fully capture the complex developments taking place at the EU’s borders and beyond. Rather than hermetically closing the space of Europe and strictly keeping migrants out, the borders of the EU operate a process of differential and subordinated inclusion.

But in spite of the changing form and deterritorialised nature of Europe’s borders, their legitimising rationale and representations very much echo traditional views on the border.65 They mobilise bounded understandings of territories and identities that show striking continuity with national imaginaries. The border remains a territorial and symbolic demarcation between “inside” and “outside”—that is, between what is constructed as European and what is considered as not. The discourse of the EU with respect to borders and migration reinvests the traditionally national idea of securitising the territory as one of the main prerogatives of sovereignty. It also recycles the old national dichotomy between an “us” and a “them”. Capitalist territorial imaginations and geographies have thus remained central to the European project and to ideas of Europe.

Securitising migration and neoliberal blame shifting

The focus on border and “immigration management” and on providing “integrated” responses to “threats” coming from migrants reflects a larger trend at work since the late 1980s, and in particular since 9/11: the securitisation of migration. This refers to a tendency to problematise the phenomenon of people moving across borders within a security framework calling for security responses.66 It is underpinned by the assertion of an increasing connection between migration and the destabilisation of public order.

A set of tensions is at play in the emergence of this global security agenda against migration and migrants. On the one hand, global migrations are rendering internal and external borders less definite: it is precisely around this claim that the idea of a global threat calling for and legitimising the securitisation of borders crystallises. At the same time, the intensification of migratory movements is closely linked to an increase in the economic, political and social pressures faced by the populations of many countries of the Global South. This is in part a consequence and an outcome of the failure of the world development agenda produced in parallel to neoliberal globalisation and neo-imperialist ventures.

The “global threat discourses” thus rely on a process of displacement of blame underpinned by a double logic of “personification” and “geographisation” of blame. The causes of various political and economic processes are displaced and pushed towards the imaginary outsides of the Western world. In turn, migrants originating from these very areas are considered as embodying and literally carrying various forms of danger. This logic is used as a rationale for the global securitisation of migration controls. It is framed through a new semantic field around the idea of an obscure, lurking menace, characterised by “tribalism”, “war-lordism”, “sectarianism”, “ethno-nationalism” and so on. Regions of the world that are perceived as “producing migrants” are represented as alien, backward hinterlands, plagued by scarcity and anarchic wars, violence and terrorism.

Robert D Kaplan’s 1994 article, “The Coming Anarchy”,67 is a striking illustration of this development. Kaplan relies on “personification” of blame and argues that the dangerous and backward features of “dark” Southern and Eastern societies will be brought into the civilised, advanced Global North through migratory movements. This argument is widespread in the mainstream press and media, which produce and project the figure of a deviant and dangerous global migrant threatening Western civilisation and culture.

This discourse has called for a security response to people’s mobility. As a result, states’ capacities to exclude and deport have developed and taken on new forms.68 These include pooling together their national resources at a supranational level (as is the case in the EU) and an increased reliance of surveillance technology and externalisation and privatisation of border controls. Externalisation relies primarily on the system of visas, which must be applied for and are issued in the country of origin, but also, for the EU in particular, on a much more comprehensive and complex set of regulations that tend to push the external borders of the Union outwards towards the East and the South, in order better to repel migrants. Increasingly, controls on migration now take place outside the borders of the EU and many are conducted by private companies. For example, European consulates across the world increasingly subcontract the visa selection process to a multinational firm.

The discursive mobilisation of the forced migrant as an absolute Other against which territories and identities have to be defended, and in the name of which a series of restrictive measures must be deployed, is a global practice. It is one that nation-states (and blocs of states) readily utilise in order to neutralise social and political tensions including those emerging in response to the mutation of the local state into a manager of global neoliberal capital.

As argued by Fran Cetti, the increasingly deterritorialised and securitised borders of the European Union have been a key location for the production of the forced migrant as a figure of fear. Cetti shows that this operation relies on but also goes beyond the “quotidian social production of marginal and excluded figures”. Rather, she claims, the migrant, often pushed into the global circuits of “survival migration” by global capitalism and exclusionary border and immigration policies, has become a central ideological resource in the attempt to naturalise and depoliticise neoliberal capitalism.69

To come back briefly to the example of Hungary: recent moves towards further securitisation and authoritarianism have been justified in relation to the migrant global figure and in the name of preserving the country from “outsiders”, particularly “Muslims”. Yet the processes of militarisation, securitisation and criminalisation of the Hungarian society, which have targeted primarily Hungary’s minorities and poor, including Hungarian Roma and homeless people, must be understood in longer-term dynamics. To quote but a few, since the arrival to power of Orbán’s Fidesz party in 2010, the Hungarian Constitution has been rewritten, the powers of the Constitutional Court curtailed, welfare has been eroded in favour of compulsory and disciplinary workfare schemes (targeting primarily Roma and the poor) and an environment has been established within which racist speech and prohibited far-right paramilitary activities are tolerated, particularly in the villages where the Roma live.70

These developments come in the wake of the process of so-called Europeanisation of Hungary and Central Europe, which has relied on a brutal transition from communism to capitalism—from a command economy to a market economy and into an integrated global economy—under the auspices of the World Bank and the IMF, which were prerequisite to Hungary entering the EU in 2004. In spite of a very specific historical trajectory, largely different from core Western EU states and marked both by its experience of USSR state socialism and by the absence of a global colonial past, Hungary has adopted a neo-Orientalist discourse similar to that articulated by key European ideologues and Western nation-state politicians. In this sense, Hungary is largely in tune with the process of production, marginalisation and exclusion of racialised non-European Others against which the image of Europe as an homogenous entity is being produced and reproduced in the aim of stabilising the EU as a key locus of neoliberal globalisation.


The European Community was a tool to manage the tendency to internationalisation of capital and to contain the cyclical crises of capitalism in the post-war era. Its evolution into the European Union reflected the shift towards global neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Where dominant accounts of European integration put forward by Eurocrats and pro-Europe politicians describe an internationalist project of peace and reconciliation, it has always been marked by tension and contradiction. In this context, an ideology of Europeanism aimed at triggering popular support towards the European project has been developed. It has produced particular visions of “Europe” and “Europeanity” underpinned by racialised figures of otherness.

Migration, which is in part a result of the intensification of neoliberal capitalist relations on a global scale, has been framed as a security threat in need of containment. A harmonised European border regime has been put in place in order to “deal” with migratory movements and to proceed to the selective inclusion of people within segments of European societies and labour markets. This process has gone hand in hand with the formulation of ever more racist discourses, targeting both non-European migrants and those deemed as “less European” within the EU.

The recent surge in racism following the Brexit vote in the UK has been presented as in antithesis to the idea and values of the European Union. In reality, discourses of Europe and Europeanity produced by the EU have participated in the racialisation and marginalisation of various groups over the last three to four decades, including people coming from the peripheries of the EU and beyond. Rather than an aberration in full opposition to Europe, these racist reactions can be better understood precisely by looking at them in relation to the European Union and to dominant narratives of European belonging.

Europeanism cannot be the basis for the development of a real internationalism from below. However, since the establishment of a coordinated European border regime in the 1990s, a range of grassroots movements in solidarity with migrants and refugees has emerged across the EU and beyond. Their opposition to the EU border regime and its appalling human consequences has been underpinned by the formulation of new political discourses that challenge the geography of separation and the false cosmopolitanism of the EU. They put forward new forms of internationalism, based on notions of world citizenry and solidarity without borders, and open up the way for new forms of radical cosmopolitanism from below.71

Céline Cantat is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Central European University in Budapest where she works on migrants’ solidarity movements in Hungary and Central Europe. Previously, Céline completed her PhD at the University of East London, focusing on pro-migrant organisations and networks in France, Italy and the UK and their relationship to the EU and its border regime.


1 Many thanks to Camilla Royle, Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara, Philip Marfleet and Prem Kumar Rajaram for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article.

2 See for example Yanis Varoufakis (Häring, 2015) but also a range of left wing commentators including grassroots movements eg Cooper, 2015.

5 Milward, 2000, p2.

6 Milward, 2000.

7 Harman, 1971.

8 Connolly, 2013.

9 Harman, 1991.

10 Callinicos, 1997.

11 Marfleet, 1999.

12 Gill, 2003, p63.

13 Most notably in the British Conservative Party.

14 Quoted in Laffan, 1996, p95.

15 Marfleet, 1999.

16 Jessop, 2002, p454.

18 Wacquant, 2010, p217.

19 Wacquant, 2010, p217.

20 Wacquant, 2010, pp202-203.

21 Delanty, 1995, p208.

22 Quoted in Anderson, 2011, p47.

23 Neave, 1991, p37.

24 See for example Sigalas, 2009.

25 Waever and Kelstrup, 1993, p67.

26 Marfleet, 2001, p86.

27 Švíhlíková, 2015.

28 Delanty, 1995.

29 Delanty, 1995, p9.

30 Marfleet, 1999.

31 Delanty, 1995, p71.

32 Marfleet, 1999, 2003.

33 Sinavandan quoted in Fekete, 2001, p24.

34 Balibar and Wallerstein, 2010.

35 Haynes, 1999, p25.

36 Kundera, 1984, p33.

37 Kundera, 1984, p33.

38 Murtic, 2015.

39 Mikhail Gorbachev referred to a “common European home”.

41 De Genova, unpublished.

42 The Visegrad 4 or V4 is an alliance between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

43 Jobbik—“Movement for a Better Hungary”—is Hungary’s radical far-right party.

45 Quoted in Macdonald, 2015.

46 Legally: the “European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union”, Frontex is the EU’s border agency. Established in 2004 and with (tellingly) headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, Frontex’s main mission is to manage the cooperation between national border guards to secure the EU’s external borders.

47 Hungarian Free Press, 2015.

48 Traynor, 2015.

49 Van Baar, 2015.

50 Al Jazeera, 2015.

51 Said, 1978, p3.

52 In the postcolonial, post-cold war era, imperialism is characterised, as Alex Colás and Richard Saull put it, by US hegemony “in a world of open doors (capitalist markets) and closed frontiers (territorially sovereign states)”—Colás and Saull, 2006, p2.

53 For further reading see for example Samman and Al-Zo’by, 2008, and Alam, 2007.

54 The Front National also sought funding from Russia to finance its election campaign, see

55 BBC News, 2015.

57 See for example Dawber, 2015 or BBC News, 2010.

59 This refers to the period between 1958 and 1973 during which around eight million work permits were issued to migrant workers by member states of the EEC (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany). One-third of the so-called “guest-workers” came from within the EEC (mainly Italy) but many were recruited through bilateral agreements for example between Germany and Turkey or Algeria and France. Workers were deemed “guests” insofar as they were expected to leave once their work permits had expired or if they were no longer considered able to work in the physically demanding and dangerous sectors usually reserved for guest-workers (mainly in building, mining, factories and transportation).

60 Huysmans, 2000.

61 Fielding, 1993, p43; Huysmans, 2000, pp754-755.

62 Conditions of admission and stay of so-called “third country nationals”.

63 The implementation of immigration rules via visa management, identity checks, police borders and so on.

64 Carrera, 2007, p6.

65 Carrera, 2007, p3.

66 See Huysmans, 2000; also Bigo, 2002; Bigo and Jeandesboz, 2009.

67 Kaplan, 1994. The article, later published as a book (Kaplan, 2000), was originally subtitled: “How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, Tribalism, and Disease are Rapidly Destroying the Social Fabric of Our Planet”.

68 Nyers, 2010, p414.

69 Cetti, 2012.

70 Fekete, 2016.

71 See Cantat, 2015.


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