Eurowhiteness. Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project

Kundnani, Hans
London 2023: Hurst & Co.
Anzahl Seiten
246 S.
£ 14.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Kiran Klaus Patel, Historisches Seminar, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Hans Kundnani has written an unconventional history of European union. Instead of focusing on institutions and rounds of negotiations, which have already been exhaustively analysed, he examines questions of collective memory and identity, as well as what he calls “the imaginary and political borders of Europe, and the evolution of ideas of European civilisation and a European ‘civilising mission’” (p. 7).

Although Kundnani is a political journalist by trade, his book is based on an intense study of the historical literature. But he also delves into today’s debates about the fate and future of the European Union (EU) and post-Brexit Britain. Beyond its empirical analysis, the book also has conceptual ambitions. Kundnani introduces the notion of regionalism for a new reading of questions about identity and memory in the EU, as well as in European history more broadly. In his eyes, European integration is not so much a cosmopolitan, liberal project but rather a form of regionalism with structural similarities to nationalism, only transposed to the supranational level. Building on a distinction Hans Kohn introduced into the discussion of nationalism some eighty years ago, Kundnani argues that the EU’s brand of regionalism knows two variants: the civic, premised on voluntary commitment, liberal principles, and inclusiveness; and the ethnic/cultural, largely defined by civilizational, illiberal, and racist notions. The book asserts that the specifically regional character of European memory and identity and their impact on political processes have long been overlooked, and that the same can be said of the ethnic/cultural notion (to which the book’s title Eurowhiteness refers).

The first chapter lays the conceptual groundwork. Kundnani rejects the idea of Europe as a thoroughly cosmopolitan, open project – whether economic or cultural. Instead, he stresses that integration has always been regionally limited and based on processes of othering, be it vis-à-vis the East or the Global South. Chapter 2 provides a succinct discussion of the long history of ideas about Europe from antiquity to 1945, before the next three chapters explore the nexus between European integration and memory/identity in a roughly chronological manner. The final chapter addresses the special case of the United Kingdom. Kundnani emphasizes that Brexit was not just an expression of white anger. Instead, he argues that by leaving the EU and its form of regionalism, which had facilitated “imperial amnesia” (p. 153), the United Kingdom might be able to embrace a more cosmopolitan approach. While he convincingly teases out the complexity of the motives for Brexit, it is at least one step too far to attribute the United Kingdom’s imperial amnesia to the EU. Recent developments in the country also seem to contradict his argument.

What does Kundnani’s analysis offer historians? It synthesizes an impressive amount of recent research (50 pages of endnotes follow some 180 pages of text!) in a form accessible to a wider readership. Given the technical nature of many of the cited studies, this is quite an accomplishment. Moreover, he offers a new analytical framework and fresh empirical interpretations. And while I find some of them problematic, the book represents a thought-provoking intervention and can help to inspire fresh research. Its main thrust – acknowledging the regional limits of European integration and the way othering has informed and driven the process – is not completely new. Still, no other survey emphasizes this perspective so consistently. The same holds true for his focus on race. Here, Kundnani builds on research by Peo Hansen, Stefan Jonsson, Lindsay Aqui, Megan Brown and others who have stressed the late colonial origins of post-war European integration. For example, Kundnani convincingly shows how the first predecessors of today’s EU only shrank to a geography roughly replicating the Carolingian empire after its member states had lost their colonies. While historical research highlighting the late and post-colonial dimensions of European integration to date concentrates on the early post-war years, Kundnani helps us to think about how “Eurowhiteness” remained a factor in more recent periods. Moreover, his concept of European regionalism is open enough to acknowledge the civic dimension of the process and to reflect how it mixed with and was sometimes outpaced by ethnic/cultural approaches.

The work has fundamental flaws, however: Throughout its chapters, it stresses the role of “pro-Europeans” and their problematic representations of European integration, which one-sidedly emphasized its inclusive and civic dimensions. Kundnani fails to define this group and instead simply refers to examples. Concretely, he cites members of the political and intellectual elites such as Konrad Adenauer and Angela Merkel, as well as Emmanuel Macron, Jürgen Habermas, and Ulrich Beck. Much of Kundnani’s earlier work focused on Germany, so it comes as no surprise that Germans get a lot of attention. Still, the broad spectrum of positions lumped together under the catchphrase “pro-European” remains under-explored, and the same holds true for their concrete political influence. Also, when he writes about “the EU” it is often unclear whether Kundnani means the Union, its member states or other institutional constellations. Moreover, he fails to provide a detailed analysis of how the various blends of regionalism rubbed off on European policies and the polity as a whole. The same can be said of the extent to which such notions have been anchored in European societies. The influence of civic and ethnic/cultural ideas about regionalism therefore remain underexplored, as do the practices of “Eurowhiteness”. Kundnani raises important questions and provides initial insights, but a lot of work remains to be done.

Some of the empirical arguments also raise doubts. To name but two: Kundnani argues that the civic notion of regionalism dominated the long period from around 1960 to 2010, and has only given way to a civilizational turn over the past dozen years. This argument convinces me more for the 1990s and 2000s than for the Cold War decades. And while the different treatment of refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and Ukraine over the past decade seems to confirm his argument about “Eurowhiteness”, and hence the role of ethnic and cultural arguments, other factors – such as the greater threat posed by Russia in comparison to other zones of conflict – would have deserved consideration, as would the openness to refugees from non-white parts of the world in many European societies in 2015. Having said this, Kundnani’s widely debated book has already become a springboard for a discussion about today’s EU and for rethinking our ways of writing the history of the process that created it.