The Danger of Building Walls in Europe

On 21 August, I was invited to talk about the importance of ‘walls’ in a European context at an annual socio-cultural-political event called ‘The Meeting’ in Rimini.  I sketched these notes as an aide for the interpreters who were supposed to render my unique version of the English language into fluent Italian.  My host, Paolo Magri, insisted that I speak in Italian instead.  What followed was probably more authentic as a set of off-the-cuff remarks using my one hundred and fifty mangled Italian vocabulary words, but it may not have delivered the full message.  My central argument is that we should be wary of identity-based political mobilization.  Any politician who wants to mobilize ‘us’ against ‘them’ is not your friend.  That is as true in the United States as it is in Europe.  Alas, Europe’s history with that kind of politics is a tragic one.  Let’s hope we don’t have to experience it again.

Here are my five thoughts:

  1. We need to distinguish between diversity and division.  Diversity is good.  Division is not.  That is why we worry about walls in a European context.  We have so much diversity that could be turned into division that we have to be very careful about who we bring into the conversation and who we leave out.  The point to note is that this is a generic argument that would apply to any identity-based form of political mobilization.  To see what I mean, I should give you a little personal biography.  I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Belgium and the Netherlands.  We like to think of those countries as rich, consensual, north European democracies.  But only some of those modifiers have ever been true and even those that were true for either country only applied for a short period of time.  The history of division in those countries is much longer.  The main divisions in both countries concerned religion and ideology.  In the Netherlands, those divisions pit Catholics against Protestants and Christians against those who did not go to confession; in Belgium, the divisions pit Catholics against Liberals and Socialists.  People from different groups were born in different hospitals, educated in different schools and universities, participated in different social networks, read different newspapers, followed different television stations and radio channels, belonged to different trade unions and employers’ associations and supported different political parties.  In other words, they lived completely different lives even if they shared the same geographic space.  You would think that moving beyond such divisions would be a good thing.  Unfortunately, it did not work out that way because of the way political entrepreneurs (or would-be populists) used identity to mobilize people around a change in social organization.  The Belgians focused on language and set in motion a division of the country into Flemish speakers and French speakers; the Dutch created an imagined common heritage to mobilize indigenous Dutch people against immigrants and Muslims.  Now we have to worry about the break-up of Belgium and the rise of xenophobic populism in the Netherlands.  This is the tragedy of identity based political mobilization – or the psychological walls we create between one group and another.
  2. The problem in Europe is that divisions are everywhere and so identity-based political mobilization is omnipresent.  The geographic notion of Europe is a good illustration.  We talk about Europe as though it is something obvious.  It isn’t.  Europe is both a peninsula and an archipelago.  That means the boundaries are easily contested.  Moreover, conceptions of Europe differ from one place to the next.  Germans are very likely to think of the British as European; the British are more likely to think of Europe as German.  That is why you have to be very careful when pollsters survey people to ask about their European identity.  You may get the same percentage of Germans, Greeks, Brits and Italians who claim that they are actually or simultaneously ‘European’ and yet that tells you very little about what they mean when they use the word ‘Europe’.  We joke in the Anglo-Saxon world that the British and the Americans are divided by a common language.  I often worry that Europeans will mobilize around competing and mutually exclusive claims to their common European identity.  Finally, Europe is not an exclusive category.  Russia and Turkey are both in Europe and out.  Moreover, both the Russians and the Turks recognize the ambivalence of their own situation.  They want to be accepted but they also realize they are different.  Identity-based political mobilization does not permit that kind of ambiguity.  You are either on one side of the wall or the other.  Worse, you do not get to take your pick.  Instead you get assigned to a category.
  3. The problem is even more challenging we move from geography to ideology, religion, and ethnicity.  These conflicts are the source of Europe’s most famous walls.  The Iron Curtain is one example, but we can find others going back to Hadrian (where the division was between the civilized world of the Roman Empire and the Celtish Barbarians).  Along the way, the principle unifying theme is the arbitrariness of division.  Fast forward from the time of Hadrian to the present and the descendants of Roman Britain are the ones who voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union while the descendants of the Pics and the Scots voted overwhelmingly to stay in.  The arbitrariness is even more obvious when we look at more recent divisions.  The Berlin wall is a good illustration both during the Cold War as it divided communists from capitalists and after it fell to reveal a cultural divide between Wessies and Ossies that has still not been eliminated.   The ‘peace lines’ in Northern Ireland offer a different kind of illustration.  Ostensibly those lines divided Catholics from Protestants; more fundamentally they divided groups that sought to compete for and monopolize scarce political and economic resources.  The legacy of those divisions is still painful even as the troubles have been replaced by accommodation.  The point once again is to underscore the perils of identity-based political mobilization.
  4. European integration has helped to eliminate some of these divisions, but others have proven persistent.  Here we could point to the famous reconciliation of the French and the Germans.  We might also look at the contribution that Europe has made to healing the division between East and West.  There is much that is positive for us to celebrate.  But the record is not immune to criticism.  Sometimes European integration has not been so positive.  Indeed, there are obvious examples where the European Union has become the source of division.  This is not just a story about the disappointment of the Turks and Ukrainians, who want membership and yet know they are not welcome.  It is also, and more fundamentally, a story about power and control.  Here we might look at the decision to extend membership to Cyprus after the Greek Cypriots rejected the Anand plan for the peaceful reunification of their island.  We might also look at the implications of Brexit for Gibraltar and Northern Ireland. These are complicated stories and so we might save the details for the question and answer part of this session in case there is any interest.
  5. Unfortunately, individuals are the chief victims of this arbitrariness.  This is what we are witnessing as a result of Europe’s current migration crisis.  The tragedy is self-evident.  I do not have to tell an audience of Italians what it means to confront the sudden arrival of people from another part of the world.  The point to bear in mind is what conditions must have been like for those people to leave home and to risk – not unimaginable but very well-known dangers to arrive in Europe.  It is also worth considering again the role of geography and the definition of Europe.  The irony is often palpable.  Just think of the European Union helping (The Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia establish a strong physical barrier with Greece; that was only part of the introduction of physical divisions running up and down the western Balkans.  If European integration was meant to heal the divisions in that region, migration into Europe has reinforced them.  Another point to note is that Europe’s fuzzy boundaries mean the population has always been mixed.  As a result, many Europeans have Muslim origins – some, like those in the western Balkans – can trace these roots back across the centuries.  The migration crisis is highlighting the way European diversity can be translated into division – the psychological walls between one group and another that I mentioned earlier – but that is not the reason those divisions exist in the first place.  On the contrary, migration is part of the European condition; so is diversity.  Indeed, that is as true for individual countries as it is for Europe as a collective.  This is obviously true in Southern and Eastern Europe and yet even Northern European countries like Belgium and the Netherlands cannot escape the reality of their diversity.  We have to learn to live with that; or we will have to suffer the alternatives.


Many thanks to Paolo Magri for inviting me to participate.  If you want to get a sense of how it went, you can find a short video here.

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