The recent publication of the book Eurowhiteness adds to various critiques of the EU. In this context, Jaap Hoeksma reminds us that we should not overlook the EU’s merits and its ongoing democratic trajectory. The EU, he argues, embodies the most significant innovation of the Modern States System since the Middle Ages
Summer 2023 saw the publication of Hans Kundnani's Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project. The book, billed by its publisher as 'an alternative account of the EU as a racialised project', is triggering fierce debate in the UK and on the continent. We might perceive the title as a provocation to the cosmopolitan elite which allegedly runs the EU. Its contents are disquieting.
The book's main argument is that while the process of European integration may have started as a well-meaning cosmopolitan project, intended to benefit the entire world, it has degenerated over time into a self-centred regional project. In this view, European regionalism is in fact a transformation of nationalism at a higher level. It should not therefore any longer be acclaimed, since it merely serves the interests of its white inhabitants, eager to forget their colonial past.
Kundnani's book argues that the European project has degenerated into self-centred regionalism which serves only the interests of its white inhabitants
The book’s publication coincides with contentious debates in a number of European countries. These include questions over the wisdom of Brexit, and claims made by a far-right party in Germany that the EU must die in order to let the real Europe live.
So, what about the European Union?
Kundnani’s critique is indeed stinging. However, his portrayal of European integration as a cosmopolitan endeavour is based on his reading of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas rather than on the texts of the European treaties themselves. The treaties were always clear on the scope of the project. Membership is open to all European countries respecting the values and goals of the organisation. Actually, it would have been rather presumptuous in the postwar period to portray Europe as a beacon of inspiration for the entire world. The old continent lay in ruins after two devastating wars. Even after the German recovery of the 1950s, authors like Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber predicted that Europe was destined to become the museum of the world.
Habermas argued that the European polity should become a federal European state, for the sake of humanity and for the entire planet
Habermas portrayed the European Communities as a step towards the realisation of global peace and the establishment of a cosmopolitan world order. In captivating language, Habermas highlighted that the European polity should become a federal European state, not for the sake of Europe but rather for humanity and the planet at large.
Unfortunately, this seemingly altruistic approach missed a key point about European integration. Habermas was not radical enough in his analysis of international politics. In the footsteps of Immanuel Kant, Habermas studied the world through the lens of the prevailing paradigm of international relations, known as the Westphalian system. Yet, the Westphalian paradigm and global peace have become irreconcilable concepts in the 21st century.
The essence of the Westphalian system of international relations is that States enjoy absolute sovereignty. They deal with each other on an equal footing and need not recognise a higher worldly or religious authority. States are entitled to defend their territory and their interests with military means. In fact, war is justified as the ultimate means for the resolution of conflicts between States.
The system finds its origins in the peace settlements which brought an end to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and were concluded in the German region of Westphalia. Its influence on European philosophy is unparalleled. The Swiss-French author Jean-Jacques Rousseau praised it as the eternal foundation of our system of international relations.
Perceived in the approach of the Westphalian system and Habermassian theory, the only reasonable goal for the EU was to become a federal state of Europe. Trapped in this mindset, it is easy to debunk the European effort by depicting it as a new form of nationalism. Kundnani justifies this conclusion with a reference to the call for European sovereignty, which French President Emmanuel Macron has made since his election in 2017.
This line of thought can seem straightforward because it overlooks the constitutional essence of the EU. From a legal point of view, the radical nature of the European experiment consists in its slow but steady departure from the Westphalian paradigm.
Two consecutive world wars in 30 years showed that Europe had become too small for absolute sovereignty. Instead of war, the peoples of Europe wanted ever closer union. Politicians tried to attain this goal by pooling sovereignty. Initially, they did so over the raw materials required for the conduct of war. Later, they did so over the entire economy.
Politicians learned by practice how to achieve lasting peace through sharing the exercise of sovereignty. This incremental EU development proved so radical that theorists like Habermas were unable to account for it.
We can summarise seventy years of European integration in the maxim that the drive towards ever closer union is resulting in the emergence of the EU as a transnational democracy. In the process it has outgrown the prevailing Westphalian system. The EU is no longer destined to be identified as either a federal state or a confederal association of states. Instead, the EU has become the first international polity which functions as a democracy. Hence, we can identify the EU in its present form as a democratic international organisation.
The EU is no longer either a federal state or a confederal association of states. In its present form, it is a democratic international organisation
This construction does not imply, as Kundnani suggests, a return to the nation-state. However, it may form a prelude to a global system in which the shared exercise of sovereignty is the norm rather than the exception.
In the long run, the EU’s breakaway from the Westphalian system may be its most significant contribution to global governance. Global problems like climate change, pandemics and nuclear proliferation show that the world has become too small for absolute sovereignty, too.
So, while the EU is far from perfect, critics like Kundnani do not strengthen their case by overlooking its merits.