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Re:framing Migrants in the European Media Back

Re:framing Migrants in the European Media

12 Dec 2022

Our project Re:framing Migrants in the European Media wants to help change current media narratives about migrant and refugee communities across Europe. No longer should they be subjects of narratives, but the owners. In this post we republish two articles from our 2022 annual magazine, one by Hans Kundnani and one by Black Coffee.

Daniel Liévano for Fine Acts.

Europe’s reputation as a cosmopolitan haven has been exposed as a mirage
by: Hans Kundnani

The EU increasingly embraces the idea of a continental identity, one that’s white and Christian. Is it really the liberal body of remainer lore?


When Kabul fell in mid-August, almost the first reaction of European leaders was fear of another wave of refugees arriving on the continent. “We must anticipate and protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows,” said the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrat candidate hoping to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor in the election that takes place in two weeks, said there could be no repeat of the refugee crisis of 2015, when Germany received more than a million asylum seekers. By the end of the month, the European Council had agreed to “act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements faced in the past”.

The focus on “protecting” Europe from an influx of asylum seekers reflects a troubling transformation of the European Union over the past decade. There was a time when “pro-Europeans” were confident that the world would almost inevitably be remade in the image of the EU, as it endlessly expanded its rules and exported its model centred on the “social market economy” and the welfare state. Since the eurozone debt crisis began in 2010, however, Europeans have become more defensive and now see the world largely in terms of threats.

Against this background, Europe also increasingly conceives of itself in cultural terms. As the European model has become less credible and compelling – in part because, led by Merkel, Europeans have hollowed it out in an attempt to become more “competitive” – “pro-Europeans” now talk endlessly of “European values”. Ursula von der Leyen’s “geopolitical” European Commission even includes a commissioner for promoting the European way of life (it was originally “protecting” rather than “promoting”), who is responsible for asylum and immigration issues.

When Macron became French president in 2017, he spoke of a Europe qui protège – “that protects”. This was initially, above all, about protecting citizens from the market; he hoped to reform the eurozone to create a more redistributive EU. But his plans were blocked, or rather simply ignored, by Merkel. Since then, under pressure from the far right and increasingly mimicking it, Macron has reinvented the idea of cultural, rather than economic, protection – in particular, from Muslims.

“Pro-European” centrists such as Macron increasingly think of international politics in terms of a Huntingtonian “clash of civilisations” – but whereas Samuel Huntington saw the west as one civilisation that would find itself in conflict with China and Islam in the post-cold war period, they see Europe as a civilisation that is distinct from, and which must also assert itself against, the United States.

The civilisational turn in the European project complicates the story of Brexit we have told ourselves. Leavers have often been portrayed as yearning for a white Britain before mass immigration began in the 1950s. But the reality is more complex. For example, one-third of Britain’s black and Asian population voted to leave in 2016. As political scientist Neema Begum has shown, many did so because they saw the EU as a “white fortress” – and even those who voted to remain tended not to identify as European. Continental Europe generally lags behind the UK in terms of racial equality – for example, Brexit dramatically reduced the number of MEPs from ethnic minorities in the European parliament. (There are no exact figures because member states such as France and Germany do not collect ethnic data.)

On the continent, “pro-Europeans” believe they have something in common with other Europeans that separates them from the rest of the world – they think of Europe as what the Germans call a Schicksalsgemeinschaft, or community of fate. Few remainers think in this way; many are genuine cosmopolitans. The problem is that they are often as ignorant of the reality of the EU as leavers are and support an imaginary EU rather than the real existing EU. In particular, many on the British left imagine the EU to be much more open and progressive than it really is. Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator and now a candidate for the Republican nomination in the French presidential election next year, last week called for a suspension of immigration from outside Europe.

It is particularly odd, when you think about it, that identifying with “Europe” should be thought of as an expression of cosmopolitanism. Europe is not the world and supporting the EU, or thinking of yourself as European, does not make you a “citizen of the world”, let alone a “citizen of nowhere”, as Theresa May famously suggested in 2016. Rather, it makes you a citizen of a particular region – one that happens to be the whitest on earth. In fact, historically, “European” and “white” were largely synonymous – think, for example, of what “European” meant in apartheid South Africa.

It is true that, after the Second World War, a new, more civic European identity emerged, at least among elites, that was centred on what became the EU. But it constantly drew on older ethnic or cultural ideas of Europe for legitimacy and pathos – for example, the most prestigious prize for “pro-Europeans” is awarded in the name of Charlemagne, the embodiment of a medieval European identity synonymous with Christianity. As even the term “pro-European” illustrates, civic, ethnic or cultural ideas of European identity were always being elided.

Moreover, while the EU was based on learning the lessons of centuries of conflict within Europe that culminated in the Second World War, and gradually also came to incorporate the collective memory of the Holocaust into its narrative, “pro-Europeans” did not even attempt to learn the lessons of what Europeans had done to the rest of the world and never had anything to say about the history of colonialism.

The EU has become more embattled during the past decade as the far right surges throughout the continent and increasingly sets the agenda for the centre right and even some centre-left parties, such as the Danish Social Democrats. This means that the fragile civic identity that emerged during the postwar period seems to be giving way to a more cultural or even ethnic identity – defined, in particular, against Islam. In other words, whiteness may actually be becoming more, not less, central to the European project.

This contribution has first appeared in The Guardian on September 12 2021.

Daniel Liévano for Fine Acts.

Seeing Beyond the filter of an imaginary Europe
by: Black Coffee

Hans Kundnani wrote his article eight months ago, yet the topic couldn’t be timelier. The journalist’s analysis of Europe’s reaction to non-European humanitarian crises recalls the media narration of wars started by the West but on territories far from it. Consequently, European public opinion perceives countries outside the West as places stricken by wars and poverty. The shared fantasy of these far-off and uncivilised populations always at war with each other – for tribal or religious reasons – legitimates right-wing parties. They justify their protectionist propaganda by describing non-European immigration as dangerous and invasive, enabling diseases to spread with people coming from cultures too foreign to them to fit in Europe. Then there is the moralist left that presents itself as a saviour to these people – they may still consider inferior – in need of a benevolent civilising white hand to save them. Despite their very contrasting views, these two approaches to immigration have one common point: the idea of a white and Christian Europe for right and left-wing parties.

At this particular moment, Kundnani’s article is insightful. Following Ukraine’s invasion by Russia, media such as CBS News, the Daily Telegraph, BBC and BFM TV reinforced this stereotype of a white and Christian European identity. According to their perception of Europe, many journalists and pundits have explained Europeans’ closeness to Ukrainian people for the following reason: ‘they look like us.’ Behind this ‘they look like us’, some described Ukrainian people as civilised, Christian and culturally close to Europe. To this point, we wonder how much people know about Ukrainian culture or how much they know that albeit Christians, 67,3% of Ukrainians are Orthodox, whereas Catholics (7,7%), Protestants (0,8%) and Jewish people (0,4%) are a minority in the country. Thus, the religious proximity with Ukraine appears like a moot point, as the European Christianity the media and politicians speak about is a Catholic one. For the reasons mentioned above it is clear that the only element that unites Ukraine and that imaginary Europe is whiteness. Kundnani’s last point, which states that “whiteness may actually be becoming more, not less, central to the European project,” perfectly sums it up.

The way whiteness permeates the European identity is even more apparent as non-white and Black refugees fleeing Ukraine told about their difficulties to cross borders because of the ‘Ukrainian first’ policy. Moreover, students and BIPOC families struggled to flee Ukraine and enter Poland. Such a difference in treating BIPOC refugees was motivated by false information spread by far-right groups about alleged crimes by non-white people fleeing Ukraine. It is telling that we know about these discriminatory dynamics on the Ukrainian and Polish borders thanks to BIPOC activists, journalists (and refugees themselves) who spoke out first against those practices and who made the issue go viral on social media.

Furthermore, as Kundnani explains, using Kabul as an example, the arrival of non-white refugees means protecting one’s borders. Yet, not only Ukrainian refugees are described positively, but European governments proactively prepare to open their borders to them. Case in point, French Prime Minister Jean Castex recently revealed a plan to accommodate 26 000 Ukrainian refugees. Unlike Emmanuel Macron did for Afghan refugees, Castex didn’t speak about protecting France against irregular migratory flows. Recently French online journal Mediapart investigated the case of 49 migrants hailing from Afghanistan, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, fearing eviction from the shelter they stayed in. Despite the local authorities denying their expulsion in favour of Ukrainian refugees, Mediapart discovered the organisation offering a place to stay to these migrants planned to give their newly vacant spaces to Ukrainian refugees. The double standard between Ukrainian and non-white refugees isn’t the only thing to notice. The narration of the EU as a beacon of freedom and democracy to which Ukrainian people should aspire, rather than their self-determination, is a significant part of media sensitisation.

We agree with Kundnani’s statement that the narration of a Christian and white Europe fuels nationalism and focuses the debate on an imaginary Europe rather than the real one. In his article, he describes that fictitious Europe that believes to be cosmopolitan but roots its identity in whiteness – the Charlemagne Prize, coined ‘the embodiment of a medieval European identity synonymous with Christianity’ and awarding citizens contributing to the unification of Europe, being its epitome. However, this fantasised identity is hard to debunk as data lack (data collection based on race in many European countries is forbidden) to confirm that European identity isn’t only white and Christian. Despite this hurdle, Black communities are more and more visible, notably through projects that defy the mainstream media storytelling and political propaganda about what is Europe. Podcasts like Kiffe Ta Race, Tupoka, #Blackcoffee_pdc, and many other projects are fundamental for the European space. They allow for a reformulation of European identity taking into account those affected by colonialism.

On the topic, French philosopher Ernest Renan, known for his reflection on the concept of nation (but less on his views on race), comes to mind. If, as he says, it is necessary to have shared memory to build a nation, then to make a realistic Europe, we need to read History going beyond the filter imposed by the European imperialists of the nineteenth century. We can’t keep on considering that period of history as “the mutual historical experience” that Renan talks about. A comprehensive reading of History shouldn’t be limited to celebrating the ‘glorious’ times but instead critically analysing its impact on populations, who, despite being perceived as far-off, are an integral part of the modern Western social structure. Literature is brimming with exceptional voices – such as Frantz Fanon, an inspiration for anti-colonial realities – that are now landmarks for many Black people and ethnic minorities who are part of Europe today.

This conversation is also valid regarding how the media and politicians talk about the asylum system. In mainstream media, the refugees’ voices are absent. Fortunately, there are a few voices, such as political geographer Sinthujan Varatharajah who took to Instagram (now in his highlights and entitled ‘exemption’) to tell about his family’s experience as Eelam Tamil fleeing the genocide from the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Born in a refugee camp in Germany, his story as a second-generation Eelam Tamil is not what you will see in mainstream media, despite him being part of the country’s social structure. Like many non-white journalists and activists covering the Ukrainian war, Varatharajah denounces the double standard in how the mainstream media narrates the Ukrainians, most importantly, the discrimination suffered by non-white people at the Ukrainian borders. These non-white journalists and activists using the virality of internet and social media to spread news are often why some prominent news outlets end up reporting issues that wouldn’t otherwise make it to the headlines. Such a two-tier reporting system confirms the gap between an imaginary and real Europe.

This article was originally written for our Common Ground magazine in April 2022.

Daniel Liévano for Fine Acts.

Both articles feature in our 2022 annual magazine Common Ground, which is available as a free download here.

You can access the Re:framing Migrants in the European Media website for reports, surveys and events.

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