Challenges to European Self-Understanding

The European Commission has put forth a clear objective to “reinforce EU citizens’ commitment to Europe’s common democratic values” (fundamental values of respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law). The EU’s goal is to defend these values and promote peace and wellbeing among its citizens. However, when faced with the challenges of mass migration, these values seem to falter for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as Fatima El-Tayeb summarized, the West, or in this case the EU, does not see Islam as a religion practiced in many forms, but an all-encompassing ideology. This thinking strips away all individuality from Muslims. This is what Edward Said argued was part of the Orientalist tradition. The West has defined itself as a civilizing power in the uncivilized East (the other). This means that the EU has committed to common democratic values, but only as long as they fall within what the EU defines as correct/civilized/democratic. I found El-Tayeb’s discussion of the exclusion of Muslim Europeans “through the claim of Islam being incompatible with a European commitment to human rights” very convincing. This is particularly evident and relevant with the rise of far-right populist movements across Europe. However, I was unsure about the argument of marginalizing queers of colour for not being “properly gay.” I wondered to what extent they were marginalized by (the implicitly white) gay community because they were queers of colour, or just because they were of colour?

Secondly, as Nilüfer Göle argued, “Europe cannot be approached as a pre-established entity equipped with a given structure and narrative with which others are expected to comply.” This line of thinking creates a problem for the idea of acceptance and freedom of expression and religion. That being said, I don’t exactly buy Göle’s statement about Europe. I do not think we should see Europe as a pre-established entity, it was very much consciously established with consciously created objectives and commitments to Europe’s common democratic values. I think this raises a bigger question of migration and assimilating/integrating into a new society or culture. To what extent can we expect migrants to adopt new customs and social norms? To what extent are these norms based on historical claims to the area? Should migrants to Europe fully adopt the “civilized West’s” way of life while rejecting their past?

Thirdly, while there may be clear objectives to common democratic values now, this was not always the case. As Dan Stone argued, some parts of Europe may not have come to terms with the memory of the Holocaust, which is why they were not prepared to respond to the refugee crisis. I think Stone offers many interesting reflections on this line of argument, but I could not help but think of other reasons for the response to refugees in Eastern Europe. Stone brings up Viktor Orbán as well as Poland’s readiness to accept refugees as long as they are Christian. In the case of Hungary, I think anti-migrant sentiment runs much deeper than Orbán. I would argue Orbán capitalized on anti-migrant sentiment among the Hungarian people (that are ethnically homogenous). The population in Poland is also very ethnically homogenous, which would exacerbate the difficulties of “the Other” to integrate into society. There are other concerns in Hungary and Poland, such as lack of media freedom, that make these problems worse.

Overall, I think this week’s readings brought up many good points that highlighted the challenges that mass migration has posed to European identity. They are however parts of bigger questions: to what extent should ‘European identity’ be preserved? What is European identity? What are valid threats to European identity and what are not valid threats? Can we classify mass migration as a valid threat to European identity? Is this inherently a bad thing?

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