Empires and Barbarians: The EU and Violence at its Margins

The Brexit referendum to leave the European Union (EU) has been applauded by some scholars and politicians as a victory for the sovereign people of Great Britain in response to the undemocratic and technocratic nature of the EU. These analysts consider the United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to withdraw from the Union a win for state institutions and political responsiveness at the state level (Cunliffe & Ramsay 2016). Brexit has been critiqued by other scholars, however, as a cynical and wishful attempt by UK elites and right-wing conservative politicians to resurrect Britain’s former imperial glory by strengthening the UK and its Commonwealth, or the so-called “Anglosphere” (i.e., its former colonies: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA), as an alternative to the supranational and globalized EU “invader” (Bell 2016; Morozov 2016). Yet, while proponents on both sides of this argument rightly criticize the EU bureaucracy as removed and even immune from popular and public contestation, neither scholarship critiques the EU’s increasingly illiberal external policies, whether successful or not, which I argue are quite evident if the Union is examined through a “EU-as-empire” conceptual lens.

Political theory and international relations have had difficulty as fields identifying the EU as a “political object.” Theorists and politicians alike have made various attempts to define this sui generis or “unidentified political object” (Delors 1985). In an effort to conceptualize the EU, scholars have theorized the entity as a “normative power (Manners 2002), “post-modern (Diez 1997),” “civilian power (Telo 2006),” or a “communion” (Manners 2013).

In contrast to the above conceptualizations, the “EU-as-Empire” argument, popularized by Jan Zielonka’s 2006 Europe as Empire, claims that the Union can, and perhaps should, be viewed as some form of empire. Former EU Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso buttressed this argument by labeling the Union a rather paradoxical “non-imperial Empire” (Mahony 2007). An important aspect of considering the EU-as-empire is what Behr has termed “governing from a distance” (Behr and Stivachtis 2015, 11). In essence, political entities that use policies “that are supposed to and organized to govern over vast geographical and territorial dimensions” are inherently violent because these strategies often ignore place-specific and contextual situations in favor of “universal,” and in this case, Western-based frames of reference (Behr 2015, 33-34). As a result, they recreate core-periphery relationships reminiscent of former imperial rule (Behr and Stivachtis, 2015). Thus, although this brief post does not seek to determine whether the EU can truly be considered an empire, it does argue that the “EU-as-empire” scholarship highlights the Union’s increasingly coercive policies in the developing world. This has been particularly evident in the EU’s efforts to prevent the migration of people, specifically sub-Saharan refugees, from moving into the Schengen zone. Even though disagreement between a share of the member states and the EU Commission concerning how to “solve” the so-called “refugee crisis” has seemingly fractured concord among them, the Commission and some of its member states, including Spain, Italy, and Germany, nonetheless continue to employ coercive policies in an attempt to halt the “flood” of refugees (Nail 2016).

While U.S President Donald Trump’s attempted immigration ban and the rising xenophobia in the UK, as well as in several other EU member’s states (e.g., Germany, France, Hungary) has garnered attention in the media, the Commission’s effort to prevent continued outmigration of people from several sub-Saharan African nation-states, including Eritrea, from which large numbers of refugees have emanated, has resulted in a number of EU agreements with several dictatorial regimes. For example, one of the primary refugee routes into the Union leads through Libya. While Muammar Gaddafi was in power, he accepted “aid” from Italy to halt the movement of African refugees through his nation and on into the EU (Macdonald 2017). After the 2011 Arab Spring, the Union’s Commission and its member states proposed not only new initiatives with Libya, but also with Sudan’s president Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (Plaut 2017). Moreover, Plaut has highlighted the fact that the EU has given the one-party government in Eretria, which has never faced elections, 200 million Euros in “development aid” without any strictures concerning how the money could be used (2017) in order to gain that regime’s cooperation in stanching migration.

While the EU Commission, member states and various other institutions continue to promote a liberal and cosmopolitan Union, their simultaneous efforts to “govern from a distance” reflect a political entity that is beset by contradictions. In addition to the policies noted above, the heavily militarized Spanish enclaves in North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, which play an integral role in preventing refugee movements, further evince the coercive nature of the EU’s attempts to “secure” its territory (Peters 2011).

In conclusion, while this essay did not seek to prove that the EU is an empire, it is my hope nevertheless that it reveals some of the contradictions present among the Union’s normative claims and its external policies. That touchstone should allow a more nuanced critique of the EU’s refugee policies.



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Johannes Grow is a third-year PhD student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) program. He received his Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs (MPIA) and a B.A in International Studies from Virginia Tech. His research interests include: Social and Political Theory, Empire, International Relations, Critical European Studies, Postcolonial Theory and Critical Geopolitics. He currently teaches International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech.



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