Magazine article Dissent

In Search of Europe's Borders: The Politics of Migration in the European Union

Magazine article Dissent

In Search of Europe's Borders: The Politics of Migration in the European Union

Article excerpt

ON MARCH 11, 1882, the great French scholar Ernest Renan gave a lecture with the provocative title, "What is a Nation?" * Still recovering from the shock of the defeat of France by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, Renan, like many liberal nationalists before and after him, walked a thin line between the affirmation of the individual nation, which he described as "a soul, a spiritual principle," and the celebration of the peaceful plurality of nations. For Renan, nations were not eternal: they emerged through suffering and struggle in the past; they were sustained by the will to live together in the future. Nations had their beginning and their end. One day, he prophesied, "A European confederation will probably replace them. But such is not the law of the century in which we are living."

* Ernest Renan, "What is a Nation?" in Nation and Narration, ed. by Homi Bhabha (Routledge, 1990), pp. 8-23.

Twice in the twentieth century nationalist wars convulsed Europe and led to worldwide carnage; the dream of a European confederation that would end such wars has inspired European intellectuals at least since the Napoleonic conquests in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Recent developments within the European Union--the adoption of a common currency by twelve of the fifteen member countries and the launching in February 2002 of a year-long European constitutional convention--have given "Euro-federalists" new hope and energy. Starting from a coal and steel consortium among Germany, France, the Benelux countries, and Italy in 1951, the EU currently encompasses 370 million residents in fifteen member countries. Despite occasional setbacks (Denmark's veto of the Maastricht Treaty, for example) and despite the more serious discord caused by the election of right-wing governments in Austria, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands, most Euroskeptics have to admit that the EU is moving inexorably forward. The question no longer is "whether the EU?" but "whither the EU?"

By 2003, the EU intends to expand its current membership to twenty-one countries, including the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, and Estonia. An ambitious second expansion by 2007 is intended to bring in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, the Slovak Republic, and Malta. Since the Copenhagen accords of 1993, conditions for admission to full membership have been defined very broadly to include (1) a demonstration of a country's commitment to functioning democratic institutions, human rights, the rule of law, and respect for and protection of minorities; (2) a competitive market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure; and (3) evidence that the country is able to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic, and monetary union. By focusing on such broad institutional criteria, the EU avoids the much more controversial issues concerning cultural, linguistic, religious, and ethnic identities. The EU supposedly rests on a proven capacity to sustain a set of institutions, which, although originating in the West, are in principle capable of functioning on other soils and in other cultures as well. European identity is not given a thick cultural or historical coating; no exclusionary appeals are made to commonalities of history or faith, language or customs. In Renan's terms, it is the will to live together in the future, and not the fractious past, that defines the new European federation.

Despite these noble wishes to build the EU on "thin" liberal-democratic institutional criteria rather than "thick" cultural identities, a deep conflict between institutional principle and identity is unfolding, both within member states and at their borders. Intense debates range throughout the EU regarding the integration of sizable guest-worker populations and their descendants into their host countries, and many countries are passing new and more restrictive immigration and naturalization bills. …

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