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Long Read November 2023

The anti-imperialism of the center: What makes Hans Kundnani’s reflections on Europe and imperialism partial and partly misleading?

by Ferenc Laczó

Hans Kundnani’s book Eurowhiteness (Hurst, 2023) provides a strong critique of the European Union and what he claims is its rootedness in “imperial amnesia”. Ferenc Laczó in his Long Read, however, writes that Kundnani’s narrow perspective on western Europe leads to him overlooking the ongoing history of imperialism within the geography of Europe, namely Russian imperialism.

Hans Kundnani’s stimulating new book Eurowhiteness argues that instead of aiming to reverse the United Kingdom’s abrupt suing for divorce on unfavorable terms, the misperception of the European Union as a progressive or even cosmopoli­tan project should finally be corrected. A grave misunderstanding has emerged, Eurowhiteness insists, because pro-Europeans have identified open­ness and integration within Europe with openness to the rest of the world. They have essentially mistaken Europe for the world. 

The end of empire in the decades after 1945 in fact triggered an inward turn that has made Europe “distinctly parochial” (Tony Judt), the author claims (pp. 76-77). What Timothy Snyder has called “the soft landing” that the EU provided after empire was in fact an escape into post-colonial amnesia, he explains. The tendency to serve as such a vehicle was observable already in the early decades of postwar European integration. That tendency has only become more salient since roughly the 1970s when European institutions first started to be concerned with questions of culture and identity. 

Kundnani sees powerful reasons why the EU has become a vehicle for imperial amnesia.

In the early 2020s, the official EU narrative still draws solely on internal lessons of European history, Kundnani elaborates: it is based on critically reconsidering what Europeans had done to each other, but not what Europeans had done to the rest of the world. Debates about Europe and debates about empire and race remain strangely disconnected, even though “whiteness” has become an even more central part of European identity in recent years, he observes critically. 

Kundnani sees powerful reasons why the EU has become a vehicle for imperial amnesia. After all, this integration project has come to be built on notions of European identity and the collec­tive memory of European imperialism would only weaken it, he argues. Even though the author believes that for the UK, Europe meant an alternative to empire, in his diagnosis the UK has not properly worked through its loss of empire either. Its membership of the EU may well be part of the reason, Kundnani ponders. Crucially for the book’s argument, the UK’s turn to Europe after the end of its imperial age in fact implied a racially coded reversal: the rights of “other Europeans” have been expanded within the UK just as non-white Commonwealth citizens have been reimagined as “immigrants” (p. 10).

Having left this continent-wide vehicle for imperial amnesia could in fact help the UK “rebalance,” Eurowhiteness proposes (p. 169). Contrary to what Brexit’s most influential advocates propagated around the time of the 2016 referendum, the UK’s exit, the author hopes, may foster more earnest and critical engagements with Eurocentrism, racism, and the legacy of empire. Kundnani’s book thus makes the case for Brexit as an opportunity for the political left in the UK, if only it articulated its own, progressive, globally conscious version of what Brexit Britain could look like. 

Kundnani is certainly correct to point out that at least for some British citizens, abruptly departing from the European party was not so much an expression of “white anger” as the opposite: a rejection of a bloc they saw as racist. However, even if non-white British citizens tended not to strongly identify as European, an overproportionate two-thirds of them still voted to remain in the EU. It is a basic point, but it bears repeating in this context that you can reject racism in Europe without rejecting the EU. So how does Hans Kundnani build his counter-intuitive case for Brexit as an opportunity for the left in the UK to dissect Eurocentrism, racism, and the legacy of empire? 

He does so basically by listing various shortcomings of the EU, by reflecting on the false path the European project has taken in recent years, and by caricaturing a rather underdefined group he calls “pro-Europeans” – who still appear to be strongly inspired by the abstract, at times naïve-sounding and somewhat dated ideas from the likes of Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck. 

The author emphasizes early on that – irrespective of what pro-European thinkers like to maintain – “European regionalism” is rather akin to nationalism with its competing civic and ethnic variants. In terms of political history, Kundnani argues that just as European elites were hollowing out the social market economy through ultralibéralisme in the 1980s and 1990s and were conspicuously constraining democracy through their top-down decisions to deepen integration further in the early 21st century, they were also seeking to give the European project new forms of legitimacy and surround it in pathos. They started to articulate discourses on European values while also turning Europe more “protectionist” in the cultural realm, he claims (p. 141). Political contestation soon shifted to issues around identity, immigration, and Islam, the book rehearses the somewhat clichéd argument about a right-wing populist Zeitgeist

In the author’s assessment, recent years have brought nothing less than a civilizational turn within the European project. Pro-Europeans have increasingly abandoned civic forms of European identity and now constantly draw on cultural and ethnic versions instead. Kundnani labels these variants “Eurowhiteness” – a term he borrows from the critical scholarship of global sociologist József Böröcz. Pro-Europeans have in fact appropriated far-rightist ideas, the author charges, either consciously (as part of their attempt to stop the rise of right-wing populist forces) or unconsciously (because they have remained largely ignorant of the historical and political connotations of many of their inherited tropes). Some pro-Europeans, he writes, now even worry about “the ‘replacement’ of a Europe defined in ethnic/cultural terms” (p. 38). 

Exclusionary visions have indeed gone more mainstream also on the level of European politics since roughly 2015, with massive and tragic consequences.

It is right to consider it deeply disturbing that even the European Commission, pretending to be closing ranks against “populism,” has started to discuss immigration as a threat to the “European Way of Life.” (It is more than suggestive in this regard that Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas’ portfolio explicitly links upholding the rule of law, migration, and internal security and was originally called Protecting our European Way of Life; the name has later been changed to Promoting our European Way of Life.) Exclusionary visions have indeed gone more mainstream also on the level of European politics since roughly 2015, with massive and tragic consequences. For those willing to confront some of the most harrowing of them, My Fourth Time, We DrownedSeeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route, Sally Hayden’s book on the detention centres in Libya that European institutions help populate, would be an excellent place to start.

However, Hans Kundnani’s exposure of pro-Europeans runs the risk of overkill.  The colonial project, he points out, was bound up with precisely the same Enlightenment thought that pro-Europeans claim dif­ferentiates the EU from pre-Second World War versions of European identity. When the EU tries to formulate universal values and proclaim global standards today, its rhetoric and actions remind the author of Europe’s new-old “civilizing mission.” When its supporters can no longer depict the European project as a model for the world, they quickly, and controversially, reconceptualize it as a geopolitical actor or even a “civilization under threat,” he remarks. Anti-nationalists who think of Europe as a way for people to cooperate peacefully across borders tend to forget the history of global imperialism and thereby unwittingly expose the limits of contemporary cosmopolitanism, he notes. While recent waves of enlargement have increased the EU’s inner diversity, paradoxical as this may sound, they have also reinforced the sense of Europe as an exclusive space, Kundnani complains. Even the “negative centrality” of the fascist past to the narrative of the European pro­ject has contributed to a peculiar form of Eurocentrism, he adds – ironically, this negative foundational myth may even have strengthened Europeans’ sense of superiority in recent years via undue forms of memory pride, the book ponders. 

When you are trying to present Brexit as a progressive opportunity, a dose of Europe-bashing cannot hurt, of course. However, while the author’s sustained attempt to expose hidden or repressed meanings yields sharp insights, there is just too little attempt made on these pages to think emphatically about Europe’s and, more specifically, the European Union’s political dilemmas and options. Does the European project oppose universalism (Kundnani’s European regionalism thesis), or does it pretend too unconvincingly to be universalistic (his “civilizing mission” thesis)? Is the rise of the identitarian far right the gravest issue of the day or is the distorting lens of anti-fascism somehow part of the central problem of Eurocentrism we should be concerned about? Have Europeans abandoned imperialism and then all too quickly forgotten about it or are they still desperately trying to reinstitute it in a new garb?

Perhaps all those questions can be answered in the affirmative in different contexts. But can they be equally true at the same time, as Eurowhiteness tries to convince us? Such an attempt to show how pro-Europeans have fallen short on each important account, and been in the wrong place all along anyway, is certainly unlikely to convince those purportedly being described here, i.e., conscious pro-Europeans. What makes this truly regrettable is that the author’s individual observations are often perceptive and contain more than a grain of truth.

There are also a few significant omissions in Kundnani’s otherwise illuminating discussion of (Western) Europe and imperialism. Collective memory is always selective, he notes, and his expose in Eurowhiteness unfortunately does not contradict the dictum. The book approvingly cites Gurminder Bhambra, who has argued that:

nation states in western Europe should be understood as impe­rial states. Seeing European nation states in this way requires not simply acknowledging their imperial pasts – in other words, that they had empires – but going much further in understanding the way in which these empires shaped the nation states they became after decolonization. (p. 170) 

I could not help but notice the not too subtle shift from “western Europe” to “European” between the first sentence and the second, a shift that might be more revealing of a certain generalization about “European states” than its author, Bhambra (or Kundnani, for that matter), may have fully realized.

With the exception of tiny Luxembourg, the original Six were indeed all profoundly implicated in and clearly responsible for the notorious history of European imperialism, including its most significant intra-European chapters in modern history (think Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler). The joint project they launched in the early postwar decades also claimed to represent “the European path” and foreshadow the continent’s desirable future. However, today we have a Union of 27 member states, the majority of which emerged from the collapse of postwar dictatorships and many of which became independent only with the more recent end of imperial rule within Europe – which is brutally challenged by Russia today, as discussed below. The global end of empires in the twentieth century in fact both started (at the end of the First World War) and ended (the implosion of the Soviet empire in 1989-91) within the geography of Europe, more specifically, in central and eastern Europe. It would thus be at least short-sighted, not to say completely anachronistic, to accept the original Six’s earlier, rather exclusive claim to Europeanness – or to suggest that they have some kind of monopolistic ownership of imperial history and memory in Europe. 

How does Kundnani deal with this major complication? In a key passage, he writes that: 

central and eastern European countries, particularly those who see themselves as the victims of Russian impe­rialism, would likely resist the idea that, in becoming EU member states, they also inherited responsibility for European colonialism. Thus an attempt to make the memory of empire more central to the EU’s identity would likely divide it between east and west. (p. 173)

While such concerns draw on relevant insights, they also made me wonder: why could not central and eastern European nations’ varied and all too abundant recent experiences with empire constructively feed into visions of a world beyond imperialism? Why does Hans Kundnani sound so brusque when it comes to the “underrepresented half” of Europe despite the fact that the latter’s recent history relates so closely to the core subject of his book (and he may even have found vocal allies there)?

A basic lesson to draw from central and eastern Europeans’ all too abundant recent experiences with empires would be that imperialism can come in diverse shapes. Racism in the Western sense can be absolutely central to such projects (think, most obviously, of Nazi Germany with its devastating agenda of colonizing “the East”) but it can also be much more marginal to them (as the Soviet case or Russian imperialism today, both of which have been responsible for mass violence, may illustrate). This implies that imperialism, colonialism, and racism should be carefully distinguished to then study the significant interconnections between them – a key issue which Eurowhiteness does not adequately consider.

There is another, more surprising qualification to the story of Europe and imperialisms. As Stella Ghervas elaborates in her Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union, the shape of the “Europe-empire-peace triangle” has repeatedly shifted over time. As Ghervas shows in fine detail, over the course of the past three centuries, the concept of peace in Europe has been divorced from the ambition to build an all-dominant (“universal”) empire. This means that the idea of Europe, with its connotation of freedom, became a way for Europeans to oppose projects of universal empire on their continent – even as, in a staggering act of self-contradiction, they built transcontinental empires through blatantly racist practices of coercion and mass violence. What we have here is a peculiar tradition of anti-imperialism within the geography of Europe and imperialism beyond it, often in the name of the very same ideas

Considered in the light of that shocking self-contradiction defining previous eras, Europe’s “inward turn” after 1945 might indeed be taken to mean that the anti-imperial connotations of Europe have gained the upper hand over the “external,” imperial ones. If so, then we would need to assess this inward turn as a positive development in terms of history, even if it had problematic consequences in the secondary domain of memory (“imperial amnesia”). However, Eurowhiteness, for all its stimulating insights, focuses only on the latter – external and memory-related – dimensions without considering the former. 

Failing to reflect on the historical and internal dimensions and being prone to conflating imperialism, colonialism and racism has significant implications when it comes to Kundnani’s perspective on the defining European conflict of our time: Russia’s ongoing attempt to destroy Ukraine and Ukrainians. The main critical comment we find on these pages regarding the European response to the fierce escalation of Russia’s war of aggression in 2022 is that it has revealed double standards and – to formulate it carefully – racially-coded preferences: “Even as the EU continued to brutally push back migrants in the Mediterranean, it opened its borders to those fleeing from Ukraine and provided them with extraordinary support,” Kundnani notes (p. 149). 

Ironically, what is missing amidst all the book’s nominal concerns about imperial amnesia is an urgent confrontation with the contemporary reality of old-fashioned Russian imperialism.

Such deadly inequities would indeed be impossible to understand without reflecting on the massive problem of people’s racialization, even if greater openness to Ukrainian refugees over – most notably – those from Syria has had several other sources too. To restrict myself to a most banal but quite crucial point: women and their young children fleeing a war of aggression against their country tend to be perceived as less threatening than young men escaping a chaotic and brutal civil war after several years of fighting. The gap in empathy of many European societies remains striking though and Kundnani legitimately suspects that conceptions of Eurowhiteness have played a crucial role here. 

Ironically, what is missing amidst all the book’s nominal concerns about imperial amnesia is an urgent confrontation with the contemporary reality of old-fashioned Russian imperialism. The Russian Federation shows few signs of having learned from or at least forgotten its history of imperialism. It is still trying its best to realize its imperial delusions, with devastating consequences. What we observe today is the kind of calamity that European intragovernmental cooperation and supranational integration were meant to disable on the continent. 

The European anti-imperialism that has resulted admittedly amounts to a kind of regionalism, which is – as Kundnani rightly points out – not unlike nationalism. However, there is another significant point here: in large parts of Europe, Ukraine obviously included, nationalism has had a markedly anti-imperial complexion – a point so basic that, at least in my experience, only people from former imperial centers seem capable of overlooking it. Let me quickly add that the main foreign policy goals of Ukrainians, who have been most valiantly pursuing self-defense, are admittedly more complicated: Ukrainians today intend to simultaneously join an anti-imperialist political union and a military alliance many critique as a handmaiden of US imperialism – elaborating on this tension would deserve a separate essay.

More importantly for our purposes here, I would argue that the highly engaged European response to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has further crystallized a blend. Numerous members of European societies clearly look more concerned about what happens on their continent than elsewhere, starkly oppose violent attempts to revive imperialism here, and are more emphatic towards victims they perceive as culturally or ethnically similar to themselves. We may label this powerful blend primarily inward-looking, therefore anti-imperialist, but also culturalist.

All of that also implies to me that Hans Kundnani’s omission of “the other half of Europe” should be seen as a major factor in its diagnosis. After all, the latter’s inclusion should logically have led the author to a belated admission that many pro-Europeans are in fact opposed to old-fashioned and deadly imperialism, not least because they do remember its recent crimes. Yes, the average pro-European person in central and eastern Europe probably does so with more passionate commitment, not to mention deeper fears, than their pro-European counterparts – a difference that is largely in accordance with Kundnani’s diagnosis (cited above) concerning their differing share of historical responsibilities and (the inverse prevalence of) victimhood memories. 

This might have made central and eastern Europeans Kundnani’s most obvious allies on the continent since both appear deeply concerned about the history and contemporary impact of imperialism and both have felt excluded, if in clearly distinct ways, from narrow and exclusivist forms of Eurocentrism that have been especially prevalent in Western Europe. What seems to divide them though are the priorities they assign to the questions of imperialism and racism. Ultimately, Kundnani appears more concerned about the problem of racism (hence his focus on the white supremacist tendencies within the European project and his rejection of this project) whereas imperialism tends to be more important to central and eastern Europeans, including local nationalists – a concern that is often manifested these days in support for a primarily inward-looking, anti-imperialist, but also culturalist Europe. To overcome this peculiar European blend, it would be imperative to combine two considerations, to finally reconcile “internal” and “external” perspectives – an urgent agenda to which Kundnani contributes, it seems to me, in a rather partial and partially misleading manner.

In conclusion, centering the imperial amnesia of Europeans, as Hans Kundnani does on the pages of Eurowhiteness, opens up an intriguing, if somewhat counter-intuitive path to reconsider the implications of Brexit. The European project has been far from as progressively cosmopolitan as some of its naïve supporters imagine. Kundnani does well to underline that there has in fact been a long and intimate relationship between influential forms of European iden­tity, whiteness, and white racism. It would indeed be high time to confront this relationship and develop a much more genuinely “universal universalism.” By diagnosing this intimate relationship, Eurowhiteness offers several plausible arguments to vaguely pro-European progressives in the United Kingdom that might convince them to shift their views in a globally conscious direction. Such arguments may help heal the UK’s “Brexit trauma” – and that alone would make this slim book an essential constructive intervention in national debates. However, there is also something of the provincialism of the center in Kundnani’s main call, which I would paraphrase as “anti-imperialists and anti-racists of one country, unite!” 

Eurowhiteness in fact develops a highly partisan interpretation of Europe that recognizes few others than west European imperial amnesiacs, racists on the far right, alongside a few naïve-sounding pro-Europeans, mostly from the Federal Republic of Germany. Such a narrow perspective leads the author to overlook the recent and ongoing history of imperialism within the geography of Europe and ignore the internal, anti-imperial connotations of the European idea – a serious oversight indeed since the continent’s recent inward turn has in many ways prioritized the latter connotations. At the very same time, Kundnani articulates justified criticisms of West European parochialism that has resulted from such an inward turn – a parochialism that has indeed had highly problematic consequences in the realm of memory. 

But who would doubt that, even more importantly, this turn has amounted to a rather fortunate development in terms of history? Achieving a comparable end to Russia’s vicious attempt at imperial restoration is precisely what many central and eastern Europeans currently yearn for – a yearning that qualifies them as the author’s logical allies in Europe, if only he was ready to make his case for an anti-imperialism of the center more inclusive. 

Is the anti-imperialist rage and powerful civic nationalism that has defined Ukrainians’ desperate struggle for survival in the past year and a half really all that different from the vision of post-Brexit Britain he propagates? And if national sovereignty was connected to the idea of popular sovereignty in the case of Brexit, as Hans Kundnani notes, does that not apply at least equally to Ukraine? I must admit that the only crucial difference I see between the two cases is that Russia has been an imperialist aggressor in Ukraine whereas the European Union has merely been a phantom enemy in the UK. 


Ferenc Laczó is an assistant professor with tenure (universitair docent 1) at Maastricht University, a visiting assistant professor at Columbia University in 2023-24, and an editor at the Review of Democracy (CEU Democracy Institute). He is the author or editor of twelve books on Hungarian, Jewish, German, European, and global themes.