Skip to content
Long Read February 2024

The lure of central and eastern European innocence: a response to Laczó and Bejan

by Hans Kundnani

Hans Kundnani’s book Eurowhiteness (Hurst, 2023) elicited two critical reviews on the pages of the CEU Review of Books. Here Kundnani responds to Ferenc Laczó’s and Raluca Bejan’s Long Read pieces. 

In two separate review articles for the CEU Review of Books, Ferenc Laczó and Raluca Bejan have made overlapping criticisms of my book Eurowhiteness. They both claim that I view Europe from a partial western European perspective (Bejan accuses me of “equating Western Europe with Europe as whole”) and that, in doing so, I particularly neglect central and eastern Europe (“the other half of the continent”) in my analysis. They also both go further and suggest that the way I frame questions around empire and race in Europe is indicative of an even narrower British or “Anglo-American” bias, which Laczó calls “the anti-imperialism of the center”.

I am quite critical of central and eastern Europe in the book – and I had expected to be challenged about this aspect of it. I suggest, though I do not quite spell this out in this way, that the accession of central and eastern European countries in the 2000s has pulled the European Union further to the right on both cultural and economic issues. Surprisingly, however, neither Laczó nor Bejan engages with the substantial claims I make about central and eastern Europe and its role in the history of European integration and instead focus on my wider argument about the development of European identity and the evolution of the EU, which they see as ignoring central and eastern European perspectives.

To me, both reviews seem to express a desire for a kind of imagined central and eastern Europe innocence. In particular, Bejan seems to want to imagine central and eastern Europeans as the victims of colonialism – a view based on a lack of understanding of the history of European colonialism and how it differs from imperialism in general. In doing so, she implicitly rejects the idea that, by joining the EU, central and eastern European countries were taking on a kind of responsibility for the history of European colonialism. On the contrary, insisting that Europeans were not just the perpetrators of colonialism but also its victims becomes a subtle way of exonerating them.

Internal and external imperial dynamics

Laczó is sympathetic to many of my arguments in Eurowhiteness. His criticisms focus mainly on what he sees as my neglect of imperial dynamics that are internal to Europe. If I have understood his argument correctly, it is that because I only focus on European colonialism – that is, imperialism beyond Europe – rather than on attempts by European nations to dominate each other, I misunderstand both central and eastern European anti-imperialism and the way that the EU is itself an anti-imperial project. He believes there is an “anti-imperialist Europe” which is particularly present in central and eastern Europe and identifies with the EU as a way to prevent imperial domination within Europe.

It is true that I do not discuss these internal dynamics of imperial domination much in Eurowhiteness. But as Laczó also acknowledges, I have discussed some of them elsewhere – in particular, the “German question”, which in this context we might think of in terms of a German empire within Europe. I do not quite understand why he seems to think that I had an obligation to discuss everything in one (short) book, though I do accept that we need to think about how to connect these internal dynamics with what we might call the external dynamic (i.e. European colonialism). I do touch on this in the book, though – in particular, the way that early “pro-Europeans” wanted to bring conflict between Europeans to an end in part because it was making them less powerful relative to the rest of the world.

I think Laczó mischaracterises both central and eastern Europe and the EU and being somehow anti-imperial when it comes to these internal dynamics within Europe.

My main disagreement with Laczó is around where both the EU and central and eastern Europe fit into these internal dynamics. I agree that European integration was originally meant to overcome the long history of bids for hegemony in Europe by individual European powers – and in particular to solve the “German question”, i.e. to make further German bids for hegemony impossible. But the big question during the last decade has been whether the EU has become a vehicle for German power rather than a way of limiting it. In particular, it seems to me and many others that the euro has had the effect of amplifying German power in Europe rather than constraining it.

I am also unconvinced by Laczó’s claims about central and eastern Europe as an anti-imperialist force within the EU. In the euro crisis, for example, central and eastern European countries sided with Germany against the so-called periphery – that is, debtor countries – which accused Germany of “fiscal imperialism”. The moment at which they did challenge German power was during the refugee crisis, when then they resisted proposals to impose quotas of refugees and Viktor Orbán accused Germany of “moral imperialism”. In short, I think Laczó mischaracterises both central and eastern Europe and the EU and being somehow anti-imperial when it comes to these internal dynamics within Europe.

Of course, when Laczó writes of an anti-imperialist central and eastern Europe, he may be thinking more of its opposition to Russian imperialism than German imperialism – and obviously there is a long history of central and eastern Europeans joining forces with Germany against Russia. But Russia is not an EU member state and so, while it forms part of the long history of struggles for hegemony in Europe culminating in the Second World War, it cannot be thought of as being part of the EU’s internal dynamics. Laczó’s central and eastern European anti-imperialism seems to amount to little more than a belief in a strong defence against Russia, often articulated in civilizational terms.

Anglo-American and European whiteness

Like Laczó, Bejan also thinks that I have neglected the imperial dynamics that are internal to Europe. But whereas Laczó recognizes that it is important to distinguish between colonialism and imperialism, Bejan simply conflates them as if they were synonyms. Thus she writes that “the regions that experienced European colonialism were not all outside the European continent” and that while Britain and France were expanding beyond Europe, the Ottoman, Russian, and Habsburg empires were “colonizing Europe’s own peripheral lands”. She does not seem to have reflected at all on what colonialism is, and whether, and where, the term can be applied in the context of other empires.

Bejan goes on to suggest not only that whiteness is an Anglo-American idea which cannot be applied to continental Europe but also that my attempt to so reflects a kind of Anglo-American “epistemological imperialism”. She seems to suggest that, having invented whiteness, Anglo-Americans now seek to impose their critique of it on the rest of the world – and thus their anti-racism is itself an expression of a kind of imperialism – perhaps something similar to what Laczó means by the “anti-imperialism of the center”. These arguments seem to me to converge with right-wing claims that to talk about whiteness is to import “woke” Anglo-American ideas into Europe.

Bejan’s argument about why whiteness is an Anglo-American idea is quite baffling to me. She seems to suggest that the British empire and the United States after independence were qualitatively different from Dutch and French empires in the Caribbean and North America. In particular, she says that the “whiteness-race dialectic” was a product of the particular dynamic between European slaveowners and African slaves in British colonies in the Caribbean and North America. Yet of course racialized slavery also existed in French colonies in the Caribbean. So it is not at all clear to me why Bejan seems so convinced that “the synonymy of Europeanness and whiteness is an American invention”.  

It is true that most of the research we have on the concept of whiteness focuses on the British empire and the United States. But that is not so much because continental Europeans did not think in terms of colour – they absolutely did – but rather because research on whiteness in the Anglo-American context is more advanced. For example, we know the year in which the idea of whiteness was codified for the first time in the English colony of Virginia: 1691. But the terms blanc or blanco may have already been in use in French or Spanish colonies before this – after all, the French inherited the term nègre from the Spanish negro, which had been used to refer to Africans even before 1492. We simply do not yet have enough research on how whiteness emerged in a continental European context.

Far from ignoring central and eastern Europe, I actually discuss it at length in what is a short book – especially since central and eastern European countries only joined the EU in the 2000s, in other words relatively late in the history of European integration, which until then was a western European story.

Bejan says she has never read a book called “American Whiteness” or “British Whiteness”, which she sees as evidence of Anglo-American “epistemological imperialism”. But this gets it completely the wrong way around. She is right that those writing about racialization in the British empire or the United States should be aware that their findings are context-specific. But that does not mean that whiteness is not a relevant category for understanding the history of European empires or racism in Europe. Whatever the flaws of the research on whiteness in the American or British context, what is really lacking is research on European whiteness – and Bejan’s review illustrates exactly why it is lacking.

Central and eastern Europe and whiteness

Far from ignoring central and eastern Europe, I actually discuss it at length in what is a short book – especially since central and eastern European countries only joined the EU in the 2000s, in other words relatively late in the history of European integration, which until then was a western European story. But instead of interrogating what I say about central and eastern Europe, Laczó and Bejan simply ignore it – and then accuse me of ignoring central and eastern Europe! It almost seems as if they do not actually want to talk about central and eastern Europe except as the victims of imperialism – perhaps because to do so would complicate the idea of central and eastern European innocence.

The story I tell about central and eastern Europe has two sides. I am well aware of the history of how western Europeans looked down on eastern Europeans and I discuss it in the book, drawing on the work of Larry Wolff. Various terms have been suggested to capture the relationship of central and eastern Europeans with whiteness such as “white but not quite” (Kalmar, 2022) and “off white” (Baker et al, 2024). I also discuss how this shaped the EU accession process after the end of the Cold War, which Jan Zielonka has argued can be understood in terms of a kind of technocratic civilising mission. But unlike north Africans, central and eastern Europeans were understood as naturally belonging to the EU – they could become European in a way that north Africans could not.

However, the other side of the story – not so much how the EU perceived central and eastern Europe but how central and eastern Europeans imagined Europe – is also important. It is this side of the story which complicates the idea of central and eastern innocence. In particular, I discuss the idea of a “return to Europe”, which – since central and eastern European countries were joining the EU for the first time in the 2000s – must refer to some older idea of Europe. I suggest that this was at least in part an ethnic/cultural idea of Europe – and that the “return to Europe” can therefore be understood as a return to (full) whiteness. I had expected this claim to be contested, but neither Laczó nor Bejan does so.

It seems to me that there are essentially two possible responses to being perceived “white but not quite” or “off white”. One is to reject the concept of whiteness altogether – and to identify with others around the world who are not perceived as white. But I suggest in the book that this has rarely been the response of central and eastern Europeans. Rather, they have tended to respond in the other possible way: to aspire to become fully white. This is where József Böröcz’s term “Eurowhiteness” – which gave the book its title – comes in. Böröcz contrasts “Eurowhite” with “dirty white”, a status somewhat like “white but not quite” or “off-white”, but with the crucial implication that it is aspirational. But again neither reviewer discusses any of this.

Bejan does challenge my claim that, historically, central and eastern Europe has shown little solidarity towards the Global South. She refers to the “anti-imperial internationalism” of communist governments in central and eastern European countries which forged links with African states during the Cold War. But that is exactly my point – the only period during which central and eastern European countries showed solidarity with the Global South was when they were under Soviet influence, in other words when they themselves were, in Bejan’s terms, colonised. She also mentions Tito’s involvement in the non-aligned movement during the same period, but the former Yugoslavia is separate and different case from central and eastern Europe – and not one I discuss in the book.

Brexit and central and eastern Europe

Unsurprisingly, Bejan is also unconvinced, and perhaps slightly outraged, by my arguments about Brexit in the last chapter of Eurowhiteness. I did not expect many continental Europeans to be persuaded by my argument that Brexit might be an opportunity to reinvent British identity in a less Eurocentric way – this last chapter was aimed at a British audience and in particular at the British left. But I begin it by emphasizing the elusiveness of Brexit, which is too complex to be reduced to any single cause or meaning. Bejan, on the other hand, reduces it in exactly this way when she claims that Brexit was “a vote against Romanian and Bulgarian migrants in the UK” and thus “primarily a xenophobic vote against those Europeans who were never part of the Eurowhiteness that Kundnani writes about”.

As “proof” of this extraordinarily reductive view of Brexit that one might expect from a commentator but not from an academic, Bejan offers two things: statements about central and eastern Europeans made by Nigel Farage (which leads her to conclude, again in a remarkably reductive way, that “hate speech against Romanian and Bulgarian migrants is what led to the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) getting 4 million votes in the 2015 elections”) and media reporting of crime by central and eastern Europeans; and a handful of alleged hate crimes against central and eastern Europeans after the referendum in 2016.

Moreover, one of the most high-profile of the alleged hate crimes that Bejan cites turned out not to be a hate crime at all – or at least not in the way she thinks. When Arkadiusz Jóźwik, a 40-year-old Polish man, died after being punched by one of a group of teenage boys in Essex in August 2016, it was widely reported as a “Brexit murder”. But during the subsequent trial, the Crown Prosecution Service said the boys were not motivated by xenophobia, as had been reported – and the defendant alleged that Jóźwik had himself shouted racist abuse at them. In other words, what looked at a first glance like a case of British xenophobia turned out to be something much complicated that also raised the question of central and eastern European racism towards non-white people – about which Bejan has nothing to say.

In a way, the Jóźwik case stands for my whole argument about the relationship of Brexit to questions around empire and race, which I argue is much more complex than it at first appears. Having argued that Brexit is too complex to be reduced to any single cause or meaning, I go on to show that it is too simple to think of Brexit as an expression of white anger – and I make careful, precise claims, though Bejan reads carelessly and often misrepresents them. But the Jóźwik case also illustrates the lure of central and eastern European innocence. As tempting as it is to imagine central and eastern Europeans exclusively as victims, they have played a much more ambiguous role in shaping European identity and integration.


Hans Kundnani is a visiting fellow at the Remarque Insitute at New York University and an Open Society Foundations Ideas Workshop fellow. He was previously the director of the Europe programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, a senior Transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, D.C., and research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is also an associate fellow at the Institute for German Studies at Birmingham University and teaches at the Collège d’Europe in Natolin, Poland. He tweets @hanskundnani.