The newly appointed European Commission, whose members take up their posts on November 1st, is to include a vice-president responsible for migration and home affairs with the title of “Protecting our European Way of Life”. Mediapart’s publishing editor Edwy Plenel argues here that this semantic choice is a shameful concession to the continent’s far-right, whereby issues of identity have overturned social demands.
"Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.” That observation by Victor Klemperer is spontaneously brought to mind with the news that the incoming European Commission presided by Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen will include a vice-president – Greece’s Margaritis Schinas – with the job title of “Protecting our European Way of Life” (a phrase which echoes that of the proudly imperialistic “American Way of Life”).
Victor Klemperer, a linguist, philosopher and diarist of Jewish origins, succeeded in surviving Nazism while remaining in Germany under the rise and rule of the Hitler regime. His weapon of resistance was the keeping of a personal diary which recounted, from day to day, the contamination of thought by totalitarian language (I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933–41 and To the Bitter End: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1942–1945, both published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson). He produced a more analytical and theoretical work examining the poisoning of the German tongue by the language of Nazism in a 1947 work, LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen, published in English by Bloomsbury under the title Language of the Third Reich: LTI — Lingua Tertii Imperii.
Words are important, insisted Klemperer, who showed just how the propagation of Nazi ideology, to the point of becoming commonplace and accepted, was accompanied by a rhetoric whose phrases and symbols obscured intelligence. That is just what is at stake for us Europeans today with this new vice-presidency of the EU Commission which associates migratory issues – in other words, men and women who come from elsewhere and exercised their fundamental right to travel – with the “protection” of an idealised and fantasized common identity that these movements of populations are supposed to threaten and place in danger. It is the propagation, normalisation and acceptation of xenophobic and racist rhetoric.
All the explanations of the initiative, however (over-) abundant they may be, change nothing in this latest concession to the hegemony of the obsessions of identity politics. The wording brings shame upon Europe.
The newly appointed future president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen would argue in return that migration issues will also come under the remit of the new Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson, a Swedish leftwing politician who was involved in immigration policy in her home country. Von der Leyen would also underline, as she did in her “Agenda for Europe” setting out her programme, that the “European Way of Life” includes making a priority of upholding the rule of law, and that, four years ago, as she revealed in her address to the European Parliament on July 16th, she and her family welcomed into their home a 19-year-old Syrian refugee.
But none of that can alter the fact that the harm has been done: a European Union executive whose composition ranges from members of the German political Right to the Spanish Left, and which includes the new French Right established by Emmanuel Macron, has accepted to normalise the idea that migrants, refugees and the exiled constitute a threat to the daily lives of the continent’s peoples, to their habits, cultures, their way of acting and thinking – in sum, their way of life. For it is indeed these sensitive realities, as indistinct as they are varied, that are encapsulated in the phrase “way of life”. It cannot be missed that each word in the definition of this new vice-presidency is terrifying, laden as it is with potential abuses and heightened cowardice.
Protection? To quote the definition of the Collins dictionary, this is a process “to prevent someone or something from being harmed or damaged”. The use of the word infers that The Other who moves, who asks for hospitality, who seeks a better life, who wishes to escape the lottery of their birthplace, social injustices, the denial of democracy, the disorder of war or the catastrophes of climate change, who travels in order to shape a destiny driven by dreams and ambitions, who exercises a fundamental right as defined by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who repeats what European peoples have always done and continue to do by opening themselves to the world and travelling every continent, is a threat.
But the truth about European history – the creation of its wealth and the power of the continent, of its economic, demographic, cultural and intellectual strength – is that Europe was shaped, produced and invented through encountering the diversity of the peoples of the world.
Way of life? Does this mean that there is only one way of life in Europe? In itself, this phrase is a concentration of the negation of social issues through the promotion of identity issues. What common way of life is there among all the continent’s populations at a time when European countries are ridden with inequalities, whether this be economic revenue, access to education, to healthcare, to public services, housing conditions, means of mobility, and so on? What does this formulation from above signify about the identity of a common civilisation, which would supposedly annihilate social distinctions, if not an ideological trick to remove the glaring issue of the appropriation of wealth by a minority, and this on a scale never seen since the end of the 19th Century? The rhetoric of identity politics is a negation of the plurality of peoples, whether this be social or cultural.
European? In an open quest for conquering power, the new European Commission president lays claim to the defence of “European values”. Clearly, to continue to use such language in face of the world is to have no understanding of modern European history, that of a continent, a civilisation, of peoples believing themselves to be superior to others, teaching to others, authorised to barricade themselves in the certainty of what is good and just. What difference is there here with the rhetoric of identity politics which, today, are part of the xenophobic nationalism appearing around the world, and which is always enrobed in cultural arguments, whether that be in New Delhi, Beijing or Moscow, Riyadh or Ankara, Brasília or in Washington? It is indeed Europe, and not the world, the foreigner and the elsewhere, that has for so long nourished itself through colonial conquests, plundering and massacres, which has enduringly enriched itself through the slave trade, and which invented modern totalitarianism, crimes against humanity, and which has engaged in the genocide of an integral part of itself, Jewish and Gypsy.
No people, no nation, no continent and no civilisation can lay claim to owning what is universal. Worse still, it is even this pretence which is its very negation because it infers hierarchies between cultures, origins and identities. Espousing the clash of civilisations automatically creates the prophecy of a global path of conflict and disorder. In this manner, the European Commission’s vice-presidency for “Protecting our European Way of Life” does nothing other than consecrate and prolong Europe’s renunciation of its own values, to borrow from the language of the Commission president, which the management of migration issues has so painfully underlined. “The European Union needs humane borders,” said Ursula von der Leyen in her speech in July before the European Parliament. That statement was ignominious, for if the Mediterranean Sea, our common sea, has become a maritime cemetery it is the fault of a Europe which, through the actions of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, has transformed it into a walled frontier instead of a passage that forms a link, a place of sharing and creating relations.
“It is not immigration which threatens or impoverishes, it is the rigidity of the wall and the closing-in of oneself.” It is already 12 years since that observation was made by the late French writer and poet Édouard Glissant and co-author Patrick Chamoiseau in their essay Quand les murs tombent. It was published in 2007, when France, under the presidency of newly-elected Nicolas Sarkozy, opened the retrograde path with the creation of a ministry for “immigration and national identity” . Glissant and Chamoiseau wrote: “The very notion of identity has for long served as a wall,: to list what belongs to one, to distinguish this from that of The Other who is presented as an illegible threat, stamped with barbarism,” wrote Glissant and Chamoiseau. “The wall of identity has produced the eternal confrontations between peoples, empires, colonial expansionism, the slave trade, the atrocities of American slavery and all the genocides. The wall of identity has existed and still exists in all cultures, in all peoples, but it is in the West that it has proved the most devastating with the amplification of science and technology.”
In opposition to this wall of identity, Glissant and Chamoiseau proposed the concept of a relationhip between “identities”, open to diversity and difference where one discovers oneself in the exchange with The Other. To the opposite of the ossified and closed “values” championed by the new European Union executive, this vision of a relationship drives a visionary political project that offers Europe a new dialogue with the world, where the recognition of equality wins over the quest for power.
Furthermore, it is only that vision which is coherent with the urgent demands of environmental issues, as was underlined in 2018 by scientists and researchers from France’s natural history museum, the Muséum français d’histoire naturelle, in their joint essay Manifeste sur les migrations. “There is no life without movement, mobility is indispensable to life on Earth,” they wrote, before concluding: “In the ethical aim of rooting the human within nature, in face of the natural and historic act of migration, hospitality appears both a philosophical subject and a characteristic which singularises humans among living beings.”
In coherency with our longstanding position, we will always choose the (natural) duty of hospitality rather than the (arbitrary) defence of values. And in echo to the call by Édouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau to “build a protest against this ministry-wall which attempts to reconcile us with what is the worst”, we solemnly call upon all European parliamentarians who hold dear the defence of human rights – which have no borders or owners – to demand the withdrawal of this designation “which attempts to reconcile us with what is the worst, to make us, little by little, used to what is unbearable, to make us frequent, in silence, even to the point of complicity, what is inadmissible.”
And if they manage this, as it appears could be the case, we would urge them to take the further step of placing in question the repressive and regressive migratory policies whose profound xenophobia has been stripped naked by this semantic choice.
This piece was first published by Mediapart.
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