Alongside the grief and isolation of 2020, which hit the communities that gather around Eurovision in its own way when the contest was cancelled, and the solidarity and creativity of inventing new forms of digital togetherness – which Eurovision knows something about as well – 2020 was also a year of protest.
Historians of that first pandemic year will surely ask why George Floyd’s murder on 25 May, out of all the police killings of Black people there have been, sparked such a global mobilisation for racial justice, just as the first wave of Covid-19 was subsiding in many places, and why these protests were the ones to make many institutions around the world take sudden action towards the cause of racial equality. As the first Eurovision since the beginning of the pandemic opens in Rotterdam, we might ask: would this legacy of 2020 change Eurovision in any way?
In a contest which has still never had a solo Black winner, Eurovision 2020 would have involved a record number of contestants of African descent, and the contest’s most diverse set of Afro-European histories as well. Benny Cristo from the Czech Republic was the son of an Angolan who moved to what was then Czechoslovakia; Destiny Chukunyere was the daughter of a Nigerian footballer who moved to play in Malta; Eden Alene belonged to the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel; Senhit, making her second appearance for San Marino, came from an Eritrean family in Italy; The Mamas, from African-American and Afro-Swedish backgrounds, had won Sweden’s Melodifestivalen after supporting John Lundvik on backing vocals in 2019; and the singer-songwriter Jeangu Macrooy, hotly tipped for his introspective song ‘Grow’, was born in Paramaribo, embodying the history of colonial oppression linking West Africa, Suriname and the Netherlands.
Almost all these contestants have returned for 2021 (and, as of the semi-finals, Senhit has even been joined by Flo Rida): while The Mamas didn’t repeat their Melodifestivalen victory, this year’s Swedish entrant, Tusse, came to Sweden as an unaccompanied child refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, part of a very recent and still continuing episode in Europe’s Black history. (For the first time ever, Eurovision 2021 also has two contestants of Filipino heritage, Australia’s Montaigne and Austria’s Vincent Bueno; unfortunately for the Filipino diaspora as well as all their fans around the world, neither made it past the semi-finals this week.)
Performance scholars looking at Eurovision critically, like Katrin Sieg, have sometimes questioned wondered whether even its famed moments of multi-racial inclusion actually offer audiences an illusory, comforting moment of thinking about Europe as post-racial – somewhere that has overcome racism, or that has never known racism in the same way as the US. When we watch Dave Benton singing with Tanel Padar in Estonia’s winning song from 2001, or Madcon leading their flashmob in the interval of Oslo 2010, are we actually being offered a fantasy of inclusion that distracts us from seeing ongoing racial injustice in Europe – and is there space within the traditions, rules and constraints of Eurovision for Black music to represent at least some of the critique, anticolonial resistance, and radical thought that thinkers like Paul Gilroy see in the Black diaspora’s musical creativity?
While the format of a commercialised and televised international song contest will always constrain the radical and political potential of performance to some extent (if only through the threat of financial sanction for breaking the rules, as Iceland’s Hatari found out in 2019), Jeangu’s return entry, ‘Birth of a New Age’, might have come closer than ever before to using Eurovision to advance the cause of racial justice in a material way.
As singer, lyricist and main composer of ‘Birth of a New Age’, Jeangu both celebrates the struggle of the Surinamese people and their Sranan Tongo language, and appeals to a collective Black history, remembering the violence that European enslavers wrought against the bodies, languages, cultures and religions of the ancestors of millions of Black Europeans – with a video asserting that Black style, dance, hair, customs and worship, and Surinamese traditions of them more specifically, all belong inside the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Jeangu’s very first line, ‘Skin as rich as a starlit night’, speaks a promise to recover Blackness as the centre of beauty, and his chorus in Sranan Tongo – ‘Yu no man broko mi, yu no man broko mi, yu no man broko, broko mi (mi na afu sensi)’, carries into Eurovision a traditional Surinamese odo, or saying of wisdom, translated as ‘You can’t break me, I’m half a cent’ – the smallest Surinamese coin, but the hardest to break.
As a creole language, with elements of English, Dutch, Portuguese and West African languages, Sranan Tongo has its origins in how enslaved Africans in Suriname, torn from many parts of West Africa and banned from learning Dutch, learned to communicate with each other and hide thoughts from their enslavers; when the Dutch authorities abolished slavery in Suriname in 1863, they forced children in compulsory education to learn only Dutch, hoping to stamp Sranan Tongo out. Even in contemporary Suriname the creole has a stigmatised history, and the official language is still the colonisers’ Dutch.
For those who want to see it, this year’s Dutch entry and the amount of creative input Jeangu has been able to exercise over its presentation do stand as an assertion of Black aesthetics in a mass entertainment context, albeit with all the tensions and limitations that implies. In the context of Eurovision, it might play the same creative role Black Panther does within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; its video’s high-fashion dialogue of resistance with how Black people were represented in Dutch and European art at the time the Rijksmuseum was built and filled simultaneously, also seems in conversation with how Beyoncé and Jay-Z staged their ‘Apeshit’ video in the Louvre in 2018 – following on from Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’, a project that inspired an entire Black feminist syllabus. (The choreographer for ‘Apeshit’, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is Flemish-Moroccan and directed the interval act of Thursday’s Eurovision semi-final featuring ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh and BMX rider Dez Maarsen, ‘Close Encounters of a Special Kind’.)
In Eurovision press conferences, Jeangu has also spoken of how important it is to be on the Eurovision stage as a queer black man (and one with Billy Porter levels of red-carpet style):
The song itself started out as a poem Jeangu wrote in the aftermath of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which he has said he couldn’t have written if he hadn’t lived through 2020; even on a technical note, it couldn’t have sounded the same in any other Eurovision year to date, since the rule against more than six people performing (relaxed this year for Covid reasons so that delegations could send pre-recorded vocals and limit the number of people they’d needed to bring to Rotterdam) has always prevented soul, gospel and other collective Black musical traditions from being fully heard on the Eurovision stage. This year, Jeangu can be backed by the sound of a full choir (in fact laid down by Jeangu and his backing performers singing the vocals many times – among them Jeangu’s brother and ex-bandmate Xillan).
have shown an appetite for reviving the empowering stories of their ancestors. They are actively seeking these pockets of knowledge by engaging with virtual learning, online debates, social media […] They are also generating new narratives of resilience and diving into activism, from pushing for action on climate change, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights, to dismantling racism, islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of discrimination.
Jeangu’s poetry communicates – to listeners who have felt the pressure of colonial legacies on their own bodies and to listeners who might have thought empire was just in the past – the violence that colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade inflicted on the minds and cultures of future generations, as well as on the bodies of those enslaved:
They buried your gods, they imprisoned your thoughts Your rhythm is rebellion, your rhythm is rebellion They tried to drain you of your faith, but you’re the rage that melts the chains This ain’t the end, no, it’s the birth of a new age
Where narrating histories of violence and their legacies in the present at Eurovision are concerned, ‘Birth of a New Age’ deserves comparison to Jamala’s ‘1944’, which – two years after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – narrated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars.
Both are narratives of historic oppression against their performers’ ancestors, the legacies of that violence for their communities, and how those communities have fought for their identities to survive – both, indeed, reassert that survival by switching into the oppressed language in their chorus. A response to Black Lives Matter at Eurovision could just have remediated images of Black American protest; here, instead, is a distinctly African European narrative, representing a nation which is undertaking its own reckoning with its colonial past and its legacies of racism today.
Even before 2020, the struggle for public reckoning with racism and the colonial past in the Netherlands had been putting more and more pressure on Dutch institutions: organisations including city councils and the broadcaster NTR have finally stepped away from the traditional Advent blackface character Zwarte Piet, and even the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said two weeks after Floyd’s murder that he had been persuaded Zwarte Piet was not just an innocent tradition.
In the very same week as Rotterdam hosted Eurovision, the Rijksmuseum opened its new ‘Slavery’ exhibition, in development since 2017, which affirms that ‘the history of slavery and the history of the Netherlands are bound together’ – chipping away at the myth of ‘white innocence’ that, Gloria Wekker writes, has characterised the prevailing responses of the white Dutch public when challenged to consider Dutch colonial history and racism in the Netherlands today.
Much more still needs to change (not least at the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, which mocked Jeangu’s chorus and deflected its message by running an online advertisement for broccoli) – yet this degree of critical reflection on Europe’s colonial past and its links to racism today has never been as present at Eurovision as Jeangu has made it in 2021.
It’s the Saturday night of the Millennium journal’s conference on race and racism in International Relations, and four of us from our panel on race, Yugoslavia, India and Non-Alignment have walked up the back ways of Holborn in the October night looking for a place where we can sit and drink; a cramped, semi-underground Indo-Chinese cocktail bar has its back door open (I later found out it was called ‘Bollywood Stories’), and we settle around a small cellar table under the stairs, Srđan, Jelena, Aida and I, one candle flickering between us, contemplating what we don’t have to say out loud about the vote there’s just been in this country and the vote there’s about to be in the USA, and where what we know about what we don’t have to say comes from;
Four months earlier, it’s the day after that referendum, I’ve been away in Newcastle at a feminist international relations conference, up till 4.30 am until I couldn’t take any more of Nigel Farage grinning about bullets ten days after a white nationalist had shot Jo Cox dead in the middle of the street, and the group of us from my department who sometimes go for a drink after work have mutually agreed we need one tonight. We’re all white men and women from various parts of England, two from Hull, one from Derbyshire, me from the South (or maybe there are five of us, and our colleague who’s Australian is there as well); and soon after I’ve dropped my bag at home and found them in the large back room of one of the pubs near work, we’ve got on to constitutional implications, and I’ve said ‘Scotland’s gone’ without missing a beat; and someone or everyone says ‘Really?!’ because my consciousness has made a leap theirs hasn’t yet. (A few days later I think through all the resonances of constitutional fragmentation and ethnicised polarisation from the break-up of Yugoslavia that the atmosphere before and after the referendum is evoking, in an essay for LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog that comes out in one sitting about fourteen hours long: it comes to about 7,000 words.)
The astonishingly wise, frank, raw, and honest series of daily blog posts that Aida, Jelena and Srđan have edited all month at The Disorder of Things calls a foreknowledge based on living through the disintegration and destruction of Yugoslavia ‘Yugosplaining’:
At the time, the Yugoslav wars and their extreme violence were viewed by the West as idiosyncratic, isolated events, unrelated to broader process of political and economic transformation in the world – the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of communism. Indeed, they were just outright inconvenient for the world that celebrated the end of history. Yugoslavia, once deeply entangled with both the East and the West and even more so with the Global South, was all of a sudden isolated from history – including its own.
Yet now, as the West (and the allegedly democratized East) unravel under the weight of their own unresolved histories – and not just of the successive lost wars, financial crises or the pandemics – it seems that the ghosts of the 1990s are back to haunt us. Nationalism, ethnic and racial violence, populism, militias, lies and conspiracies can no longer be viewed as “the Balkan” phenomena. Instead, “the Balkans” now appears as the vanguard of a common catastrophe (Subotić, Hemon).
The aim was twofold: first, to use the authors’ lived personal experience of Yugoslavia as a way of explaining our lived political experience elsewhere. Second, to reclaim the narrative of our own lives rather than be made subject to outsiders’ accounts.
Decades after its demise, Yugoslavia continues to act as an open wound. We live what Saida Hodžić wrote in her essay – “if home is a wound that splits open the world, the world neither stays open nor heals over.” Therefore, this series was not designed to explain what Yugoslavia was, what it meant to whom, who it included or excluded, or how it came apart or why. It was, instead, designed to explain our current moment – that world split open – through the experience of our past.
These are knowledges that, working in the Western academy, the contributors have seen painfully silenced again and again by Western presumptions about what happened in ‘the Balkans’ and what ‘the Balkans’ must have been like for it to happen there, as Aida, Azra Hromadžić and Saida Hodžić all painfully record.
I felt none of Yugoslavia’s break-up on my body. My experiences of the wars were mediatised backdrops to everyday pre-teen routine, as a racial- and ethnic-majority subject of a nation that was setting itself up as a humanitarian donor, diplomatic negotiator and conditional peacekeeper (which measured its contributions by the risk to British, not Bosnian, lives): a newsreader on my mother’s radio in the kitchen saying tanks had crossed the Slovenian border; the War Child appeal and ‘Miss Sarajevo’ on Top of the Pops; an Evening Standard headline about Srebrenica at the station, and footage of disarmed Dutch soldiers on the six o’clock news by the time I came home from school.
And yet the ways I’ve tried to understand how the wars became possible and what they did to everyday life have done something to my subjectivity, to the deep premises I know about how societies and international politics work, about how people come to see others as enemies, and the myths they tell about the future and the past.
As a PhD student, I wanted to understand how a music industry like Croatia’s could have separated itself from Yugoslavia so quickly, and how it had been part of transforming everyday public consciousness in the ways that the Croatian anthropologists and ethnomusicologists I’d started reading during my Masters haddocumented at the very beginning of the war. Stitching together the Croatian war of independence and its aftermath, day by day, over one long spring and two long summers in Croatia’s national library (year by year in reverse, so 1990 came last every time, and then it was back to the then-present with another newspaper or showbusiness magazine), the slippage of political deadlock into armed clashes into something ever worse was not the sudden blaze of Western book covers and documentary title screens; how would I know if this were only a few months away?
More of what I know about living through those years comes from deep listening. In my postdoctoral work, I interviewed thirty-odd Bosnians and other ex-Yugoslavs about the work they’d done as interpreters and translators for foreign peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, during and after the war. Some would have been direct contemporaries of Danijela Majstorović, who wrote about her own and her research participants’ migration in another of the Yugosplaining essays; we somehow missed each other during my research visits (we’re still not sure how). I must have been in Priština, where I’d gone to interview a former British military linguist for another strand of the project, just as former Bosnian interpreters were responding to a post I’d made in a Facebook reunion group about setting up interviews later in the year, when I was coming back from meeting an ex-KFOR interpreter someone had connected me to and the thought came to me: many of the people I’d been meeting had been languages students or languages graduates when the war came; so were most of my friends at the time; if something like this had happened where we lived [in a completely different global configuration of languages, statehood and power, of course; but that only came later], is this what we’d have done?
These are acts of imagination, just as everything I know about the region that used to be Yugoslavia is in some way a construction. It only sits inside my mind through scholarship; it does not sit in my bones. What do sit in my bones are the experiences and sensations of the scholarship itself – the work, the research, the presentations, the listening, the conversations, and all the imaginative backchannels that run while my frontstage does those things. Among the authors are friends, contemporaries, authorities, table-of-contents mates and tablemates, people to whom I strive to make my representations of Yugoslavia and its aftermath authentic and accountable, to whom I owe a responsibility to depict as much complexity as they can see.
In essays such as the piece by Dženeta Karabegović, Slađana Lazić, Vjosa Musliu, Julija Sardelić, Elena B Stavrevska and Jelena Obradović-Wochnik, writing as the Yugoslawomen+ Collective and using their own experiences as knowledge-producers and subjects who have waited to cross borders to think through how rhetoric about ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ migrants has changed since the 1990s, I hear echoes of dialogues that I’ve joined in as well in conference corridors and email exchanges, working through this last decade’s reckoning with racism and the global legacies of colonialism from where we each are:
The post-Yugoslav space from which people once fled, and from which they still continue to migrate, is now also known as a ‘transit’ zone for those fleeing ongoing violence elsewhere. The region once known for ‘the Yugoslav wars’ is now ‘the Balkan Route’, the EU’s imagined ‘Badlands’, the outer periphery where border security funds are channelled to prevent the onward migration of racialised ‘others.’ The so-called ‘Balkan route’ became an alternative once the sea crossings were deemed too dangerous; today, it has become so entrenched in the violence of EU’s border-keeping that just one monitoring group in the region has recorded more than 700 reports of police brutality and asylum denials, with 70% of incidents reportedly taking place in Croatia.
Countries of the former Yugoslavia, most notably Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, whose ‘good migrants’ have often managed to leave the region and arrive in relative safety to countries of the Global North, are now implicated in the EU’s border-keeping to the extent that they regularly participate in the violent ‘push backs’ of men, women and children from the EU’s external border. Their aspirations to ‘Europeanness’, understood primarily as EU membership, are exercised through the protection and legitimization of the European superiority, even though their own citizens’ mobility within the EU is limited. […] The region is, thus, simultaneously othered and implicated in further othering in migration discourses. These racialised and classed hierarchies of people on the move are perpetuated, despite thousands of people from the post-Yugoslav space continuously lining up in front of EU and other Global North countries’ embassies or looking for ways to get EU citizenship so they can migrate more easily.
Something has, or somethings have, committed all of us to perceiving Yugoslavia and the violence of its collapse, and the systemic violence emanating in all its global forms from Europeans’ enslavement of Africans and colonisation of Indigenous lands, as part of the same world.
(The very question of who feels able to write themselves into a ‘Yugoslav’ past is shaped by such power relations, as Vjosa noted at the beginning of the series when explaining why she had participated in it as an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, and as Jelena, Srđan and Aida acknowledged in their conclusion: almost all its contributors came from South Slav backgrounds, and Yugoslavia’s failure to confront ‘the longer history of anti-Albanian bigotry’ in the region undercut its aspirations to ‘brotherhood and unity’ even before we weigh up how well it balanced the rights and interests of different South Slavs.)
Later in Azra’s essay, she writes of discussing her wartime experiences of being labelled as a Bosnian Muslim with inner-city Philadelphia schools, and trying to comfort disoriented students on her ‘Peace and Conflict in the Balkans’ class immediately after Trump’s election, as ‘openings’ that defy the ‘closings’ that have pressed on her in prestigious academic spaces: these openings are ‘transactions in sociopolitical life when “structures of feeling” were somehow transmitted and felt, almost understood, across the sociopolitical, geographic, and historical spectrum’. My own knowledge and I are the outcomes of many such openings, and are measured by them as well.
Three weeks after Srđan, Aida, Jelena and I sat together in Holborn, the US election result came in: overnight for them, first thing in the morning for me. Whatever else I’d been meant to do that day, the only thing I could do was write, a messy 3,000 words on coming to terms with how quickly queer people’s newborn rights could be taken away overnight, and why the result filled me as a queer woman with dread even an ocean away. (I re-used part of it when Cai Wilkinson was editing a special section of Critical Studies on Security and invited me to rework it as an essay I ended up calling ‘The filter is so much more fragile when you are queer’.
(One line I added to the piece for Cai has kept coming back into my head, this pandemic year: ‘There are people I know or used to know who will be dead in four years’ time.’)
My consciousness of my own nation and its past would not be what it is without learning about post-Yugoslavia for so long. Jelena (Subotić) writes, in her essay on citizens’ moral implication in the violence of Milošević’s Serbia or Trump’s USA, of our ‘larger, metaphysical responsibility as citizens who still benefit from structural racism or from structural inequality, or from structural anti-immigration policies. Even if we oppose them, by our own position in society we are implicated in them – an argument that goes at least as far back as Karl Jaspers’. To hope for a transparent reckoning with the past in Croatia or Serbia (I’d understood by the end of my PhD), it would be a double standard not to work towards the same in Britain – a country whose imperial and slave-trading past had systemic consequences around the world.
Knowing about post-Yugoslavia through the ‘openings’ I’d been part of for years, I suggested at the end of the queer in/security pieces, had made me more able to understand that Britain was not immune to the kind of authoritarian, nationalist future that now seemed to be coming to pass:
I know without having lived it that ethnopolitical conflict works like that.
The anxieties over ‘dilution’ or ‘undermining’ national cultural values that racists and xenophobes intensify in order to mobilise public support for restricting immigration work like that.
[…] Studying the Yugoslav wars since my early twenties, when all that preoccupied me at the time they were happening was making sense of the confusion with which I entered my own queer teens: I know identities wax strongest, turn from individual to collective, description to politics, when people believe or are led to believe that that identity is why they’re under threat.
I know it through compressing acres of wartime newsprint into weeks of research, through collecting hours upon hours of memories, through years of friendship and listening and solidarity, all breaking down my own filter of it-can’t-happen-here.
But I’d also suggested that having grown up queer, knowing that my belonging to the respectable majority would only ever be conditional, had made that filter more fragile and perhaps helped me to feel the solidarities I do:
There are freedoms I have in England or would have in America, which I didn’t even expect to enjoy as a teenager but which my queer elders won for me. In doing so, I gained a strange kind of everyday security with an uncanny contingency underneath – which I could lose again in ways that, if they were proposed for straight people, would be the stuff of dystopia, ‘some Handmaid’s Tale shit right there’.
(Dystopia still happens. But it takes so many more guns.)
Did knowing these kinds of insecurity with my own body make me more detachable from the idea that the territory–nation–culture nexus I was born in should automatically be a place of safety, progress and inspiration to the rest of the world – an idea that has so readily slipped into many Westerners’ belief that their knowledge is the most authoritative on ‘Balkan affairs’? I am wary of saying that queerness alone is enough to create an alliance – and yet if anything in my life has predisposed me to step away from the Anglophone West being at the centre of the world, that must be what it must be. (Did failing to fit the norms of heterosexual and class success at a school that was supposed to train girls to join Britain’s institutions of power do that?)
Without directly experiencing the Yugoslav wars, my consciousness of history, politics and security – of what can happen, and how it starts, and where it ends – has still been Yugosplained. Jelena, Aida and Srđan warn in their concluding essay, as our mood seemed to when we sat together:
Yugoslavia also carries a message for our friends and colleagues in the countries we now find ourselves in – believe in your exceptionalism – at your own peril; ignore your past – at your own peril; do not listen to Others amongst you – at your own peril.
My thoughts sit there too. And that sits in my bones.
Daniel Hannan MEP is not the first to compare the European Union’s role in international governance in post-conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina to the exercise of colonial rule. Writing for Conservative Home on 14 November, the day Theresa May sought the approval of her cabinet on the UK’s draft Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, Hannan joined other pro-Leave critics of the agreement by arguing that it would leave Britain ‘facing colonial rule from Brussels, of the sort the EU imposed on Bosnia following the Yugoslav war’.
In criticising the EU’s political and financial interventions in Bosnia since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in December 1995, Hannan might seem to put himself alongside such unlikely allies as the writers Srećko Horvat and Igor Štiks, who drew attention to the EU’s ‘monumental neo-colonial transformation of [the Balkans] into a dependent semi-periphery’, or David Chandler, who used the phrase ‘empire in denial’ to describe international state-building in Bosnia and elsewhere.
Yet the country he compares to Bosnia is not Kosovo, where movements of Albanians and Serbs have both resisted the EU’s rule of law mission, or Greece, where Marxist economists during the bailout crisis accused Brussels of pursuing ‘a new type of colonialism’ against the European south, but the United Kingdom, the EU’s second largest economy and the country which once ruled the largest empire in the world.
While Britain’s part in world history is as the agent not the subject of colonial power, and its relationship to the EU has existed in a very different balance to Bosnia’s, post-Dayton Bosnia and Brexit Britain can in fact be connected into a common history of European coloniality – though not in the way Hannan suggests.
The EU’s role in Bosnia
There are, to be sure, valid critiques of EU governance in Bosnia when seen through a postcolonial lens. One might cite the ‘Bonn Powers’ that Dayton’s ad hoc Office of the High Representative (OHR) possessed to veto or dismiss elected officials for breaching the peace agreement, which were vested in the EU from 2002 to 2011 when High Representative and EU Special Representative were a ‘double-hatted’ role.
The EU has been responsible for military peace support operations in Bosnia since 2004, ran Bosnia’s international police mission in 2003–12, launched a business development programme called the Compact for Growth and Jobs in 2014 as its response to popular discontent expressed in that year’s plenum protests, reformed Bosnian customs and security services in order for Bosnia to play its part in fortifying EU external borders, and sets the conditions Bosnia must meet to progress through its EU pre-accession strategy.
Insights from postcolonial studies, especially the adaptations of Edward Said’s Orientalism that for two and a half decades have been helping to explain the importance of symbolic boundaries between ‘Europe’ and ‘the Balkans’ in south-east European collective identities, illuminate the ways that international and local officials, intellectuals and media appeal to the idea of Europeanness in making political claims. The EU and other international institutions scarcely invented hierarchical constructions of rational, liberal Europe against the backward ‘Balkans’, but embedded them even further into Bosnian political culture because of the EU’s power to determine whether or not Bosnia had met its conditions for reform.
The linguist Danijela Majstorović, for instance, writes that discourses of Europeanisation in OHR press releases during the early 2000s (including the particularly interventionist term of the only British High Representative, Paddy Ashdown), ‘represented, legitimised and coerced Europeanisation’ when they issued from an institution with powers like the OHR’s, reflecting ‘problematic relations […] of dominance in a sovereign country.’
The promise of integration into the EU in return for successfully implementing reforms serving the interest of neoliberal capital, Majstorović and Zoran Vučkovac argue, stripped the Bosnian public of the democratic political agency to pursue socio-political alternatives and constrained any forms of collective political identification beyond the three ethnic identities enshrined in Dayton. While the EU itself did not draft Dayton, its influence ensured the Dayton system stayed in place.
Even the very idea of European integration and enlargement has been argued, by postcolonial scholars such as Dušan Bjelić and Piro Rexhepi, to disavow the colonial pasts from which today’s ideas of ‘Europe’ emerged. Casting the European Union as a wholly new phase in Europe’s history, Bjelić suggests, permits its leaders and the publics who identify with it to disavow the overtly racist discourses of civilisational superiority with which ‘European’ culture was imagined when possession of an empire was the making of a ‘European’ power. It is in investigating this form of exceptionalism and disavowal where deeper connections between the EU, Brexit and post-Dayton Bosnia truly start to emerge.
Brexit and colonialism
Nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past has, indeed, characterised most of the Leave side’s enthusiastic imaginations of the prosperity post-Brexit Britain could supposedly enjoy. Speculations about replacing the EU with the USA as Britain’s main trading partner or creating a common ‘CANZUK’ free trade and movement area connecting Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, depend on imagining a 21st-century Britannia that commands as much diplomatic and economic power as when it ruled an empire, and whose prospective allies need her much more than she needs them. CANZUK advocates’ arguments that the British public would favour migrants from these white-majority settler-colonial countries, which they imagine as culturally closer than the eastern peripheries of the EU, expose the core of whiteness they place at the centre of British national identity even though they are positing a closeness which is supposedly independent of race.
The intellectual debt this geopolitical fantasy owes to ideas of federalising the white settler empire at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Duncan Bell and Srđan Vučetić suggest in a forthcoming article, exposes how deeply the idea of the ‘Anglosphere’ is and always has been racialised – and shows what boundaries CANZUK advocates are setting around the sovereign political community who, in Leave discourse, are entitled to and exercising their right to ‘take back’ political control.
Exaggerated visions of Britain’s importance in the world have not only informed Leave campaigners’ promises about post-Brexit trade but even, as Gary Younge suggests, the government’s negotiating strategy since June 2016 – a miscalculation that Britain could lay down the terms of the deal to Brussels, and an absence of any script for what to do when that turned out not to be true. For Nadine El-Enany, Brexit is ‘not only an expression of nostalgia for empire, but the fruit of empire’ – a policy that could never have come about if Britain had confronted the racism that still structures its present, thanks to its imperial past.
What is at stake in positioning Britain as the subject of colonial rule, not the power that exercised it, in rhetoric that seeks to persuade readers who identify with glorious myths of British sovereignty that accepting the draft Withdrawal Agreement would amount to colonial domination?
Bosnia has, in fact, already served Hannan as an example of what he perceives as the anti-democratic nature of the EU on several occasions – including a speech to the European Parliament in February 2014 using the same anecdote about a conversation with the High Representative (‘the colonial governor, so to speak’) as evidence of the ‘eternal gulf’ separating ‘the Brussels official’ from ‘the democrat’. His stance on Bosnia and the EU dates back to at least 2002, when he used Ashdown’s dismissal of the federal finance minister Nikola Grabovac to ask in the European Parliament ‘whether democratic standards will really be fostered in the new country when an unelected foreigner wields such arbitrary power in this manner’.
Hannan’s comments suggesting Britain would now be treated the same way as Bosnia came after other Leave politicians who had aligned themselves with nostalgia for a so-called ‘Global’ (instead of ‘European’) Britain had described the backstop deal as subjugation ill befitting Britain’s standing in the world. Almost a year earlier, Boris Johnson (then still foreign secretary) had argued that accepting all the EU’s regulations during a transitional period after Brexit would leave Britain as a ‘vassal state’. He repeated the phrase while the Cabinet were debating the Withdrawal Agreement.
The leader of another Leave faction, Jacob Rees-Mogg, alluded to an explicitly racialised motif of humiliation in stating that signing the agreement would leave Britain ‘not a vassal state but a slave state’ – a remark that the Labour MP David Lammy immediately criticised on Twitter as ‘trivialising the abuses of slavery’, based on an ‘ignorant nostalgia for Britain’s Imperial past’. Slaves, in the ‘Rule Britannia’ myth of sovereignty, are the very thing that Britons shall not be – a framework in which it is more shameful to be enslaved than to acquire generations of wealth from the sale, oppression and labour of human beings who were.
Evoking post-conflict Bosnia as a warning of what global status would await Britain if the backstop is agreed not only, as Jasmin Mujanović wrote on Twitter, trivialised the memory of the 100,000 people who lost their lives in the Bosnian war. The argument’s very internal logic requires disavowing the colonial past of Britain and other European powers while expecting the reader to sympathise with the unjustness of colonial rule.
The threat of Britain ending up in the same ‘colonial’ relationship to the EU as Bosnia touches the emotions of imperial nostalgia because it implies a massive national fall from grace in the global hierarchy of which countries control their own destiny and which countries exist to have their destinies controlled. Such racialised hierarchies of power and entitlement have been translated, since the formal decolonisation of European empires, into the centre–periphery relations which inform Western Europe’s dealings with the Global South but also the East, and South, of Europe itself. In British imaginations, Britain does not deserve Bosnia’s fate.
Neither, of course, did Bosnia – and the diplomatic context that determined how the Bosnian war could be ended was itself shaped by British foreign policy, when the government of John Major and Douglas Hurd insisted the war was a matter of ‘ethnic hatreds’ which the international community ought to contain, rather than forestalling Radovan Karadžić and Slobodan Milošević’s pincer movement against the Sarajevo government and its citizens while they still could.
Hannan’s story about talking to the ‘High Commissioner’ (in fact ‘High Representative’) in Bosnia joins both men in an attitude of offhand detachment (the High Representative joking that if the Serbs and Muslims both thought he was biased against him, he must be doing something right; Hannan replying that if everyone was unhappy, he must have been doing something wrong). A similar indifference could be said to characterise the attitudes of both the Leave campaign and the government to the stakes of the Good Friday Agreement and the everyday realities of peace and (in)security at the Irish border. So detached a style of politics and peacebuilding has its origins in the entitlement with which colonial Great Powers took it upon themselves in past peace congresses to determine state borders and resolve competing national claims. Britain not only sat alongside continental European powers at these tables, but presumed to lead.
Where Britain’s prospects after Brexit might resemble post-Dayton Bosnia, above all without a deal, is in a much more everyday domain – the shock that travel restrictions, extended shortages of food and medicines, and permanent damage to standards of living might inflict on people’s sense of what used to be ‘normal’, and the sense of ‘stuckness’ that pervades Bosnian society two decades after Dayton, unable to weaken the entrenched ethnopolitical interests that hold the Dayton constitution in place and trapped in what Stef Jansen, Vanja Čelebičić and Čarna Brković have called the EU’s ‘waiting room’.
Yet an even more important, immediate parallel between Brexit Britain and post-Dayton Bosnia lies in the psychological blow struck to 3.7 million citizens of other EU countries living in the UK, forced to watch their sense of belonging in what had become their home country removed overnight and left in doubt over whether they would even be allowed to stay – amid the racist and xenophobic abuse that the Brexit referendum appeared to legitimise, persuading the perpetrators of a statistically significant rise in hate crime that it was now acceptable to tell speakers of foreign languages, people of colour, and Muslims to ‘go home’. The sense of licence and impunity that the Leave campaign and referendum victory released has troubling echoes of, even though its circumstances are not identical to, the atmosphere before the Yugoslav wars began.
Bosnia and the UK are not, and have never been, in the same structural position vis-à-vis the EU, and critiques of the EU’s ‘neo-colonial’ treatment of Bosnia and other countries on its internal and external periphery cannot simply be mapped on to the UK, a country that had the ability to influence EU policy in South-East Europe – and that won more concessions from the EU than any other member state. Instead, the true hinge of coloniality connecting Brexit Britain and post-Dayton Bosnia is the sense of imperial nostalgia and the myth of British exceptionalism which has always fuelled the imagination of the Leave campaign.
Late last year, some colleagues who were organising an international conference on memorialising the dead at my university asked me if I could contribute a talk about some of my research. Being in between two projects, I didn’t know what to offer them, until: Eurovision, I thought. I can talk about Eurovision.
The past couple of Eurovisions had included a French song commemorating the dead of the World Wars, Armenia’s entry marking the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, and the winning Ukrainian song in 2016 which narrated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 with a heavily implied message about Russia’s invasion of Crimea. That would be more than enough. I wrote them up an abstract of the talk.
Then a song remembering the victims of urban terrorism won the Italian final, and France chose an entry retelling the rescue of a newborn refugee girl from the Mediterranean, where thousands of other refugees from Africa and the Middle East have met their preventable deaths.
What does Eurovision have to do with remembering the dead? In 2018, possibly, more than ever.
‘Performing’ national and European identity
Eurovision is a tradition, celebration, and a party; it’s also an occasion with a particular structure, which influences what viewers expect to see and how they make sense of the performances they watch. Each three-minute song, chosen by a national broadcaster and created by a team of musicians, songwriters and designers who might or might not come from the country they’re representing (that’s up to each broadcaster to decide), symbolically represents the whole of its nation when it’s offered up for a Eurovision audience, or put in front of what we could call a ‘Eurovision gaze’.
Each country’s votes, too, come through on screen as one national opinion: in fact, Eurovision compresses institutions and people into the image of ‘the nation’ voting, and ‘the nation’ taking action. Eurovision entries aren’t just competing on behalf of the nation, like in an Olympics or a World Cup, they’re literally ‘performing’ national identity (a phrase that Judith Butler first used almost thirty years ago to describe the everyday signals everybody in society sends about their gender).
(In fact, we could say athletes in an Olympics or players in a World Cup are performing national identity as well, forming or playing against spectators’ expectations of what a Russian or Jamaican runner will be like, or how ‘the Germans’ and ‘the Brazilians’ each play football…)
Eurovision entries perform national identity in terms of showing what national musical cultures are like, choosing how much national musical tradition or how much accomplishment in globally popular styles of music to display, choosing how to show off a national language or a singer’s fluency in global English, and even selecting what to represent as national tradition (more than one national Eurovision selection has ended up as a proxy face-off between two hotly-contested interpretations of what national cultural identity should be).
Eurovision entries quite literally ‘perform’ the nation – and that’s part of the spectacle viewers expect.
In the same way, producers, journalists and viewers all project transnational political narratives on to Eurovision too. In the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s, Eurovision seemed to symbolise the course of post-Cold-War European enlargement: broadcasters from the first ex-Warsaw-Pact countries started competing for the first time in 1993, as did three successor states of Yugoslavia, the only state socialist country that had taken part in Eurovision (in fact, keen to show how Soviet it wasn’t, Yugoslavia had been competing ever since 1961).
In 2004, the year of the EU’s first and largest expansion into ‘eastern Europe’ (plus Cyprus and Malta), Eurovision went through its own enlargement by adding a semi-final, meaning every broadcaster (symbolically, every country) that wanted to participate could send a song to Eurovision every year. Wins for Estonia, Latvia and Turkey in 2001-3 had added Tallinn, Riga and Istanbul to Eurovision’s map of host cities: Ruslana’s victory for Ukraine in 2004 kept up the cycle, with the small unanticipated matter of an Orange Revolution before Kyiv hosted in 2005.
Even though Eurovision isn’t organised by the EU or any other European political institution (the EBU is independent), viewers make sense of it through the lens of political developments – the reason ‘Europe-Russia’ relations get an added bite at Eurovision, where the contest’s strong LGBTQ connections run up against the ideology of state homophobia, biphobia and transphobia that Putin has chosen to stand for (and whose fiercest advocates in Russia don’t even want Eurovision broadcast there).
Eurovision organisers still insist – it’s written into the rules – that Eurovision is not a political event, and entries with political messages are not allowed. But what counts as ‘political’ at Eurovision?
It’s simple to say entries can’t promote political leaders or parties, though one or two have tried (including the disqualified Georgian entry from 2009 after the Russian-Georgian war, ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’). Beyond that, we hit one of the biggest questions in cultural politics: what is political and what isn’t, and who has or claims the power to decide?
Is it political, for instance, to sing about protecting the environment or stopping nuclear war, which have both been uncontroversial themes for Eurovision songs, yet are also subjects of political protest? Is it political to bring a rainbow flag? Is it political to sing about a particular war in a nation’s history, on a broadcast that will also go out to nations it fought against? And we can even ask, if we’re thinking about commemoration: is it political to remember the dead?
Thinking that through starts to reveal what kinds of memorialisation get framed as political in European memory cultures and what don’t, and what kinds of memorialisation potentially can’t be memorialised in a space like Eurovision at all.
Coming home: personal tributes at Eurovision
A lot more remembering the dead goes on at Eurovision than people who don’t watch Eurovision would probably think. Indeed, as the contest’s own history has lengthened, one form of memorialisation has been paying tribute to famous Eurovision performers who have died: it’ll be surprising if the hosts of the grand final don’t commemorate the Swiss singer Lys Assia, who won the first Eurovision in 1956 and died this year aged 94. (At one point this winter, fans were fearing the contest could even be overshadowed by the loss of last year’s seriously ill winner, Salvador Sobral, who’s now recovering from a successful heart transplant.)
Another form is when contestants use Eurovision for their own personal commemorations, remembering a family member or loved one who has died in a way that a hundred million viewers will see. (Germany’s entry this year, Michael Schulte’s ‘You Let Me Walk Alone’, is inspired by Schulte’s complex feelings about his father’s death.) of his father.
Intimate backstories like these (if viewers know them) give a performance authenticity, arguably popular music stardom’s most valuable currency, and all the more so in a setting as competitive as Eurovision – even though, since the early 2000s, talent-show producers have turned personal grief into emotive plotlines for contestants so often that the dead or dying family member has also become a reality TV cliché.
In 2011, even the story of how Iceland’s song got to Eurovision was an act of memorialisation: the singer Sjonni Brink, about to compete in the national final Söngvakeppnin with his song ‘Coming Home’, died of a stroke in January, when the Söngvakeppnin heats were already under way. Six of his musician friends undertook to perform for him instead, and won.
Even as Brink had written it, ‘Coming Home’ was about a man who couldn’t wait to get home and see his lover to tell them all the things he wants to say, because no-one knows when their time’s going to run out; after his death, they became even more poignant, crying out to be interpreted as a tribute to the band’s close friend who had passed away.
But Eurovision has also been a space for collective memorialisation – and that’s where the politics really come in.
Don’t deny: facing the shadow of genocide and the World Wars
Commemorating the dead in a way that’s significant to a collective community is often about national commemorations, but could also be the imagined European and transnational public – or even the international queer public, remembering those they’ve collectively lost to HIV and AIDS. (Austria’s entry in 2007 obliquely commemorated the AIDS crisis by looking to the future as the official song of that year’s Vienna Life Ball.)
Collective remembering, linked to political communities, is where we’d expect more controversy over the politics of commemoration, and even whether a theme is appropriate for Eurovision at all – as two contrasting examples from 2015 show.
2015, when Eurovision was held in Vienna, marked the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and was continuing to witness the string of First World War centenary commemorations that would stretch all the way from 2014 to 2018 – or longer in nations where conflict didn’t come to a clean end with the Armistice.
An extensive Armenian public diplomacy initiative during 2015, involving celebrities of Armenian descent like Kim Kardashian, was campaigning for international public awareness of the genocide and for foreign governments to pass declarations recognising it as genocide, in a context where the Turkish state still operates a policy of denial. Armenia’s Eurovision entry commemorated it as well.
Genealogy, the group chosen to sing the song, united five singers from the Armenian diaspora in different continents with a sixth (Inga Arshakyan, one-half of the Armenian entry in 2010) who still lived in Armenia – even the group’s composition was a message of persistence and survival, drawing attention to why the Armenian people had been scattered around the world.
Originally, Genealogy’s song was called ‘Don’t Deny’. Their video, released in March, evoked the beginning of the 20th century and the theme of family in the performers’ outfits, its aesthetics of antique photography, and the pins with pictures of their grandparents that the singers wore. The song’s title, the group’s name, the lyrics’ themes, the video’s image, and the history behind them all combined to frame the song as commemorating the Armenian Genocide: would this break the rules against political messages at Eurovision? even though there’s no political content in the song’s words themselves. The ethnonational reading is almost unavoidable and has been very knowingly created. Did this break the rules against political messages at Eurovision?
Four days after the video appeared online, the songwriters announced a title change to ‘Face The Shadow’ (another image from the lyrics), though the chorus continued to begin ‘Don’t deny.’
This was Eurovision’s most controversial collective commemoration in the ‘modern’ era, at least at the time – but, deep into what the historian Catriona Pennell has called the ‘centenary moment’, it was far from the only one.
Hundreds if not thousands of local, national and international public memory projects in 2014-18 have aimed at commemorating and reinterpreting what the public remember about that conflict and its unprecedented scale of battlefield death, which made wartime bereavement a mass, shared, national experience: WW1 commemoration has found its way to Eurovision too.
In 2014, for instance, Malta’s Firelight had used the video for their song (also called ‘Coming Home’), to remind viewers across Europe that Maltese soldiers and prisoners of war had been involved in WW1, and their Eurovision performance had projected a floor of red poppies across the digital stage.
France’s entry in 2015 was Lisa Angell’s ‘N’oubliez pas’ – or ‘Don’t forget’, alongside Genealogy’s ‘Don’t deny’. ‘N’oubliez pas’ commemorated war and its effects on the human landscape, of France and/or Europe. Angell sings in the voice of a woman remembering her village that has been left in ashes, ‘swept away by history … erased from maps and memories, when they arrived, hidden behind their weapons’ (‘balayé par l’histoire … effacée des cartes et des mémoires, quand ils sont arrives, cachés derrière leurs armes’).
This is a village wiped off the map by mass warfare, in a year when centenary commemorations would have made the Great War come to mind for many viewers as the answer to what happened there and when. In fact, the song’s video had drawn its commemoration towards the Second World War with flashes of the American Cemetery in Normandy, blending the World Wars into one historical experience; the stage performance let it be read much more straightforwardly as WW1.
The song’s producers used the vast LED screen behind Angell to project the backdrop of an entire burned-out village behind her, then to show the village’s houses rebuilding themselves, and finally to surround her with an entire digital regiment of ghostly military drummers – circumventing Eurovision’s rule against having no more than six performers on stage.
Why was this highly symbolic, highly emotive, highly historicised presentation, with essentially the same narrative trajectory as ‘Face The Shadow’, not swept up in the same arguments about whether it was too political? Not because of its own content, I’d suggest, but because of the wider contexts around them: the memory of the Armenian Genocide is contested in international relations, but the process of Western European integration after WW2 – where nations seemed to publicly put WW1 behind them as a war that had been equally devastating on both sides – has produced an international political consensus about the meanings of the Western Front.
But what would happen if the themes and images of ‘N’oubliez pas’ were applied to a contemporary conflict, as they could equally have been? Eurovision would find out a year later, when Ukraine (which hadn’t participated in 2015, and picked its 2014 song before the Russian invasion of Crimea) made its first song selection since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began.
‘1944’ by Jamala, whose own heritage is Crimean Tatar, went on to win Eurovision 2016. The very title would have suggested, to listeners with even the slightest knowledge of WW2 on the Eastern Front, that it would draw parallels between Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 and Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine in 2014. Its first lines described strangers who ‘come to your house, they kill you all and say “We’re not guilty”’, in a context where it was important for Ukrainian public diplomacy to persuade foreign publics and governments that Russia was the aggressor in Crimea.
The first verse could just as easily have been about – and therefore was effectively about – Russian relativism and obfuscation over the violence in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and the lengths the Russian state had gone to not to seem responsible.
Making it known in interviews that her own grandparents had been among Stalin’s Tatar deportees until Gorbachev allowed the Tatars back to Crimea, and that they had only been able to speak on Skype sinxe 2014, Jamala brought her own embodied authenticity to the performance – not just as a speaker of Tatar (the language of the chorus) but a descendant of victims of forced deportation, which Tatars have campaigned to have recognised as genocide themselves.
Just as Genealogy had appealed for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, ‘1944’ allusively appealed to the audience to share its emotional narrative about Tatars’ and Ukrainians’ suffering in the past and present; it didn’t describe anything Lisa Angell hadn’t, except the killers who then say ‘We’re not guilty’. Musically, its wailing breaks gave its singer much more opportunity to express what viewers would hear as raw emotion – but the EBU would have been in a very difficult position if it had banned ‘1944’, given the precedents from the previous year.
Collective memorialisations like Genealogy’s, Angell’s or Jamala’s were particularly visible in 2014-16, but aren’t a new phenomenon at Eurovision: in 1976, Greece famously dedicated its entry ‘Panagia mou, Panagia mou‘ (‘Virgin Mary, Virgin Mary’) to commemorating Greek victims of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and Croatian and Bosnian TV both used their country’s first Eurovision entries as sovereign states in 1993 to draw viewers’ attention to the ongoing war in Croatia and the siege of Sarajevo.
The interactive experience of watching today’s Eurovisions and commenting on them on social media at the same time might make it easier for this form of Eurovision diplomacy to spread its messages – but Eurovision as a contest was giving collective memorialisation a platform well before 2014. Nevertheless, this is a moment where many Eurovision delegations have been realising that Eurovision can be a platform for public diplomacy through memorialisation of the dead – or at least some dead.
Mercy, mercy: whose lives and deaths can Eurovision remember?
Whose deaths are chosen to be memorialised – and by whom – are themselves political questions, which come down ultimately to whose lives society considers worth grieving or not… and these go on in the shadow of histories of racism, which are ultimately about who is and isn’t going to be considered human. Isn’t this kind of political theory a long way from anything to do with Eurovision?
Especially when two of this year’s finalist songs are acts of memorialisation concerning current political issues in Europe which are entangled with struggles over multiculturalism, it might be closer than it looks.
The French song ‘Mercy’, by Madame Monsieur, is named after the refugee girl born on a Medecins Sans Frontieres boat in the Mediterranean. If we’re talking about Eurovision songs not being allowed to be political, MSF is one of the most politically outspoken humanitarian organisations in Europe by design, including on the question of rescuing refugees at sea. MSF’s name and logo are nowhere near the song’s presentation, and wouldn’t be allowed to be, but the whole entry is framed by its organisational values and its work.
Like one of Stockholm’s semi-final interval acts, ‘The Grey People‘, it starts to confront the reality that Eurovision is celebrating ‘Europe’ at the same time thousands of refugees are risking death to cross the borders that the European Union has fortified against them. It ends, like ‘The Grey People’, with an uplifting image of new life (reinforced when French journalists found Mercy in a refugee camp in Sicily earlier this year).
Meanwhile, the Italian song ‘Non mi avete fatto niente’ (‘You haven’t done anything to me’) by Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro offers a narrative of resilience against urban terrorism. The many sites of terrorist attacks they name in the verses include Cairo, Barcelona, a concert in France we probably understand to be the Bataclan, London, and Nice: placing one site in the Middle East might partly acknowledge (without completely subverting) the narrow boundaries of the ‘#PrayForParis’ style of hashtag memorialisation which often elicits sympathy for attacks in Western Europe, North America and Israel but not for the much more frequent attacks in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan than European cities even now. Presenting a list of sites without Oslo or Utøya, meanwhile, restricts the list to sites of Islamist not white nationalist terrorism even if the lyricist had only thought they were choosing cities that had suffered attacks in the same couple of years.
The video depicts sites of grassroots and official commemoration including street shrines and war cemeteries, opening out into a utopian hope that humans will stop hating and killing each other, with subtitles in fifteen languages (including Chinese, Turkish and Arabic) adding to the cosmopolitan effect.
In fact, both videos make their appeals to a cosmopolitan and racially diverse public, with their multiracial crowds assembling at iconic places which add up into a map of an imagined transnational community, just like the opening videos of Eurovision finals themselves often do. The songs contrast each other, maybe, when it comes to the question of who speaks for the dead. The French song is written in the first person, as Mercy, who is ‘all the children the sea has taken’ (‘tous les enfants que la mer a pris’) -significantly, its agent of death is the sea, while the visa regimes and border security practices which meant the children had to cross the sea that way, and the policies that made governments insist on them, are so immutable they’re outside the story altogether. Its first-person voice does leave a white woman in the position of singing in the voice of a young black girl, and some viewers will question whether she ends up speaking over the girl she is professing to speak for.
Meta and Moro may be closer to their subject matter, as inhabitants of cities like the ones that have witnessed recent attacks, and more to the point as working musicians, aware that concert halls and stadiums have been favoured targets for ISIS-inspired and white nationalist terrorism. The last thing a musician might want to call to mind on an arena stage, you’d think, might be the Bataclan; even as a spectator, dwell on the concert attacks for more than a split second and the fantasy of Eurovision falls apart.
The presence of one vast group of dead, however, goes unmentioned amid the celebration of Portuguese navigation, maritime heritage and crossing cultures across the sea that has given Eurovision 2018 its slogan ‘All Aboard!’: the millions of enslaved Africans forced on to European ships between the 15th and the 19th century, in a trade that Portuguese navigators expanded at a very early stage. No Eurovision has ever been held in a site more closely connected to the history of the Atlantic slave trade (London probably comes nearest), and Lisbon has been confronting its own history of complicity in enslavement this year after residents voted to build the city’s first public monument acknowledging the slave trade at the end of 2017.
Indeed, the biggest silence of all might not even be around the memory of the slave trade but the memory of the connection between enslaved Africans and the refugees who have died reaching Europe today. The history of racism, which dates back to the discourses with which white Europeans legitimised the capture and enslavement of other human beings, lies underneath the racism and xenophobia that encourages EU governments to tighten the external border yet further and minimise the numbers of refugees who can settle in the EU.
Perhaps the dead who cannot be remembered at Eurovision are those whose histories would make the logic of its shared fantasy collapse: that Europe isn’t the place where politics can be set aside like the celebration invites us to temporarily imagine it can be.
Six years ago, in 2012, the dramatised arrival of the ‘Windrush Generation’ provided many British viewers with one of the most moving moments in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. The dozens of black Londoners and the giant model of the Empire Windrush, which had docked at Tilbury in June 1948, entering the stadium during the ceremony’s historical pageant stood for the hundreds of thousands of black Britons who had migrated from the Caribbean to Britain, which was then still their imperial metropole, between 1948 and 1962.
The moment when the ‘Windrush Generation’ joined the pageant’s chaotic whirl of characters drawn from modern British social and cultural history symbolised, for millions of its viewers (if not those people of colour with more reason to be suspicious of British promises), a Britain finally inclusive enough to have made the post-Windrush black presence as integral a part of its national story as Remembrance or Brunel. Today, however, members of this same symbolic generation have been threatened with deportation – and some have already been deported – because they have been unable to prove their immigration status despite living in Britain for more than fifty years. The Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade was far from alone in wondering where it had all gone wrong since 2012.
What kind of British government would deport the children of the Empire Windrush? Not the openly fascist regime that the National Front took to the streets for in the 1970s, or that Alan Moore imagined taking control of a near-future Britain in his 1988 comic V for Vendetta (written at the height of the Thatcher years). Rather, as most of the British public only realised after the revelations of the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman connecting dozens of individual stories into a chilling pattern, the answer lies with the Conservative government of Theresa May.
Suddenly, in mid-April, public sympathy mobilised in support of the ‘Windrush Generation’ alongside an eviscerating parliamentary intervention from David Lammy MP, who has taken up the cases of dozens of black Britons who have lost jobs, been refused medical treatment or even been deported. Lammy’s challenge in parliament (and ongoing pressure through Twitter) would force the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to admit that the government’s actions have been ‘appalling’ in forcing potentially thousands of Windrush-era citizens to prove their right to reside in Britain all over again by requiring evidence none ever anticipated they would have to provide.
On 23 April, Rudd promised to help the Windrush generation ‘acquire’ citizenship by waiving application fees and test requirements, though Lammy continued to emphasise that their citizenship had been ‘taken away by your [Rudd’s] government, not something that your government is now choosing to grant them.’
Much of the white British public had not appreciated the harsh realities that black families had seen hitting their elder relatives for months until the plight of the ‘Windrush Generation’ became national news. The policy of extending border immigration controls into everyday life, which government officials themselves termed the ‘Hostile Environment‘, has caused dire consequences for this historic and symbolic group of citizens. Members of the Windrush Generation have lost their jobs because they could not show a UK passport; they have been charged thousands of pounds for NHS care under rules targeting ‘health tourism’; and some have even been detained awaiting deportation to countries they have not visited for fifty years. An unknown number of people, the immigration minister Caroline Nokes suggested last week, have even been ‘deported in error’.
The crisis has even been linked to at least one death. The mother of Dexter Bristol, a Londoner born in Grenada who died suddenly last month aged 57, blamed government racism and the ‘hostile environment’ policy for the stress her son suffered after losing his job and access to benefits: ‘My son is British. We didn’t come here illegally… No one expected this country to turn into what it is now.’
Why has public sympathy mobilised so quickly around this group when thousands of others, including younger migrants from the Caribbean, have been caught up by these regulations ever since Britain’s ‘everyday borders‘ started to tighten? Largely because the Windrush Generation is already a national myth that the British public had been invited to rejoice in celebrating – never more spectacularly than at London 2012.
Yet if the Home Office’s attack on the Windrush Generation feels like a shocking and disorienting reversal, this is because the ceremony’s triumphant story about Windrush was not even what the whole country believed in 2012 – rather, the difference between 2012 and 2018 is a matter of which narrative has had more power to be heard.
By 2012, Windrush had already been worked into many versions of Britain’s national myth – part of a liberal, ‘post-racial’ UK public commemorative culture, a mythic voyage at the beginning of a story about tolerance and progress where Britain’s colonisation of the Caribbean and its enslavement of the Windrush Generation’s ancestors could be absolved.
This progress, one must remember, had been hard-won. Black activists had had to campaign for years for Windrush to be taught in schools and marked by local councils, before public institutions began to take it up. Arguably, Windrush commemoration gained momentum after the 1999 Macpherson Report, which had popularised the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe police inaction after the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993; museum and heritage professionals’ own anti-racist engagement combined with the impact of Labour equalities legislation to make institutions keen to show they were serving a diverse community by marking Windrush as the turning point (or, more problematically, the beginning) of black history in Britain. Even though in 2012 commemorating Windrush might have seemed like consensus, when black history campaigns first gained pace in the 1980s it had been a radical demand.
Commemorating Windrush as part of Britain’s national narrative meant telling a story about Britain where black Britons belonged on the same terms as white Britons – a story about a Britain which was comfortable with having a Commonwealth not an Empire, and had moved on from the racism the Windrush Generation had endured when they were young.
Remembering how Britishness had supposedly become multicultural and racism had supposedly been defeated, by celebrating Windrush, participants were invited to join in the happy feeling of how far ‘we’ had come.
The London 2012 opening ceremony was a pageant of history-from-below that imagined a nation made up of its oppressed groups as well as its elites: groups like the workers of the Industrial Revolution, like the suffragettes, and like the Windrush Generation. The ‘mosaic history’ Danny Boyle, with scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, depicted through the ceremony, alongside celebrations of children’s literature, the NHS and a modern-minded Queen, readily lent itself to liberal readings. The arts critic Charlotte Higgins, for instance, wrote of Boyle’s ceremony the next day that it was an ‘impassioned poem of praise to the country he [and ‘we’] would most like to believe in.’
The heritage of this mode of representation was demonstrably left-wing, dating back to leftist traditions of ‘radical patriotism’ (including pageants) from between the World Wars, and to the socialist principles that inspired historians like Raphael Samuel to suggest the heritage of ‘ordinary people’ could be a leftist way of linking the public with the national past.
Indeed, one thread even links Samuel’s vision of the nation directly to Boyce: Samuel edited a three-volume collection on Patriotism: the Making and Unmaking of British National Identity in 1989, assembling suppressed and everyday heritage into a national past, and a young Boyce contributed a chapter on the I-Spy books while researching his English PhD.
In 2012, the BBC’s broadcast of a ceremony tugging quirky cultural heartstrings to a cheering stadium made it feel as if the whole country was celebrating the spectacle of a creative, confident and multicultural nation too. And yet, it wasn’t; the story of London 2012 was already being contested on the night itself, when Conservative MP Aidan Burley tweeted that it had been ‘leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones.’
Where public narratives are concerned, the contrast between 2012 and 2018 is not so much ‘Where did it go so wrong?’ as ‘Which narratives had the strongest platform then and now?’
And narratives about Windrush do relate directly to the fact that the Home Office has deported black Britons who came to the UK with British passports before their islands became independent, because national identity itself is a story about who belongs. Or rather, national identity is a story about who belongs unconditionally on the land inside the nation’s borders, and whom the hosts might graciously extend the right to stay.
The Windrush Generation who came to Britain, and the children they have had there, spent decades hearing racists like Enoch Powell and the National Front openly call for them to be repatriated. The slogan of sending black and Asian Britons ‘back home’, to the Caribbean or South Asia, implied that they had no right to belong safely ‘at home’ in Britain at all.
The very members of this symbolic generation who listened with dread as young people to the possible consequences of Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, had to relive the experience a few weeks ago when BBC Radio 4 had Powell’s words read in their entirety by a star actor: a broadcast that the journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and many other British people of colour argued only normalised Powell’s rhetoric, empowered the far right, and represented a ‘particularly jarring… resurrection’ just as the Home Office was ‘unceremoniously booting out’ some of the very people who had arrived on the Windrush or the ships that followed.
Today, when many of the Windrush Generation have retired – and some might have looked back and thought they were living in a better country than the Britain they had known in their youth – tens of thousands of them now find they cannot prove their citizenship to the degree that ‘hostile environment’ policies require. After all, why would they have needed to before, outside dystopian nightmares? Not only has that nightmare become a reality; it might also grow more chilling yet with the news that, as long ago as 2010, the Border Force destroyed thousands of the very landing cards that could have proved when they arrived in the UK.
Their situation has moved the British public so much more than other inhumane deportations because of the power of the Windrush myth itself.
Aidan Burley, tweeting in 2012, had wanted to turn the clock back on multiculturalism. So did the UK Independence Party, on the ever larger platform the BBC gave it after the 2014 European Parliament elections; so did many of the voices backing Brexit. In 2012, the idea that that progress could be thrown into reverse, and Britain in a few years’ time could become ‘more racist’ not less, was very far from most people’s minds apart from those who longed to make it happen.
Yet visa rules for non-EU citizens became even tighter than New Labour had made them; Brexit stripped 3 million EU citizens of freedom of movement rights they had never had to think that they would lose; and Caribbean-born elders are facing now what Powell and the National Front threatened them with in their youth. The threat to deport the Windrush Generation does not just disturb the myth of multicultural Britain that grew between the 1990s and 2012 – it has torn it up, and some have watched the reversal of the myth with glee.
Race has worked its way into national identities around the globe except, as most studies of postsocialist Europe until very recently would suggest, in former state socialist societies such as the Yugoslav region. The Yugoslav successor states and other central and east European countries have the reputation of being historically white nations, which did not have overseas empires and did not therefore experience the mass postcolonial migration that western European countries witnessed after 1945. Indeed, their experiences of fighting what national histories remember as wars of liberation against foreign empires might seem to place them among imperialism’s victims rather than its agents. For all these reasons, sociologists, anthropologists and historians have rarely viewed national identity in the Yugoslav region as part of the global politics of coloniality and ‘race’ – while state socialism and postsocialism has seemed like one complication too far for most theorists of how ‘race’ itself has travelled and translated itself around the world.
Usually, social scientists and historians trying to make sense of ‘race’ in the Yugoslav region have either equated race with ethnicity – a category of identity which represents a powerful social fact dividing people into national majorities and minorities, no matter how socially constructed the boundaries between ethnic ‘selves’ and ‘others’ are – or dismissed race altogether. Even after accepting that racism and ‘racialisation’ (the process of projecting racial categories on to people, places and cultural symbols) are the products of structures of power that date back to European colonialism and the enslavement of Africans, rather than the result of individuals’ prejudice and bias, several factors might seem to put the Yugoslav region and similar postsocialist societies outside the global framework of ‘race’. Race and the Yugoslav Region, my new book for Manchester University Press, comes at a moment where the refugee crisis has revealed they are not outside that framework and scholars are increasingly trying to show that they have never been.
Why might the common sense of most experts on the Yugoslav region until recently have suggested that race did not matter as much in the Balkans or eastern Europe as it did in much of the West? For all but the last few decades of the era when European powers were exercising direct imperial domination over much of the globe, Yugoslavia did not even exist. Instead, the region’s people(s) had struggled for independence from three different empires (and one of them was the Ottoman Empire, which white Europeans often treated as non-European itself): if Yugoslavia had had no empire of its own, it surely had no historical accountability to render for the sins of empire, nor any reason for its non-white population to expand through mass postcolonial migration like Britain’s or France’s had. The skin colour of most people from majority nations in the region – though few of its own racialised minority, the Roma – would be described in most systems of ‘race’ as white. The Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova, whose Imagining the Balkans both popularised and criticised the idea of using Edward Said’s postcolonial theory of ‘orientalism’ to understand postsocialist identities as well, called the Balkans ‘white and […] predominantly Christian’ to explain why she thought denigration of the Balkans had turned into the last acceptable prejudice in the early 1990s. Yet, by the late 2000s, postcolonial social scientists such as Dušan Bjelić and Konstantin Kilibarda were already arguing that assuming the Balkans were white closed off opportunities to ask how ‘whiteness’, as a racialised ideology of identification with civilisation and modernity, might have worked in collective identity-making in south-east Europe.
One approach to ‘race’ in the region was therefore an implicit or explicit ‘exceptionalism’, which let it be widely taken for granted that south-east Europe could be studied perfectly well without ‘race’. Another, for some authors, was to draw parallels between how ideas of ‘the Balkans’ or ‘the East’ were stigmatised inside and outside south-east Europe (as being ‘less modern’ than ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’) and how the black diaspora was marginalised around the world. This mode of analogy was symbolised in the title of Nicole Lindstrom and Maple Razsa’s influential article on Croatia, ‘Balkan is Beautiful’ (playing on the reclamatory liberation slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’). It began to place nationalism and ethnicity in the region into a wider context of the global struggle for racial justice, yet still keeps the region oddly separate from the main course of world history where colonialism and therefore ‘race’ did shape identities: ‘Balkan’, it implies, is to south-east Europe as ‘black’ is elsewhere.
However, cultural sociology and postcolonial contemporary history were already starting to point to transnational reverberations of the legacies of colonialism (which include ‘race’ and racism) that extended (or could be extended) into the region. The scepticism Paul Gilroy showed in works such as Between Camps towards over-essentialised expressions of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ as categories of identity, for instance, resonated with an equally anti-essentialist turn that the anthropology of ethnicity and nationalism of south-east Europe had taken (e.g. pointing out how ambiguous the symbolic boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ constantly being constructed around markers of cultural identity actually are, despite ethnic identities supposedly being ‘fixed’). But his approach to collective identity also involved the sense of postcolonial, transnational historical connectivity he had illustrated in an earlier book, The Black Atlantic. Can we say there are any traces of ‘the Black Atlantic’ in south-east Europe? The study of popular music gives an example of how to look for them. Most scholars would already describe popular music histories in south-east Europe as transnational, because the folk traditions that have influenced them cut across national borders (and were usually there before them). They are transnational in this sense, but – to the extent that music traditions of the worldwide African diaspora have also influenced them – they are also transnational enough to represent another echo of the worldwide history of colonialism and slavery, which had created the routes through which black diasporic intellectual and cultural resistance was expressed. The echo may be distant, but it should not go unheard.
Another essential foundation for tracing the global politics of ‘race’ in the Yugoslav region is to recognise that ‘postsocialism’ and ‘postcolonialism’ are not just words that describe the condition of two separate parts of the world. The geographer Sharad Chari and the anthropologist Katherine Verdery wrote what became a manifesto for a postsocialist and postcolonial contemporary history when they published an article in 2009 that challenged scholars of both the postsocialist and postcolonial ‘worlds’ not to see them as separate zones. Chari, a geographer of postcolonial development, and Verdery, among the anthropologists who had effectively founded the critical study of postsocialism, combined to argue that postsocialism was not simply a lens for making sense of former state socialist societies, nor was postcoloniality a lens that only applied to the former metropoles and colonies of empire. Instead, it mattered just as much to ask how the collapse of state socialism in Europe and the end of bipolar ideological competition between the superpowers in 1989–91 had affected societies more usually thought of as postcolonial, and how legacies of colonialism had affected what social scientists often still call ‘postsocialist’ space. Chief among those legacies – no matter how narratives of ‘benign’ imperialism deny it – are the reverberations of Europeans’ mass enslavement of Africans and the depth to which formations of ‘race’ were embedded in international political, social and cultural thought. ‘Thinking between the posts’, as Chari and Verdery put it, to connect the global legacies of colonialism and state socialism would have to account for south-east Europe’s position in global ‘raciality’ – Race and the Yugoslav Region argues – or it is not tracing colonialism’s deepest-rooted legacy at all.
To accept this argument, however, one first has to accept that ‘race’, slavery and colonialism are inextricably joined. Liberal understandings of racism as a personal prejudice and relic of the past, which hope that enlightenment and education will be enough to eradicate racism, do not require seeing race in the same ‘structural’ terms (and often, Alana Lentin argues, this more liberal model is how anti-racist movements have theorised race). When ‘race’ and racism are not seen as necessarily connected to colonialism, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ (or ‘racism’ and ‘ethnic antagonism’) are probably easier to conflate. They do already have interwoven histories as ideas, and scholars such as Nevenko Bartulin, Miglena Todorova and Marius Turda have done much to show how transnational racial ideology was adapted and embedded into the history of defining central and east European ethnic identities in the first half of the 20th century. ‘Race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are mutually entangled, but they are not the same thing, and ethnic relations in the Yugoslav region (or elsewhere in postsocialist Europe) are not just the equivalent of race relations elsewhere: they have also been shaped by a history and sociology of ‘race’ that runs across the globe. That historical framework not only permits, but forces, the dynamics of south-east European self-identifications with ‘Europe’, ‘modernity’ and ‘the West’ (and the symbolic boundaries that position sociocultural and ethnonational Others in ‘the Balkans’ and ‘the East’) to be seen within the history of ‘race’ itself.
The symbolic binary oppositions that help to construct so many collective identities in the Yugoslav region are, therefore, not just mirror images of the symbolic binary oppositions (of modernity versus primitivism, civilisation versus wildness, reason versus unreason) that critical race theory perceives in hierarchies of whiteness and non-whiteness: they are part of the same framework, because the framework is already worldwide. Critical race theorists argue that colonialism’s way of dividing the world into civilised and uncivilised zones, and its way of ascribing cultural and personal characteristics to people and communities based on which of these spaces they are presumed to have descended from, produced a powerful racialised imagination. No part of the world has escaped the global racial hierarchy, not even – as Jemima Pierre argues in a recent study of Ghana – postcolonial Africa where decolonisation might have been expected to do away with colonial structures of ‘race’: their intimate, embodied politics and their continual transnational remediation have made them ‘stickier’ (in Sara Ahmed’s sense) than direct colonial rule. Why should the world’s only exception be the Yugoslav region, or the rest of central and south-east Europe?
Postcolonial approaches already give cultural historians, anthropologists and literary scholars a rich methodology for showing racialised cultural imaginations at work in European societies that had not yet colonised territory or experienced mass ‘postcolonial’ migration, and even in those that never went on to do so. Researchers such as Maxim Matusevich in transnational history, Kesha Fikes and Alaina Lemon in anthropology, and Adriana Helbig in ethnomusicology have shown through studies of African diasporic presences in Russia and Ukraine that encounters with racialised difference helped to constitute geopolitical and cultural identities during state socialism and postsocialism even though Communism displaced responsibility for racism and the very salience of ‘race’ on to the imperialist and capitalist influence of, above all, the USA. Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race refutes the exceptionalism of white Dutch perceptions that racism did not exist in the Netherlands before the era of mass migration and shows scholars working elsewhere how to collect evidence against the exceptionalist narratives they contend with as well.
In the historical sections of White Innocence, Wekker extends Edward Said’s notion of the ‘cultural archive’ from his own specialism of literature into historic sites of everyday knowledge about ‘race’. These include education, visual arts, medical and anthropological magazines and commercial advertising, as well as the spectacle of fin-de-siècle colonial exhibitions. In all these sites, Wekker finds more than enough proof of a gendered and sexualised racial imagination at the turn of the 19th and 20th century to expose the disingenuousness of mainstream Dutch professions of ‘white innocence’ about ‘race’. From the colonial tropes still embedded in coffee and confectionery branding to occasional but unquestioned instances of blackface performance on entertainment television, the Yugoslav region exhibits its own ‘cultural archive’ of racialisation dating back to the racial formations of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Venetian empires that used to rule it. These were already forming before the state socialist period when, as Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić have recently argued, Tito and other Yugoslav Communists made their case for leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement by arguing that Yugoslavs, having liberated themselves from imperial oppression, were both part of and (more paternalistically) could lead African and Asian allies in worldwide anti-colonial struggle in the new international order that was emerging after the so-called ‘global racial break’. Even then, Yugoslav identifications shifted between the protagonists of anti-colonial struggle and the civilised modernity of the Europeans who had subjugated them. Topics like these have been hidden away behind the racial exceptionalism that has dominated central and east European studies.
This does not mean, however, that they were not already being researched. The postcolonial feminist Anikó Imre had, for instance, already unambiguously opposed the idea that eastern Europe was outside ‘race’ in a chapter for a volume on Postcolonial Whiteness in 2005, but her intervention (in a book that east Europeanists who were not already looking for work on whiteness and postcolonialism would probably not have read) did not change the direction of the field like the ‘balkanism’ debate (about applying ‘orientalism’ to the Balkans) had done in the 1990s. Research on antiziganism such as Imre’s has since led the field in connecting national ethnopolitics with the transnational politics of cultural racism in Europe to explain the situation of Romani people in south-east European societies. And yet the region’s identifications with ‘Europe’ and ‘modernity’ are linked to global formations of race and the politics of emotion that sustain them in even more ways than that. Spatialised hierarchies of civilisation and barbarism, of modernity and backwardness, of readiness to rule and capacity to be taught are, Charles Mills and Walter Mignolo both show, integral to the history of ‘race’ and racialisation. Critical race theory argues that this process was global. And if it was, the construction of social and ethnic identities around images of ‘Europe’ and ‘the Balkans’ in the Yugoslav region must already have been unfolding within this history.
Nevertheless, even most global sociologists of race have passed over the complexities of the Yugoslav region, central and eastern Europe, and state socialism. If many of the region’s future nation-states were not even independent when European powers were creating and administering their structures of colonial violence, how far are the ‘Europes’ imagined there part of the same ‘Europe’ being denounced by decolonial critiques of Eurocentrism – and why could individuals from the region still find points of identification with the coloniser? Were the answers different under state socialism, when Communist ideology held that racism only existed in capitalist societies, than during postsocialism’s so-called ‘return to Europe’, when the ‘Europe’ that liberals aspired to join was already fortifying its borders against migrants and refugees from the Global South? How far do the long-term and recent ways in which the region has been made into a periphery of Europe and (the post-Yugoslav New Left argues) kept in a relationship of dependency by the European Union complicate notions of ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’? A question resting underneath all these in moral terms might be what measure of historical responsibility for coloniality and racism the people(s) of the Yugoslav region and the rest of central and eastern Europe could be said to share. And yet, even when ‘global’ race scholarship travels all round the Atlantic, it stops so often at Europe’s Atlantic coast that the conversation further inland has only just begun.
It might have been easier to ignore these questions, at least from positions of so-called ‘white ignorance’, when the most urgent phenomena in the Yugoslav region that needed explaining seemed to be being produced inside it, through ethnopolitical conflict. Yet agendas that might have sufficed for explaining the Yugoslav wars were far less help in explaining how post-Yugoslav states and their neighbours responded to the ‘refugee crisis’ as it manifested in the Western Balkans in 2015, when 1 million migrants and refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan traversed the region on foot. The politics of how far national communities defined by cultural traditions and values might have welcomed or excluded refugees, and the structural position in the EU border project that European institutions had assigned the region’s governments, could not be understood without reference to how security and migration were and are racialised in 21st-century Europe. ‘Race’, not just ethnicity, governed official and public reactions to migrants who were perceived through a racialised transnational politics of security and Islamophobia. The spectacle of Macedonian police beating refugees at Gevgelia station as they rushed to board trains to Hungary (before Viktor Orban’s increasingly ethnocentric government could finish building an announced border fence) produced images of violent unrest in ‘the Balkans’ beyond the frame of conventional approaches to ‘Balkan violence’ which separated the Balkans from the world.
Moreover, the institutional and digital spaces in which scholars were researching and teaching about the Yugoslav region were also sites of decolonial protest and activism that influenced the questions students – and teachers – brought to class. Race and the Yugoslav Region is a book I would like to have existed when the BAME-student-led ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’ initiative at UCL (where I had done my PhD at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies) launched a campaign in 2014 called ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’
And yet ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ is not the only necessary question for revealing the racialised politics of knowledge production surrounding south-east European studies or any other discipline: so is the other question that Dismantling The Master’s House posed, ‘Why Isn’t My Professor Black?’ Indeed, when 29 per cent of UK students beginning first degrees in England in 2015–16 were BME (‘black and minority ethnic’), why aren’t more of our students? A discipline that had largely left ‘whiteness’ in its own region, and its own academic literature, unexamined, might well have implied to prospective students of colour that their own everyday knowledge about race and racism would not be welcomed or recognised as part of their scholarship. If this is the case, then understanding postsocialism and postcoloniality as interlocking, not separate, things is not just necessary to make historical and sociological accounts of the region stronger: it is also necessary, in a multicultural postcolonial society, for giving studies of the area the conditions to thrive.
Until the middle of last year I wasn’t expecting to be announcing this as my next academic book project, but now it is: Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial? is under contract with Manchester University Press’s ‘Theory for a Global Age‘ series, will be going into copy-editing in the next few months, and ought to be due out at some point in 2018.
Six months after publication, as things stand, MUP will also make the book Open Access – like the others in the series – which will make it more accessible than anything I’ve published before to students, activists and scholars in and from the region (and elsewhere).
Race and the Yugoslav Region is the first of the projects I was working on during 2016 – a year that often felt as if, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words, I was ‘writing like you’re running out of time – to see print, but not I hope the last. Ultimately, it’s the outcome of my own confusion at my first home discipline of south-east European studies not seeming to offer a script for understanding the representations of race, blackness and whiteness I encountered during my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia in the same way that constructions of ‘westernness’ versus ‘easternness’, or ‘Europe’ versus ‘the Balkans’, did have an entire framework of academic literature to explain them.
Moreover, that framework had come from postcolonial studies in the first place, through the foundational work of Milica Bakić-Hayden and Maria Todorova and their engagements with (and against) Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism (producing the idea of ‘balkanism’) – and yet I could get away with bracketing race and the global legacies of colonialism to one side when writing about collective identity, in a way I’m deeply dissatisfied with after coming to understand that whiteness let me bracket them off and not have to engage with them, because ‘the Yugoslav region hadn’t had its own empire, after all…’
It didn’t: but many imperial projects have passed through it, and people from the region as travellers or settlers have been implicated in yet more, though their positions in structures of imperial and colonial power have often been as contingent and ambiguous as the global structural position of this peripheralised region of Europe itself.
Yet if the international marginalisation of the Balkans and the fact that the Yugoslav region did not become a destination for mass postcolonial migration of people of colour meant that ‘race’ – in contrast to ‘ethnicity’ or ‘religion’ – didn’t have to be on the agenda for understanding the region’s experiences, studies of the global legacies of race or ‘race in translation’ (the title of an inspiring book by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam) also tend to leave surprising gaps when it comes to incorporating state socialist and postsocialist Europe into their globe.
Without these connections, however, we don’t have the transnational and global historical context that we need in order to think ‘between the posts’, as Sharad Chari and Katherine Verdery put it in an essential article for Comparative Studies in Society and History that demonstrated postsocialism and postcoloniality needed to be drawn together as ways of thinking about the recent past, present and future, not kept apart.
Neither postsocialism or postcolonialism, Chari and Verdery argued, are just themes for understanding a certain region of the world: we should be asking about the effects of the collapse of state socialism as a ruling ideology in Europe beyond the places that were state socialist; we should be asking about the consequences of colonialism and decolonisation beyond the countries that had empires or were colonised by them.
But to do that requires understanding how – and simply talking about how – the Yugoslav region and its people have fitted into the global history of race, and of the colonial projects which spread ‘race’ as a structure of oppression around the globe so that it could be translated into many racisms through the filter of different societies’ own cultural narratives and social divides.
(I’ve blogged about this before in articles like this one on the politics of race behind post-Yugoslav states’ and citizens’ responses to the refugee crisis in 2015, or this one on reconciling the themes of south-east European studies with the premises of postcolonial history and international relations, not to mention on Eurovision and European multiculturalism here…)
Scholars of Black history in Germany, of postcoloniality and whiteness in the Nordic region, and of the meanings of ‘race’ or transnational connections with Africa in socialist and postsocialist Russia and Ukraine have all been able to put ‘race’ at the centre of their enquiry in a way that is also possible for the Yugoslav region – and would have been possible even during my PhD if the work of authors who were already writing on global ‘raciality’ and whiteness in eastern Europe (like Anikó Imre on ‘postcolonial whiteness‘ and media representations of Roma, or Miglena Todorova on translations of American, European and Soviet formations of ‘race’ through Bulgaria) had changed the course of debate in south-east European studies like the ‘balkanism’ studies had in the 1990s.
By the time I was teaching for a year at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where I’d done my PhD, in 2011-12, I was starting to express my sense of what was missing from south-east European studies as ‘What would this field look like if its formative theory had been based on Gilroy’ – author of The Black Atlantic – ‘as well as Said?’
As a researcher, meanwhile, the point I could no longer avoid thinking about where the Yugoslav region belonged in the global politics of ‘race’ and whiteness was when researching the micropolitics of international/local encounters in peacekeeping needed me to contend with the idea – expressed by authors like Sherene Razack – that peacekeeping itself is a racialised project, showing far more continuity with colonialism than liberals like to think.
Razack, in her work on Canadian peacekeeping in Somalia, argued that peacekeeping ‘maintains a colour line between a family of white nations constructed as civilized and a third world constructed as a dark threat’ – but here, too, where would the Yugoslav region fit, in a part of the world which has traditionally seemed (as Maria Todorova, author of Imagining the Balkans, put it) ‘historically white’?
I wrote what I now realise was the very first outline for Race and the Yugoslav Region in June 2013, on the back of a programme at a workshop on ‘The Europeanisation of Citizenship in the Successor States of the Former Yugoslavia’, during a presentation by Julija Sardelić on Romani minorities and post-Yugoslav citizenship. The bullet-pointed list began:
Socialist/Communist ideas about race – what were they? What legacies? Did practice match theory?
Histories of thought about race in south-east Europe generally
Histories of people of colour in SEE – settlement, travel etc
Race and the Non Aligned Movement
Where do the Roma fit in
and carried on thinking about the region in the kinds of contexts that feminist and postcolonial security studies scholars had been using throughout the International Studies Association and International Feminist Journal of Politics conferences in April and May:
Border security and (regular and irregular) migration
[…] Portability of postcolonial theory – if SEE or part of it is being thought of / has been thought of as the subaltern, can it actually get away with that?
Was there SEE complicity in the racial oppression of European colonialism
And what about SEE participation in the slave trade
SEE complicity in racialised narratives of the War on Terror; participation in detention and rendition of Muslims suspected of terrorism
How far is SEE as a site of international intervention, humanitarian relief, peacebuilding etc actually comparable to sites in the Global South? Did the whiteness of Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovars actually make these interventions and their politics of rescue fundamentally different in some way from interventions in (above all) Africa?
Peacekeepers and interveners of colour in SEE
It wove through questions from current politics and my own previous research that I still didn’t feel equipped to answer, even though I was beginning to know how to ask them:
Race and the far right (especially in light of those transnational Islamophobic European right-wing groups that keep going on about the ‘Gates of Vienna’…)
Position of BiH in post-9/11 discourses about the West and Islam
Popular culture/popular music
Production, appreciation and reception of ‘world music’
Do we need to talk about cultural appropriation? By whom? Of whose culture(s)?
and finished with the politics of knowledge in south-east European studies itself:
Methods issues: encounters with race and racism in field research
The politics of race within research and teaching on SEE
I wasn’t able to found the research network I wanted to bring together to start answering these questions from multiple perspectives at the same time, but I did use an invitation to a Russian and Slavonic Studies research seminar at Nottingham two years later to pose some of these problems together in a presentation that, to jar the audience into seeing the region differently, I titled ‘The Black Adriatic?’ in allusion to Gilroy’s Black Atlantic.
(I haven’t carried that title over to the book, for two reasons: most importantly, as the title of a book that could have a direct impact on my personal and financial success, I felt it would be an appropriation of Gilroy’s scholarship and the Black intellectual traditions he rests on for a white woman to take it up from him; and secondly, by the time I was proposing Race and the Yugoslav Region, the series it would join had already published Robbie Shilliam’s excellent The Black Pacific, on how the African diaspora’s struggles for liberation have resonated through the South Pacific.)
By the time I led a workshop based on it at Central European University a year after that – and because of the insight, sensitivity and solidarity with which the CEU graduate students and faculty talked from the perspective of their own research – my working document had become around 20,000 words of notes – and the single article I thought I could write to get my main point across would have had to be at least three articles for three different journals to keep everything I wanted to include together.
At the same time, I knew that I didn’t have either the source material or, really, the right intellectual and personal position to write a long historical monograph on race and the Yugoslav region that would become the authoritative work. Race and the Yugoslav Region is a short book, like the others in its series, which I hoped was achieving similar aims to what the series editor Gurminder Bhambra had called for in her own Connected Sociologies: in this case, to move beyond analogies of how the marginalisation of the Balkans might be similar to marginalisations based on ‘race’, into a mode of connection where the Yugoslav region, as well as the rest of the globe, is demonstrably part of the world that colonialism, slavery and racisms made, not outside it.
Race and the Yugoslav Region has one author’s name on the cover, but if not for other people’s writing – especially the scholarship of east European women and women of colour – would not have existed at all. The two largest intellectual debts I owe are to Flavia Dzodan and Zara Bain, both of whom I got to know as writers because of online feminism and activism – I would have encountered their work differently, or more likely not at all, in a less networked world.
Whereas ‘Europe’, in the study of postsocialism, represents the longed-for symbol of modernity and progress, the ‘Europe’ of Dzodan’s writing was and is a system of whiteness and ongoing colonial violence that, through the militarisation of the European Union’s land and sea borders, was directly implicating the ‘Western Balkans’ even if it had not done so before.
Bain, meanwhile, is a philosopher and disability activist whose research on the critical race theory of Charles Mills, once we started talking about it on Twitter, made me understand one of Mills’s key arguments and made me begin to see a hinge for joining south-east European studies’ translation of postcolonial thought with the global history of ‘race’ and racisms.
Mills argues, in The Racial Contract, that ‘race’ is a ‘moral cartography’ that divides the world into civilised and modern spaces, populated by and belonging to people of white European descent, and the ‘wild and racialized’ rest of the world, where people, territory, histories, cultures and knowledges are marked as permanently subordinated, exploitable and disposable.
Mills is talking about spatialised hierarchies of modernity and primitivism – and so is south-east European studies, where Imagining the Balkans or Bakić-Hayden’s work on ‘symbolic geographies’ and ‘nesting Orientalisms’ are among the core texts every postgraduate will read.
Alongside Mills and the literature on ‘global formations of race’ (Michael Omi and Howard Winant) or ‘race in translation’ (Shohat and Stam) I had already expected the article(s) that became Race and the Yugoslav Region to be based on, one of the books I direct readers to most often appeared early in 2016: Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence.
White Innocence, Wekker’s challenge to Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ and the comforting myths most white Dutch people hold about their nation having one of the most liberal and tolerant traditions in the world, has a critical drive behind it that is simultaneously deeply grounded in the political struggles of feminists of colour in the Netherlands and deserves to carry well beyond the Dutch context.
In the course of refuting the exceptionalist excuse that white Dutch people ‘did not know’ about race until large numbers of postcolonial migrants and guest workers started arriving after the Second World War, however, Wekker uses the critical tools of Black feminism and Afro-European Studies to show, as scholars of Germany and the Nordic region have done, that ample evidence of public consciousness of race, racism and whiteness can be found even in societies with no history of mass migration of people of colour.
Part of the ‘cultural archive’ of colonialism, a term Wekker brings over from Said, is the ephemera of advertising and commerce, of school textbooks and medical discourse, of popular culture and entertainment, that were already revealing whiteness as a core part of national identity – with racialised notions of primitivism, hypersexuality and Africanity on the other side of this symbolic boundary – at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
As well as a challenge to racial exceptionalism itself, Wekker offers a model for tracing race, racism and whiteness through the everyday consciousness of predominantly white societies which overcomes one of the obstacles to putting race alongside other social identities at the centre of south-east European studies: does race really matter if there have been so few people of colour living there?
Starting with the everyday, and with the embodied cultural politics that we become able to see when we take apparently ephemeral sources like popular music seriously, shows that it does: and besides, ‘few’, of course, is not the same as ‘none’.
Many of the examples I discuss for a paragraph or two in Race and the Yugoslav Region could be books of their own, and I hope this book will help others to conceive them and many other books like it: how has the Venetian figure of the Moor lived on in the Yugoslav region (where Rijeka has its own blackface carnival character, the morčić), and what traces did traditions of colonial spectacle that radiated out from the German-speaking cultural area through the Habsburg lands leave behind? What was it about the small shore of Martinska, near Šibenik, that inspired Aimé Césaire to begin writing his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) – and what ties of anti-colonial friendship and solidarity brought him there? What histories of migration, pushed to the sidelines when the region’s history is written solely as the history of majority ethnic groups, reveal the region’s transnational connections to their full extent? And what could myths of South Slav nations standing at the ‘bulwark of Europe’ against the Ottoman Empire, or Venetian-Ottoman warfare in the early modern Adriatic, have to do with the emergence of ‘race’ through colonialism and slavery across and around the Atlantic itself? Historians of other periods will be able to take this further than a specialist in the post-Cold-War: this book will at least suggest some of what is at stake when they do.
Even as I was writing the book, the amount of new research on race as well as postcoloniality in state socialist Yugoslavia seemed to be increasing month by month – Peter Wright, Nemanja Radonjić, Aida Hozić, Radina Vučetić, Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić all presented new work at conferences in 2016 on issues such as the experiences of African students in Yugoslavia, or Tito’s visits to Africa – to say nothing of the amount of research starting to reassess the politics of post-Yugoslav national identity or public space in view of the refugee crisis.
For all these reasons, and in acknowledgement of authors like Dušan Bjelić, Tomislav Longinović and Konstantin Kilibarda who have already brought critical race scholarship to bear on understanding the Yugoslav region, plus the vein of ‘postsocialist/postcolonial’ research that has already started to extend so many of the connecting branches that made this book possible, I also hope that this book will not become the last word on race and the Yugoslav region – indeed, I urge the reader at the end to make sure through their own citational practices that it does not.
This is a book that responded to the challenges issued by campaigns such as ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?‘, rather than drove them, and is by an author who benefits from the assumed objectivity of whiteness and of not being from the region they are writing about: there is an even greater responsibility on me to create opportunities for the knowledge of marginalised scholars to be elevated, valued and remunerated than there would have been if I had not written this book.
In showing that the global legacies of colonialism have passed and do pass through the Yugoslav region, however, it also contributes to showing that Britain and the former Yugoslavia do not exist in separate spheres of history – and that if, for instance, recognition of historic wrongs (as so much scholarship on the Yugoslav region argues) is a precondition for social peace after ethnopolitical conflict, then for a society as implicated in and structured by the history of racism, slavery and colonialism as Britain, this must be even more the case.
The real impact of Race and the Yugoslav Region, I hope, will lie in how others extend, transform and criticise its suggestions in producing new knowledge and theory from their own situated perspectives – but, if nothing else, it will help to demonstrate that the Yugoslav region is not, and has never been, ‘outside’ the global politics of race.
In 1992, when 1,000 Bosnian refugees were housed aboard an adapted container ship in Copenhagen while the Danish government decided their asylum applications, 12-year-old Vladimir Tomić could not have known either that he would grow up to make an acclaimed documentary about the protracted wait to begin his life in Denmark or that 25 years later the arrival of refugees from the even more extensive conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa would become one of the most divisive issues in European politics.
Tomić’s Flotel Europa, based on refugees’ own video tapes from the ship, documents a moment in European refugee history that now serves as a comparison, contrast and example for experts debating whether and how more than a million Syrians and other refugees can be integrated into European societies.
A recent study by the Centre for European Policy Studies, rating the integration of Bosnian refugees in Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden as successful, attributes the success to host countries opening up their labour markets to them – sooner or later – and to the high levels of education with which most Bosnians arrived.
Today’s refugee crisis, in contrast, is much more than a socio-economic policy challenge: in the eyes of the transnational populist far right which has moved its arguments about Islam as a threat to European culture into the political centre (the culmination of a process that started well before 9/11), Muslim refugees are so unable to culturally integrate into European cities that their resettlement would endanger Europeans’ public safety, secularity and democracy itself.
If European perceptions about the integration of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the majority Muslim, were so different from today, this is not just a matter of labour market policies – but also of how the politics of European racism and Islamophobia have categorised each group of refugees.
Indeed, the very nature of ‘temporary protection’ measures extended to Bosnian refugees like Tomić when they fled to Western European countries independently or through organised resettlement programmes shows the extent of European welcome in the 1990s should not be overstated. Germany, in particular, was keen for its 320,000 Bosnians (the largest number accepted by any European Union member state) to return home as soon as Bosnia-Herzegovina could be declared ‘safe’ again; the British government haggled for months before receiving a much smaller quota of 2,500.
Western European governments had already tightened their asylum policies in the 1980s, undoing the relatively relaxed attitude they had shown to individual political defectors during the Cold War, in recognition that refugees were now arriving in larger numbers and from crisis zones in the Global South which could be expected to lead even more people to migrate. Khalid Koser and Richard Black obliquely noted in 1999 the fear that these migrants might have been ‘the harbingers of mass North–South migration in the face of uneven economic development’ (p. 525): in other words, Lucy Mayblin suggests, asylum rules tightened as soon as the typical asylum-seeker came from somewhere Europe had colonised and was non-white.
Popular imaginations of near-future disaster in the 1990s pictured vast waves of impoverished African, Middle Eastern and South Asian migrants – racial ‘others’ to the traditional whiteness of Europe, and targets of a pervasive cultural racism – clamouring to flee to Europe in order to escape savage conflict and environmental catastrophe; indeed, the very language of ‘waves’ of refugees and ‘savage’ conflicts fed into alarmist visions of the ‘coming anarchy’. ‘Fortress Europe’ policies, the antecedents of today’s FRONTEX and militarised EU borders on land and sea, were the result.
Bosnian Muslim refugees faced the anxiety and disempowerment of life in abeyance while they waited to find out whether they would be allowed to start new lives in their home countries – or whether they wanted to – but very rarely had to contend with the blanket Islamophobia that stigmatises every Muslim refugee as a potential terrorist today.
The reasons why Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks (a term that became much more widespread in the 1990s), were not subject to the same suspicion as Middle Eastern Muslim refugees today depend on how narratives of identity, religion and security inside and outside Bosnia have combined then and now.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, news images of Palestinian hijackers and Libyan and Iranian state-sponsored terrorists, mediated further by the stereotyped terrorist villains of Reagan- and post-Reagan-era Hollywood, had mapped the security threat of Islam on to brown, male, vigorous bodies of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance, and more specifically on to ‘Arabs’ (no matter that Iranian ethnic identity is not Arab at all).
These Islamophobic representations catch today’s refugees in their net but exempted Bosnians. Light-skinned Bosnians wearing Western clothes were not ‘visibly Muslim’ in European symbolic politics, even when they were Muslim by religion and ethnic heritage, and did not resemble the stock figure of the Islamic fundamentalist and militant.
Bosnians themselves strongly distanced their form of Islam from the image of the Arab terrorist: the Yugoslavia they remembered was no rogue state, but a modern and diplomatically successful European country. The fundamentalist had been an ‘other’ of the 1980s in Yugoslavia as well, and indeed became an imaginary devil in the propaganda of Radovan Karadžić’s Serb Democratic Party, which sought to convince Serbs they were at risk of genocide by painting Bosniak nationalists as a second Taliban.
Many Bosniaks from middle-class urban backgrounds viewed religious practice in general as an outdated countryside tradition, within the politics of cosmopolitanism and secularity under Yugoslav state socialism. Those who did actively participate in religious customs believed perhaps even more strongly that Bosnia had been the cradle of a different kind of Islam, with an admixture of European culture and Bosnian tolerance that separated it utterly from the radical Islam of the Middle East.
By the time most of Bosnia’s 1.2 million refugees were fleeing, hundreds of thousands of Croats and Serbs had already been displaced by ethnopolitical conflict in Croatia, many arriving in Western Europe (though more ending up in Serbia or other regions of Croatia, depending on their ethnic identity). Bosnian Muslim refugees could easily fit into the same category as Croats as subjects of public sympathy and victims of Milošević’s aggression.
The second large group of Muslim refugees from the Yugoslav region – many of the Roma and Albanians who fled Kosovo (though Albanian ethnic identity accommodated Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy at the same time) – also largely escaped the framing of Islamist terrorism (again thrown against them by Serbian propaganda) when they arrived in western Europe in 1998–9.
This is not to say that Kosovars escaped xenophobia and racism. In Britain, at least, their resettlement was much more controversial than Bosnians’, and the arrival of 24,000 Kosovars came at the same time as a tabloid panic about ‘bogus asylum seekers’ that primarily targeted Romani nationals of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
The anti-Roma prejudice, or antiziganism, directed against these migrants and refugees carried over towards Kosovars. Some were Roma themselves, while many others had an ethnically ambiguous appearance that semi-racialised them as ‘other’ to more of an extent than the smaller number of Bosnians in Britain had been in 1992–5. The ‘racialisation’ of east European migrants in Britain as targets of xenophobic prejudice, which would intensify after the British government opened its labour market immediately to citizens of the new EU member states in 2004, began with the confluence of refugees from antiziganism in east-central Europe with those from the Kosovo War.
The Muslim refugees arriving in Europe now, in contrast, are from the very parts of the world which, since the waning of fears of nuclear destruction at the end of the Cold War, have represented the most immediate threat to European security in the geopolitics of racism and Islamophobia: the Middle East, Africa, Iran and Afghanistan.
They enter a political and social climate where, within the wider European economic and constitutional crisis, tabloid and far-right discourse has pushed back against the very category of refugee. Remarks like those of the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović in September 2015 that ‘[w]e know that […] there are also people with forged Syrian passports, who are not real refugees, but have other aims in entering the EU’ exemplify a fear that refugee and terrorist are in practice indistinguishable – a myth which, when a very few terrorists (like two perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attacks) have indeed entered the EU by claiming refugee status on forged passports, affects how more than a million people are perceived.
The imagination of Muslim refugees in general as a security threat, therefore as an existential risk to European life-as-we-know-it who cannot be allowed to settle in any European city, gained extra force after the Paris attacks – ‘Paris changes everything,’ said the Bavarian finance minister Markus Soeder in calling on Angela Merkel to reverse Germany’s large-scale resettlement of refugees. The implication that Christians and Muslims cannot coexist in European cities suits the polarising purposes of ISIS as well as the far right.
It became more emotive yet after the mass sexual violence on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne, strengthening forms of nationalism that operate as masculine or liberal-feminist performances of power by turning away refugees and policing borders in order to protect white European women and their freedoms from Muslim men.
Indeed, while European media represented Bosnian and Kosovar refugees as multi-generational groups dominated by women and children, plus smaller numbers of old men, the most widespread images of today’s Muslim refugees – in photographs such as the UK Independence Party’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, unveiled during the Brexit referendum hours before a neo-Nazi sympathiser shot the MP Jo Cox – are of men as an undifferentiated mass.
The different patterns of migration during the Yugoslav wars and today, with more families resettled together from Bosnia and Kosovo and more men in the current crisis travelling ahead on the dangerous crossing into the EU to make arrangements for their relatives to join them, are the missing context behind these different representations: but so too is how ideas of race, nationality and religion have intersected to imply that integrating Middle Eastern, North African and central Asian Muslims should inherently be more difficult than welcoming white European Bosnians 25 years before.
Even before the results of the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership, the tone of the campaigns, the polarisation of public attitudes and the uncertainty over the country’s constitutional future had all started to recall another European crisis, two and a half decades ago: the break-up of Yugoslavia and the international community’s failure to prevent a bitter constitutional crisis escalating into war.
Jacques Poos’s comment that ‘this is the hour of Europe’, when he flew into Yugoslavia as chair of the European Community’s foreign affairs council on 29 June 1991 to mediate between the Yugoslav prime minister and the presidents of seceding Slovenia and Croatia, not only proved hollow but also symbolised, as Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Croatian Serb militia offensives against Croatian towns escalated, an emptiness of ‘Europeanness’ at the very moment the EC had looked towards a future as today’s EU. (Poos’s remark gave its name to Josip Glaurdić’s exhaustive diplomatic history of the break-up.)
Yet for several years the Yugoslav public had already been feeling a sense of spiralling, interlocking crises over the balance of power between different republics and nations inside the federation. Slobodan Milošević’s moves to recentralise the federation on terms most favourable to Serbs, addressing Serbs as victims of persecution as he did so, interacted with Slovenian demands for fiscal and political autonomy with such implications for Croatia and its border regions (where Serbs were concentrated), and threatening knock-on effects for Bosnia-Herzegovina, that by June 1991 the ‘Yugoslav public’ was already an extremely fragmented – yet not defunct – idea.
People who lived through the Yugoslav wars – like Kemal Pervanić, who survived the Omarska concentration camp after the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) took control of his home town in 1992 and now lives in Britain, or Feđa Burić, a Bosnian historian weighing up the dangers of referendums – draw parallels between Yugoslavia and Britain as multi-national, deeply unequal societies which would unsettle anyone who believed the causes of conflict in Yugoslavia were unique to the Balkan region. ‘These terrible things don’t happen to some strange people – they happen to people like ourselves,’ Pervanić said in a Thomson Reuters Foundation video published on 28 June.
The break-up of Yugoslavia took the public through a downward spiral of collapsing expectations, each dragging people into a new sphere of uncertainty and fear: from the Yugoslav system being more successful than its capitalist and Warsaw Pact neighbours, to the reverse; from it being unthinkable that the union of republics would break up, to it seeming inevitable that it would; from living an everyday working life to seeing your standard of living and the whole economy collapse beyond repair; from Communism being the ideology you learned at school, to an entire system of political power and property ownership falling apart; from moving normally around your town, to fearing for your safety on the streets, based on what others read as your ethnicity.
Even if these were ill-founded – historians still debate whether or not Yugoslavia had too many long-term weaknesses to be viable when it was unified in 1918 – they were part of people’s common sense, until they could not be.
When I teach courses about the break-up of Yugoslavia and the social contexts behind the 1990s wars, British students start seeing their own society differently.
The issues at stake for Britain and its constituent entities have many resonances with, and important differences from, Yugoslavia – but perhaps the most troubling parallels come from how politicians and the media brought Yugoslavia to the point of collapse and co-operated to intensify fear and hatred once Slovenian and Croatian secession was inevitable.
Scotland’s likelihood of leaving the UK if Britain leaves the EU, because the larger country is seceding from something that the smaller country inside does not want to leave, is an example of what political scientists call ‘recursive secession’. In Yugoslavia, Croatian independence under a nationalist government was unacceptable to the Croatian Serb militias, supported by Milošević, who started taking control of Serb-majority municipalities in Krajina in August 1990. If Croatia seceded, the SDS threatened to secede in turn.
Structurally, though, Scotland as the Scottish National Party (SNP) currently imagines it is the Slovenia of the piece: the small northern republic, keen to prosper within ‘Europe’ and struggling against political shifts in the larger country that will prevent it doing so. Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts to negotiate independently with European leaders strongly resemble how the Slovenian and Croatian presidents, Milan Kučan and Franjo Tuđman, started sounding out international support – finding their strongest allies in Germany and Austria – for their plans to secede after Slovenia held an independence referendum on 23 December 1990.
Kučan, indeed, recently drew qualified comparisons between Brexit and Slovenian independence, comparing the Leave campaign to the self-interest of Milošević and his supporters.
Croatia, in this mapping, would be the Northern Ireland. The prospect that Milošević would support his Croatian Serb allies in opposing independence and undermining Serbs in other parties who co-operated with the Croatian government made independence much more complex and risky for Croatia than Slovenia, which had no settled Serb minority.
Despite the intense nationalism of Tuđman’s government, and its indifference to how Croatian Serbs perceived Tuđman’s ambivalence towards the legacy of Croatian collaboration with fascism during the Second World War, public and political resolve for independence in Croatia was lower than in Slovenia even in spring 1991. The Borovo Selo massacre on 2 May, when Serb insurgents killed 12 Croatian police officers in Eastern Slavonia, tipped the balance. 93.2 per cent of voters in Croatia – not counting Krajina, where Serbs boycotted the vote – voted for independence in a referendum on 19 May 1991. SDS in Krajina had declared autonomy in September 1990 and claimed republic status in December 1991, after six months of open war.
Like Croatia did in 1991, but along different lines, Northern Ireland has a recent history of ethnopolitical conflict, and independence would risk instability and political violence on the mainland as well as Northern Ireland itself.
But there are important differences between the two sets of secessions – including how few voters in England seem to have appreciated the impact that Brexit would have on Northern Ireland, the UK/Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement, and the effect of fearing a return to the violence of the 1970s–90s, compared to how keenly aware other Yugoslavs were in 1989–91 of the potential for violence in Croatia.
The most immediate is that neither Holyrood nor Stormont are militarising their police and equipping army reserves ready for confrontation with the armed forces of the larger state, as Slovenia and Croatia both did in spring 1991 – leading to Slovenia’s ten-day war against the JNA and Croatia’s much longer conflict with JNA and Krajina forces.
And, structurally, Scotland can hardly signify Slovenia and the Serb Democratic Party at the same time.
What makes Brexit a constitutional as well as a political crisis is that results in two of the UK’s ‘four nations’ (England and Wales) showed a majority to Leave, and results in the other two (Scotland and Northern Ireland) were a majority Remain. Westminster rejected the SNP’s demand for a ‘quadruple lock’ on the referendum (so that Leave could not succeed without majorities in all four nations) in June 2015.
Scottish and Northern Irish voters who feel that they are being taken out of the EU against their wishes have a sense of territorial democratic autonomy to draw on which is not available to English and Welsh voters who feel the same way – except by building territorial–political identities around cities like London, Oxford and Bristol with Remain majorities.
After 175,000 internet users signed a petition for London to declare independence, the city’s new mayor Sadiq Khan said on 28 June that ‘As much as I might like the idea of a London city state, I’m not seriously talking about independence today – I am not planning to install border points on the M25!’. He did demand new powers over business, housing, transport, health, policing and tax, and has been negotiating with Sturgeon and the chief minister of Gibraltar (where 96 per cent voted Remain) about their ‘shared interests’ in remaining in the EU.
Proposals for some UK territories to Remain while others Leave, but for the UK to stay together as a state, arguably have partial precedents such as the relationship between Denmark and Greenland or Spain and the Canary Islands – though still skip over the problem of residents of England and Wales who would still want and need to exercise the individual rights, especially freedom of movement, they had taken for granted as part of the EU.
They echo the plans to reform Yugoslavia as an asymmetric confederation, proposed by Slovenia and Croatia in October 1990, where each Yugoslav republic would have its own defence and foreign policies and the right to apply for EC membership individually. The presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia offered another ‘asymmetric federation’ proposal in February 1991.
Scholars debate why the confederation plan failed or whether it was even intended to succeed (Glaurdić makes the case that Milošević sabotaged it; Dejan Jović argues it was only ever a tactical move); but this is the level of complexity with which the UK constitution would have to be re-negotiated in order to balance the democratic majorities from Scotland and Northern Ireland with the total majority vote across the UK.
Constitutionally, however, the UK ‘four nations’ and the Yugoslav republics are different kinds of entity. The status of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland dates back to ‘Acts of Union’ with the Crown from 1536, 1603 and 1800, with subsequent amendments including the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the devolutions of 1998. England, the largest nation and the equivalent to Serbia in a rough UK/Yugoslav parallel, has no separate constitutional status, and it is UKIP rather than Labour which has led calls for an English parliament.
The Yugoslav republics, established as Tito’s Partisans gained control of territory during the Second World War and confirmed by the 1946 constitution, had all officially exercised national self-determination in forming the federation and ostensibly had the right to secede – though whether this right applied to republics or to ethno-national groups (whose demographic boundaries did not coincide with the republics) was the very constitutional issue behind conflict in Croatia in 1990–1.
How quickly public support for independence can flip
Nicola Sturgeon’s immediate commitment that ‘the option of a second referendum [on Scottish independence] must be on the table’ after the referendum results rested on an SNP manifesto commitment in the May 2016 elections that the Scottish Parliament should be able to hold another referendum if there were ‘a significant and material change in circumstances […] such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’.
While the change in the Scottish public mood isn’t so overwhelming for Sturgeon to actually call the referendum straight away, the closeness of the UK-wide result adds to the perception that the national Leave majority is too small to take such a drastic step.
So, even more damningly, does the feeling among Remain supporters that all the Leave campaign’s promises were based on misinformation – from the promise of taking back national sovereignty when the next prime minister is likely to be unelected, to the quoted £350 million per week that Britain could save by leaving the EU, to statements that Turkey was on the brink of joining the EU and, with its large Muslim population acquiring EU freedom of movement, posing a national security risk to the UK. (The Leave campaign subsequently wiped its website.)
And so does the revelation that neither the Leave campaign or Westminster had a plan for actually managing and negotiating Brexit, leading to a situation where the all-important Article 50 notification (which would trigger Brexit after two years) might not even be made.
Remain supporters, in Scotland and elsewhere, do not just feel outvoted – they feel betrayed, and afraid (as Leave voters will if Westminster never activates Article 50). Scottish voters have an outlet for those sentiments in the SNP.
The shock of the result and its aftermath does not in itself evoke the same kind of visceral terror as the Borovo Selo massacre – though the fear created by escalating racist violence on UK streets has its own similarities to the early stages of ethnopolitical conflict.
But majorities tip from supporting autonomy towards the riskier choice of independence when it becomes clear that the nation has no prospect at all of achieving what voters see as its self-determination within the structure of a larger country – and the referendum crisis may have brought Scotland to that point.
By the time Slovenian and Croatian voters were deciding between autonomy and independence, political activity in Yugoslavia was centred almost entirely on the separate republics, with the multi-party elections of 1990 all taking place at different times. By the time the Yugoslav prime minister formed his own Yugoslavia-wide party in July 1990, aiming to offer an alternative to Milošević’s authoritarian vision for the federation, Slovenia and Croatia had voted already, with nationalist parties winning in both.
Building political alliances across, as well as within, autonomous national units will be essential for UK political movements that seek to hold the country together.
‘Europe’ as a symbol of hope – about to be betrayed?
While the UK referendum was directly about the European Union, Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence referendums might as well have been. Slovenian liberals aspired to join Europe culturally and politically, even (or in some eyes especially) if it meant leaving the ‘Balkan’ remainder of Yugoslavia behind. Kučan reformed the Slovenian League of Communists into a social democratic party under the slogan ‘Europe Now!’
In the early stages of the war in Croatia, the Croatian government as well as many of the public looked to the EC to intervene, force Milošević to accept Croatian independence and end the occupation of Krajina. ‘We want to share the European dream, we want democracy and peace,’ Tomislav Ivčić sang in an English-language song, written as war intensified in August 1991, which Croatian Television hoped would serve as a promotional video for the Croatian cause abroad.
A few months later, the hopes Croats had invested in Europe would be dashed as the JNA and paramilitaries overran Vukovar in November 1991 and the Croatian government accepted a ceasefire in January 1992 which left one third of its territory under occupation – just as SDS in Bosnia-Herzegovina was about to declare a sovereign ‘Republika Srpska’ to prevent Bosnia seceding too.
Bosnians who had hoped in 1990 that the Krajina conflict would not affect Bosnia would share Croatians’ disenchantment with ‘Europe’, and suffer an even more devastating war, as the EC failed to prevent SDS militias and the JNA killing and expelling non-Serbs in municipalities they controlled, encircling other towns and nearly partitioning the capital, Sarajevo.
Violence on the scale of the war in Croatia or Bosnia is not imminently threatening the United Kingdom. But scenes of young people appealing directly to ‘Europe’, like the March for Europe on 2 July or the demonstration in London that interrupted a live Channel 4 News broadcast on 28 June, recall independence rallies in Slovenia or, even more so, peace rallies in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina where other young people begged leaders not to let them down.
Politicians get emotional as ‘normal’ politics fall apart
Scenes from the European Parliament on 28 June – with the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker asking the UKIP leader Nigel Farage why he was still there, Farage goading MEPs (‘You all laughed at me… well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now’) and the SNP’s Alyn Smith, after demanding the EU respect Scotland’s vote to remain, receiving a standing ovation for his concluding ‘Scotland did not let you down… please, I beg you, do not let Scotland down!’ – were so far outside the usual frame of EU parliamentary politics that they immediately became items of viral news.
The spectacle came from the contrast between speakers’ emotions and what viewers probably expect to be the dispassionate nature of a European Parliament chamber (much more so than the unruly, ‘braying’ sound of UK Prime Minister’s Questions). The feelings Juncker, Farage, Smith and others displayed hinted at longer-standing resentments over questions of sovereignty and independence which were suddenly on public view.
All of these seem to be signals that the boundaries of ‘normality’ in UK/EU politics have shifted in a very short space of time, driven by people who are still coming to terms with it.
People who remember scenes from televised Yugoslav Party congresses and parliaments in 1988–92, or indeed news footage from the period in 1990–1 when the European Community still appeared to be able to influence the outcome in Yugoslavia, might see several parallels – from the unprecedented emotion with which politicians talk to each other, to the fact that, the euro crisis apart, the break-up of Yugoslavia was the last overnight geopolitical crisis where the EC/EU as an institution played a major role.
In the UK as in Yugoslavia, however, the media have been implicated in producing the crisis for much longer, in ways that might parallel the course of events that made it even become conceivable in the late 1980s that Yugoslavia could imminently break apart.
Media spectacle can make centres out of extremes
Only a few years ago, UK media treated UKIP and Farage as marginal parties rather than part of the core of political options (where Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats belonged), giving them and the Green Party broadly similar coverage.
‘Major party’ status entitles parties to an extra party political broadcast and is also likely to influence news editors charged with maintaining political balance in reporting election campaigns. Themes and images in tabloid media, especially on immigration and on the disenfranchisement of England, harmonise with UKIP campaigns more directly than any mass newspaper or television channel amplifies Green campaigns when their policies fall to the left of Labour.
Farage’s confrontational and triumphalist tone as a speaker appeals to UKIP supporters as a sign he will take on the Westminster and Brussels elite on behalf of England but strikes many on the Left experience as bullying and unpleasant, most of all in his post-referendum victory speech when he praised ‘the dawn breaking on an independent United Kingdom […] without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired’ only a week after the shooting of Jo Cox. Although his own background is in City trading, and for years Labour and Conservative politicians had already been politicising immigration, his discourse stands out from established members of the political elite.
In a parallel way, Slobodan Milošević used populist language and a promise to reverse the disenfranchisement of a nation through constitutional change to present himself to Serbs as a political outsider, leading the so-called ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’, even though he had risen through the ranks of the Serbian Communist Party and previously headed a major Yugoslav bank. (Charles Simić, writing in December, likened Milošević’s political communication to Donald Trump.)
Non-Serbs, especially Albanians in Kosovo, Croats and Bosnians – as well as Serbs struggling for more rather than less democracy in Yugoslavia – feared Milošević as a figure who would legitimise and incite ethnopolitical violence by Serbs. (One of Milošević’s first acts of aggression, in March 1989, was to revoke Kosovo’s autonomy as a province of Serbia, repress Albanians’ political and cultural rights, and introduce martial law.)
Serbian media helped to create the myth of Milošević as a combative, anti-elitist defender of Serbs when TV Belgrade repeated clips of his comment, made while visiting Kosovo Serb protestors in April 1987, that ‘Nobody is allowed to beat you!’ (referring to their allegations of being beaten by Kosovo police).
Farage’s and Milošević’s programmes resemble each other in that both address disenfranchised members of majority nations (a white English public or the Serbs) as groups who are marginalised, victimised and under siege, using language of crisis and threat. For Farage, the threat is of floods or swarms of immigration, putting Britain under social and cultural strain, which EU rules supposedly prevent Britain from reining in.
Earlier on the day of Jo Cox’s death, Farage had posed in front of a poster reading ‘Breaking point: the EU has failed us all – we must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’. The image was of a column of refugees, mostly Middle Eastern, on the Slovenian/Croatian border in the summer of 2015.
Both Serbs in 1988 and residents of deindustrialised England in 2016 faced serious economic disadvantages, of recent onset, that Yugoslavia or Westminster had not addressed. (Even for Serbs, living standards would fall yet further under Milošević except for those in positions to benefit from corruption, war profiteering or organised crime.)
Yet ethnic minorities, EU migrants, LGBT people, disabled people threatened by further austerity, and left-wing activists in the UK fear the consequences of a UKIP-driven government in the UK in ways which are not identical to, but have some parallels with, the fears of non-Serbs in the early stages of Milošević consolidating power through the Yugoslav federal system.
One major difference between the media of 1988–91 and the media of 2016, however, is how and where the public see tide-turning audiovisual moments and in what ways the media fragment their audiences.
Fragmented media help interpretations of the crisis diverge
In Yugoslavia, people saw incidents like Milošević’s remark to Kosovo Serb protestors or the pictures from Borovo Selo at home on broadcast evening news. Today, moments like the European Parliament speeches or the news about Jo Cox reach us throughout the day, on workplace computers and mobile devices, at different times.
Which moments, narratives and interpretations even reach us are conditioned by how we structure our own social media and what network algorithms then choose to show us, in a more finer-grained way than different newspapers have always framed reality in different ways for their readerships.
Late 1980s Yugoslavia did not have such individualised media fragmentation but, with all republics’ broadcasters controlled by their republics’ Communist parties (and some programming shared between republics), its broadcast infrastructure still meant that viewers in different republics formed divergent, directly opposed understandings of what the Yugoslav crisis even was, unless they consciously sought alternative sources of information. After the 1990 elections, Slovenia and Croatia could follow Milošević’s lead in using television as a vehicle for their own political and historical narratives.
Different publics in Yugoslavia knew less and less about how the crisis was seen elsewhere in the country. Within an escalating cycle of ethno-political fear, increasingly, they did not want to, until ethno-national identity became the predominant frame of reference in public.
The Yugoslav crisis happened, and the Brexit crisis has happened, at dizzying speed, leaving the public trying to piece together ‘instant histories’ from media, their own experiences and their friends and neighbours. Digital media might intensify polarising tendencies even further, if people see less and less outside their online as well as offline ‘filter bubble’.
They might deterritorialise the polarisation which in Yugoslavia occurred on a territorial, ethno-national basis; in England, at least, the two hardening ‘sides’ are spread throughout the country, with more or less concentrated majorities or minorities in certain areas. Within as well as between nations, the public end up with substantially different ‘instant histories’ and act on them in different ways.
But digital media also give more access to alternative perspectives than print media and analogue broadcasting ever made possible – an advantage on which campaigns based on solidarity across difference will need to capitalise.
Ethnic and racist violence shapes how collective identities form
The most frightening, immediate effect of the referendum campaign and result in the UK has been what is publicly perceived as, and is highly likely to be, a dramatic increase in racist abuse and violence.
Jo Cox’s assassination on 16 June by a man linked to neo-Nazi terrorism shocked the public – including her fellow Labour MPs, now embroiled in a contest over the future and existence of their party – because it marked a form of political violence that UK residents not already under threat by the far right usually suppose not to exist in Britain.
During the referendum campaign, far-right groups circulated propaganda about Muslim refugees as terrorist infiltrators and sexual predators – playing on the attacks in Paris, Brussels and Cologne – that harmonised horribly with the mainstream Leave campaign’s public statements about immigration and Turkish membership of the EU. (Compare how caricatures of Albanian Muslims as rapists circulated in late 1980s Serbia, adding their undertones to Milošević’s claims that Serbs were being persecuted in Kosovo.)
Cox resembled the moderate police chief of Osijek, Josip Riehl-Kir, in her potential to interpret the crisis in an alternate way to the political consensus. Cox had written, days before her death, in defence of EU membership and free movement of people, and campaigned for Britain to resettle more Syrian refugees. Reihl-Kir had tried to defuse ethnicised Serb/Croat tensions in Slavonia in spring 1991, in marked contrast to Serb militants’ antagonism towards Croatian police elsewhere on the emerging front line, until his assassination by a Croat ex-policeman that July.
A report on Islamophobic hate crime by Tell MAMA, which Cox would have launched on 30 June, had already found a 300 per cent increase in offline crimes against Muslims in 2015 compared to the previous year, with spikes after the attacks in Paris. Muslims were most likely to be attacked in shops, on streets or on public transport, and when wearing Islamic dress.
Accounts of on-street attacks, threatening letters, school and workplace bullying, and racist slurs have spiralled since the very day of the referendum result – with police recording a 57 per cent increase in reported hate crimes compared to corresponding days last year, the National Police Council calculating that hate crime reports have increased fivefold since the referendum, and a Facebook group organised to collect first-hand accounts of racist violence, Worrying Signs, becoming overwhelmed.
Ethnic minorities, Muslims, East Europeans (already targets of cultural racism in UK tabloids) and white people with foreign accents have all reported abuse and attacks – giving the impression of violence that is both escalating and widening the range of people meant to be intimidated.
Public concern about a sudden ‘surge’ in xenophobia, Akwugo Emejulu writes, conceals years of ‘everyday and institutionalised racism and violence’ that people have experienced in Britain and which they have often been disbelieved when they describe. Race, and who has been more or less likely to feel the effects of racism, is the deepest-rooted dimension of the divergence of ‘scripts’ that different members of the public now have for making sense of the crisis.
Acts of ethnicised and racialised violence, even between one person and another, have collective effects. Before open war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and beyond areas that were occupied or became front lines, people who belonged – or were just finding out that they belonged – to ethnic, political and sexual minorities suffered intimidation that was supposed to reverberate into the consciousness of others who shared the same identity.
The difference between Britain and Yugoslavia is not the underlying dynamic of collective violence and intimidation so much as the different balances of histories and power behind the violence. War broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina after sustained campaigns of intimidating ethnic others, undermining social and political alternatives, and equipping future armies and paramilitary groups on a mass scale.
The identities drawn into conflict with each other in Yugoslavia were ethno-national, all based on a link between ethnicity and sovereignty over territory that had to be proved or broken to determine which state the land should belong to.
Racist violence in England is based on a narrative of white English sovereignty in which Britain can never be ‘home’ to immigrants or to any Black or Asian Britons at all – a country which, Kehinde Andrews writes, ‘was always happy to exploit the dark skinned subject, but never comfortable living with them.’ The global historical legacies of British imperialism and the legacies of Serbian national expansionism are not identical, and too direct a comparison between Yugoslavia and Britain would erase the reckoning with colonial history that Britain, in the aftermath of Brexit, needs urgently to undertake.
Uncertainty and insecurity harden social divisions
The scripts about belonging that EU citizens living in the UK thought they had – though their scripts were already inflected by race, language and religion – have been whipped away since the beginning of the referendum campaign.
Without their own say in the referendum (unless they were Irish), 3.3m citizens of other EU states have had to watch British politicians and the public overturn plans they had made for their long-term future and expose them to at least two years of uncertainty over whether they can continue living in the UK on equal terms. Some arrived in schools and workplaces the morning after the referendum to be told by classmates and workmates they were going to be sent home.
Their uncertainty has only built further as David Cameron and Theresa May (now a front-runner for Conservative leadership) have refused to guarantee that EU citizens already living in the UK would retain their current residence rights after Brexit and a UKIP peer, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, encouraged the government to use uncertainty over EU migrants’ status to ‘retaliate’ if necessary in negotiations with the EU.
EU citizens’ prominence in arguments about immigration at this moment does not alter how seriously the political consensus to present immigration as a source of scarcity and tension has already affected non-EU citizens, or the violence that the EU will continue to inflict at its borders and through detention centres unless it significantly alters its own migration policy. Yet since Westminster not Brussels already controlled UK immigration policy, Brexit would change neither of those things except to the extent that non-EU citizens would have greater chances of obtaining UK visas – yet migrants from the Global South could anticipate visa requirements as restrictive as they are now.
Even many UK citizens who voted Remain have had their political identities, and their very senses of self, affected by the willingness of the Leave campaign to manipulate EU citizens’ uncertainty: with shock that they never predicted such indifference; with dread that extremism they had already predicted is coming closer to the centre of power; with grief and disbelief that the other side voted the way that it did.
How do you comprehend that so many people in the country you are supposed to share values with could vote with such indifference to 3 million others’ status and wellbeing – or, when stakes were so high, might not have been bothered to vote at all?
This is the beginning, but only the beginning, of how new political identities emerge and ‘other sides’ form.
The social bonds that broke down, and were deliberately broken down, before and during the Yugoslav wars included many ‘former neighbours’, close friends who found it impossible to understand the other’s perception of events when they themselves were experiencing so much horror.
Britain is nowhere even close to experiencing the levels of violence that divided Vukovar or Sarajevo, and the forces impelling polarisation are differently configured. In coming days and months, movements seeking to build coalitions for change will nevertheless have to appeal to mixtures of Remainers, Leavers and voters who did not use their vote, building solidarities which hardened political boundaries – though grown out of comprehensible, fearful emotions – could impede.
Here, polarisation can work both ways: projecting symbolic value judgments on to whole cities, such as Sunderland which highly visibly announced a Leave majority early in televised coverage of the results, ‘misses complex stories of racism and resistance’ that could help to build a broader consensus against austerity and racism than the Remain campaign was able to mobilise, or even commit to, in June 2016.
People are demanding alternatives nobody is offering
Public participation around both the Leave and Remain positions has revealed demands for social and political alternatives that no large political option currently has on offer.
No politician with a UK-wide remit began their post-referendum remarks with the kind of messages to EU citizens that Nicola Sturgeon or Sadiq Khan addressed to their electorates in Scotland and London.
No Leave voter who believed that a Britain outside the EU could afford to revitalise its economy and public services has been offered anything other than a politics of fear and ethnicised entitlement, or guarantees that the fruits of any prosperity Britain did achieve would go towards repairing their own marginalisation.
The loudest voices that members of the English and Welsh public determined not to be taken out of the EU against their will can identify with in their calls for an alternative to Article 50 negotiations are only able to offer another way out to a different British nation, unless Sturgeon can win substantial concessions affecting England and Wales in Scotland’s negotiations with the UK.
The pro-EU rallies since the referendum in cities that voted Remain are not direct equivalents of the Sarajevo peace rallies – and no Euromaidan.
But Yugoslavia in 1990 and 1991 contained a strong civic upswell of support for democratisation and peace within a still-Yugoslav framework which some alternative political parties channelled yet no leader with sufficient power was prepared to adopt. Instead, bases for political solidarity outside the nationalist consensus were systematically intimidated and undermined.
Britain’s history is distinct from Yugoslavia’s, despite the surface parallels that attend the potential break-up of a multi-national state in contemporary Europe. Yet perhaps the most important insight from the break-up of Yugoslavia is that it was not inevitable, nor pre-determined by long-term ethnic tensions, for the constitutional collapse of the country to descend into war; the history of the Yugoslav wars, whether in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo reveals detailed evidence of violence deliberately perpetrated and alternatives suppressed. Interrupting comparable processes in Britain, within a different set of social and political contexts, will be essential in building a more democratic and just society whether the UK’s future is as one country or more.
The way back from my polling station leads past a pub which coincidentally or not, last night on the eve of the EU referendum, was playing ‘Stay Another Day’ by East 17 out of its beer garden as loud as a soundtrack while I was walking home.
Any brief irrational comfort that might have given me about how the vote will go seeped out again when all on its own my first-thing-in-the-morning brain picked (we don’t do subtle here) Amy McDonald/’Don’t Tell Me That It’s Over’ as today’s morning earworm and so that’s basically where we are.
Though the summer-in-the-middle-of-uni, nothing’s-really-final-yet atmosphere you get from the average Amy McDonald song (or at least both the ones that come round on shuffle every so often – I’m not sure I could tell the rest apart from KT Tunstall) might get at why I’ve found it so difficult to write from my own perspective about the effect that the referendum is having on national identity – as opposed to sharing the writing of people who have a lot more immediately at stake from the result than I do, which has been the main way for my online self to make sense of the how-the-hell-did-it-even-get-to-this-point feel of the whole campaign.
If taste and identity and self are all linked together, which of course they are, then the first time I felt like I was developing tastes and interests autonomously rather than in reaction to others was all happening inside a container shaped like ‘Europe’, between GCSEs and the first year or two of university, between about 1998 and 2001.
‘Europe’ was a frame of reference and of course I belonged in it: European histories that went beyond and around and between the few big country-stories you’d encounter in school History, even at ours; access to the imaginative possibilities of different literatures beyond what someone had bothered to translate, and maybe one day I could; drilling down into the national pop musics I caught glimpses of through the Eurovision Song Contest; the everyday pan-Europeanness of the range of names on my school register; understanding that the past wasn’t just a matter of similar things happening in different countries at the same time but a set of international, transnational ideological struggles.
Mixed, at the time, with a disidentification from ‘Britishness’ which now that I think about it was probably a disidentification from a straight, coupled-up national community where I didn’t seem to have a mapped-out place.
(There was a queer dimension to identifying *with* Europe, as well, now I think about *that*; the space where I started being able to recognise ‘women who looked like me’, whatever that meant, was the result of all sorts of mobilities and cultural exchanges between Britain and Italy Spain Greece Germany France Hungary Croatia Portugal; I was queer and European before I had any sense of being queer and British.)
It would have been unimaginable at the turn of the millennium, at least for me, to think that Britain would even be voting on leaving the EU, let alone coming this close to actually choosing it, less than twenty years later.
But then a lot of other things unimaginable at the turn of the millennium have mostly happened too.
The other thing that’s demoralised me so much about the referendum campaign – moving from he personal to the public – isn’t even the extent of open racism or xenophobia that finds an ever larger platform in the media’s need for 50/50 ‘balance’ in a two-question referendum; it’s the much larger groundswell of indifference it feels like it must have revealed in order for a Leave campaign with the premises it has to even be polling this well.
Yet it’s the premises of the Leave and Remain campaigns together that have put UK residents with EU passports in a position where, even before any result goes through, they’ve been left feeling as if they need to prove their economic net worth to the British nation or be held responsible for the consequences of scarcity politics that are a result of UK government decisions, more than EU decisions.
Both campaigns have acquiesced in presenting immigration as in itself causing shortages and social tension, and in casting non-UK passport holders as an economic burden to society – which even when you refute it is still where the conversation is.
A referendum which according to some readings was only even called so that the prime minister could score an internal point within his own party has left 3 million people with the political atmosphere being flipped around them in a matter of months – from never questioning your freedom of movement rights, to wondering whether your job will depend on a work permit, whether the government will impose an income test you won’t pass, whether you’ll need to go through a naturalisation process you never expected to need in order to carry on with the same life that you’d planned.
In the meantime, depending on UK citizens to decide your future for you, and having to rely on vague assurances that in the event of a Leave vote ‘it’ll probably be OK’ for EU citizens already living here – when you’ve seen friends and co-workers from outside the EU being hammered over the last few years with restrictions that they never imagined when they committed to moving to the UK either.
The UK political consensus was already around reducing immigrants’ lives to a budget line of value, but the tone of these referendum campaigns has suddenly demonstrated to even more people that their belonging to the nation is conditional and how quickly it can be taken away.
In a different kind of way I’m aware that EU workers’ rights laws give me an extra layer of insulation between me and the homophobe who wants to cause a moral panic around how someone like me shouldn’t be in charge of young people’s welfare in a university.
(Last night’s other image from my walk home: Jo Cox’s photo added to the flowers, tributes and candles from the vigil for Orlando last week, still in front of the Hull Cenotaph.)
They’re imperfect laws and they don’t do anything to change the fact that the same European institution polices its borders so tightly it would rather see thousands of people drown at sea than allow them to board flights and settle legally in the states that constitute it. They still have a psychological effect which over time has encouraged me to be more innovative in my teaching and research, more open and supportive with colleagues and students, than I might have been.
Replace that with an extra nagging anxiety, multiply that by the number of people who gain some sense of security from this or any other part of EU workers’ rights – and I can’t imagine that a UK government like the current one would ‘take back control’ in order to extend those further – and you have another dimension of the anxiety that the protracted uncertainty after a Leave vote would cause. But at least I have a one fifty-millionth or so of a say in the outcome.
I’m as apprehensive of a low turnout as I am of a Leave result itself because of what it feels like it would reveal about the public’s level of empathy. With so much at stake for people who haven’t had a vote, how could you not use yours if you had one?
And I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.
Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so, but how does anyone know?
Even if the result turns out to be Remain, which the latest polls seemed to suggest after all, the campaigns have caused a rip in the social fabric that will take serious work to repair.