Institutionalised racism on a pan-European basis

Editorial to ‘Europe: variations on a theme of racism’ special issue of Race & Class ( 32/3 January 1991)


‘The problem for an open Europe’, predicted this journal in 1988, ‘is how to close it – against immigrants and refugees from the Third World.’ Today, the structures for that closure are being set in place in the informal meetings of the Trevi group of ministers and police chiefs and the discussions of the inter-state treaty makers of Schengen. And, as before, the danger for democratic government, for accountable administration, shows itself in the erosion of the rights of some of its citizens and, therefore, for all of its citizens. For although Trevi is meant to be addressing the problem of terrorists and drug-runners and Schengen the problem of illegal immigrants and refugees, a common culture of European racism, which defines all Third World people as immigrants and refugees, and all immigrants and refugees as terrorists and drug-runners, will not be able to tell a citizen from an immigrant or an immigrant from a refugee, let alone one black from another. They all carry their passports on their faces.

And it is these aspects of the emergence of an institutionalised racism on a pan-European basis, fomenting and fomented by popular racism, that portend the drift towards  an  authoritarian  European state.

To understand that, however, one has to understand the way that the different types of European racism have taken shape in the crucible of their particular national histories. Thus, where German racism would appear to stem directly from the aggregation of one Volk into a nation exclusive of all other Volk, French racism seems to have taken shape at the point where the Enlightenment, carrying the nation state in its arms, stubbed its toe against the colonies. Unlike Britain which treated its colonies as peoples apart, to be acculturated only to be exploited, France saw the cultural assimilation of its subject peoples into a greater France as the burden of its Enlightenment. Where British racism was driven by the economic imperatives of the industrial revolution, French racism was driven by the cultural imperatives of the Enlightenment. Both racisms, however, were imbricated in the creation of the nation state. German racism, on the other hand, formed the very basis of that creation.

While these same processes of industrialisation and nation-building with, of course, their different time-spans and their differential colonial encounters – appear to have shaped the national racisms of Europe, it was their need for cheap labour in the period of post-war reconstruction that gave these racisms their particular point and purpose. Invariably. such labour came from either the colonies and ex-colonies of the Third World or from the then poor south of Europe, and were ‘saddled’ with different cultures, different colours, different creeds. What Europe wanted, though, was the labour not the labourer and towards that end racism was a ready instrument.

But, with the passing of industrial society, that labour is no longer needed. The problem for European governments now is how to settle the labour that refuses to go back whilst evolving, at the same time, a common policy that will keep out any further intake of labour in the form of refugees and asylum-seekers. And yet, it is precisely such peripatetic migrants who form the ideal workforce, flexible and ad hoc, required by the manufacturing and service sectors of post­ industrial society. Hence these governments are faced with two sets of contradictions. On the one hand, they are compelled, as a part of the tidying-up process for the new open Europe, to regularise the status of long-standing ‘immigrants’, but risk the danger of being thrown out of power by the popular racism that they themselves  have engineered. On the other hand, they want to appease their racist constituencies by keeping out Third World migrants and refugees, but run the risk of undermining the black economy and the increased prosperity  it brings.

Nor is it a viable policy to require that late-comers to the European economic miracle like Spain which need cheap migrant labour  for their “take-off, and the agricultural sectors of countries like  Italy which can no longer find seasonal labour from within their own workforces, should seal tight their frontiers for the greater benefit of their more prosperous partners.

And then there is the problem of a falling and aging European population, particularly in the Scandinavian countries, and a growing anxiety about who is to do the work.

Already the cracks are beginning to show in the battlements of Fortress Europe even as its foundations are being threatened by the revolts of the new natives in Lyon and Lesjofors.