The Crisis in European Identity: Cameron, Sarkozy and Berlusconi

European Identity
By Pablo de Orellana

The recent attacks in Norway highlight that Europe is suffering from a crisis of identity and increasingly militant xenophobia. Anders Behring Breivik's cold-blooded murders are but an extreme expression of increasing fears of foreigners throughout a Europe that finds itself questioning its identity and increasingly afraid of immigration and foreignness. Most worryingly, this trend is not only the province of extremists like Breivik, the British National Party, the English Defence League or Marine Le Pen's Front National, but has also gradually come to inform the political discourse of mainstream parties in the UK, Italy and France.

On 28 June a 19-year old Moroccan immigrant, Imad El Kaalouli, was killed in cold blood in the sleepy Lake Garda region in northern Italy where I grew up. The young man had come to his former employer to ask for an explanation as to his sudden dismissal and to claim his overdue wages. In the background, the vociferously anti-immigration and thinly veiled xenophobic political rhetoric of the Northern League separatist party - Silvio Berlusconi's coalition partner - has been pressing for the reduction and expulsion of immigrants in Northern Italy for years. The Northern League portrays Northern Italian identity, security and prosperity as endangered by the arrival of “criminal”’, “drug-dealing”, ‘“rapist” foreigners. In  2008, Northern League posters for a local election campaign featuring a Native American read “They suffered immigration – now they live in reservations!”. Last December, the Northern League council of the town of Coccaglio ordered a house-by-house search for illegal immigrants dubbed “Operation White Christmas”, in a move supported by the government.

Whilst xenophobia and its related crimes are hardly a modern phenomenon, the current European identity crisis can be electorally convenient for some parties. This trend is clearly on the rise, and not only in Northern Italy. French far-right extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen was runner-up in the 2002 presidential election. In 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy not only attempted to introduce DNA testing for family immigration, but has recently spearheaded a drive for national identity, even building a museum dedicated to French identity to be opened this year. Tories The British Conservative Party in the 2010 campaign were torn over the extent of their anti-immigration rhetoric and in recent months, free movement within Schengen is being partially dismantled and restricted citing the surge in war refugees from North Africa.

It is not just that anti-immigrant sentiment and vociferous nationalism are bad. Relating our identity to segregation from a demonised foreign “other” is destructive and dangerous not only for immigrants, but especially for our society, rights, freedoms and justice. We Europeans should have learnt that fierce nationalism and xenophobia are, to say the least, dangerous. We have paid for them in tens of millions of lives.

The root problem is ultimately ours: in a crisis, we turn to proud definitions of our own identity. Identity is a complex and fluid conceptualisation of both the community and the individual and, logically, any clear and forceful demarcation of one's own identity also requires an antithetical “other”. David Cameron tells us that multiculturalism has failed and seeks to re-entrench Britishness as the prevailing and ultimate social value. Sadly, this sounds very much like Sarkozy's fierce drive to make immigrants French by denying them the right to cultural distinction.

Anti-immigration centre-right politicians in Europe are opening a Pandora's box. I doubt that that such a trend can be controlled against the challenge of more extreme forces inside or outside their own parties. Since 2010 Sarkozy has taken  a step that even the former fascist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco, did not dare take: the deportation of the Roma. Current British Conservative policy includes the aim of reducing non-EU immigration to “tens of thousands” as well as proposals by immigration minister Damien Green that all non-EU immigrants earning less than GBP£150,000 per year should not be allowed to remain in the UK for more than five years. These mark a shift in which foreigners are expected to be useful producers of wealth or leave.

The internationalisation and globalisation of the economy and the movements of peoples has put definite national identities in crisis. In a time of decreasing prosperity and forced austerity we are afraid of diluting or changing identity, especially if “belonging” brings with it rights -such as social services- that are increasingly limited. Such fears are easily exploited and as a result outsiders can become dehumanised in popular conscience, where they are easily painted as scroungers of our hard-won benefits and services or simply as criminals. We too often forget that foreigners can and have very often been (and not only by usual extremist suspects such as Emperor Nero, Mussolini and Hitler) made into scapegoats for social, political and especially economic woes. Immigrants risk being measured only against the threat they pose to European identity and their relative usefulness to the host country. According to in Damien Green's proposal, such usefulness is  viewed merely in monetary, sporting or religious terms. This is a process of division, seclusion and exclusion in society.

Cameron, Sarkozy and Berlusconi (minus the Northern League), mostly moderate right-wing politicians, cannot be accused of outright xenophobia. They are standing their political ground by absorbing votes from the far right, as Sarkozy was successful in doing in the 2007 presidential election or as seen in the recent reduction in the BNP vote in the UK. Politics based on the demonisation of a dangerous, inhuman and dangerous “other”, however, take on a life of their own -think only of the Red Scare in 1950s America. Relating nationalism to values and identity is imminently destructive, and modern liberal society and political debate and openness will inevitably suffer. Berlusconi, in the battle over Milan last month, identified communist conspiracies (ie: opposition to him) with floods of immigrants, criminality and disorder, all of which he defined as unpatriotic. Cameron, less spectacularly, attacked the alternative vote electoral system as “deeply un-British” during the referendum campaign. When identity becomes political, it is a dangerous and overwhelming tool that can stifle and suffocate political debate and democracy; legitimising and stoking the fires of incipient xenophobia could be just the beginning.

This uncontrollable spiralling trend legitimises political space for a gradual fundamentalisation of mainstream political discourse. Europe, riddled by economic and social woes, is fertile ground for inciting and exploiting the fear of foreignness. In the 2010 UK general election campaign there was an unbelievable consensus across the three main parties over the urgent need to cut immigration. The differences lay in how to cut immigration, not over whether it had to be cut. All political parties now feel the need to be patriotic and protective of national identity. The danger is that a contest for the most forceful anti-immigration policy will not be won by moderate parties unless they too become radicalised. And this might well happen:  just watch out for Marine Le Pen, who might resuscitate the successes of her father. 

Are we ready to continue stoking the fires of nationalism at the cost of segregating society and even convincing ourselves of birthrights determined by nation? Who will this benefit?


Pablo de Orellana is currently researching for a doctorate at King's College London on the theoretical and empirical dynamics of the diplomatic phenomenon he identified as international sponsorship. Other research interests include nationalism, part-taking in democracy and contemporary fine art.


28 July 2011