Paradoxically European: how a spike in xenophobia revalues EU citizenship

Published 5 July 2016 / By COMPAS Communications

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We are sitting around a solid oak table, in the sumptuous meeting room of a Regency house in London’s West End: a PhD candidate, an arts events manager, and a communications coordinator, all holding Romanian passports, British degrees and, until recently, plans of staying in the UK.

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We met to organise a fundraiser for a charity dedicated to assisting Romanian and other European migrants out of precarious work. The initiative was my own, but we are all too familiar with the prevalence of poorly paid and insecure employment among migrant workers in low skill industries. After all, we studied it diligently. Some of us even experienced such positions back when transitional immigration controls restricted Romanian and Bulgarian nationals’ access to the UK labour market. But our memories of puny cash-in-hand wages have long lost their incisiveness. They are now anecdotes for dinner parties, transformed into charitable orientations and, in my case, into a way of bonding with research participants.

We go through the meeting points, thinking of which affluent guests could make the biggest contributions, and which Romanian artists would best stimulate their generosity. As we consider how our connections could help their plight, the plight of those still labouring in the casualised low skilled sector, the distinctions between us and them, mobile European citizens and migrants [1], are hard to overlook. We awkwardly acknowledge our privilege. Unlike our fellow co-nationals trapped in insecure positions and ritualistically deplored on the pages of tabloids, we blended in, remained invisible. We achieved European citizenship.

The ambition of “returning to Europe” which echoed across the post-socialist bloc in the early 1990s was particularly powerful for Romania. Having been relegated to a ‘laggard’ [2] position in the race to Union membership, the country witnessed a frenzy of self-assessment in the period of ‘transition’, and a preoccupation with bringing its allegedly ‘peripheral’ Europeanness in line with the values and practices of ‘true’ European citizenship marked, it was argued, by democracy and liberalism.

Numerous scholars have noted the role of class, race, and immigration status in articulating such conceptions of European citizenship and “otherness” [3].  Until recently, my colleagues and I felt fortunate to appear close enough to the neoliberal model of the white worker citizen. Safely employed or employable, wielding Russell Group degrees, fluent in English, and well acquainted with the practices and values of a liberal, urban dwelling middle class, we managed to remain invisible to the alterity seeking press and far right politicians.

The referendum on the UK’s European membership changed that. After months during which the Leave campaign(s) urged the public to “take back control” of borders, promising to replace European freedom of movement with a points based system, immigration became, once again, a moral panic.

What is notable, however, is how in calling for an outright break on European migration, notions of migrant undesirability previously targeting Europe’s poor, the hyper masculinised Eastern labourers portrayed congregating at street corners for cash-in-hand work, the Roma rough sleepers, or the hyper fertile benefit-sponging mothers, were now including European mobile citizens who had previously fallen below the radar of xenophobia.

This was most evident in the disturbing racist attacks which emerged after the referendum. The regular targets were joined by unusual suspects: a Swedish mother verbally abused outside a school, a German woman who told a radio station she had been afraid of leaving the house for days, the Polish Cultural Centre, rather than the Polish-Plumber, the highly skilled professionals who were told to “go home” after being overheard speaking in native tongues.

These and more examples of unexpected racist outburst filled social media, and our conversation around the oak table. Disappointed, angered, but above all shocked at the sudden visibility of these previously inconspicuous Europeans, we reflected on the paradoxical upgrade to Europeanness Romanian émigrés received during the past week. The boundaries that, we had grown up to believe, separated the peripheral Romanian Europeanness from that of citizens of old members state, were less permanent than we imagined. So were the boundaries that distinguished us, the professionals, from the precarious workers the charity was targeting. We had all been made European, but none of us felt like European citizens –only migrants.

The spike in xenophobia unleased by the referendum thus homogenised and simultaneously revalued European citizenship. Through this general discursive labelling as undeserving, however anecdotal the racist incidents, the highly skilled and precarious workers whom I interviewed later that day, found themselves equally grappling with the uncertainty of their status, and contemplating the prospect of moving on.

In highlighting this shared uncertainty I do not wish to exaggerate the extent of post-referendum racism, or gloss over the differences in these migrants’ respective potentials to move on. Nonetheless, I do believe the discursive reconfiguration of Europeanness prompts a re-examination of European citizenship and deservingness, and opens new avenues for researching solidarity.

[1] Anderson, B., & Blinder, S. (2011) Who counts as a migrant? Definitions and their consequences briefing, The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford

[2] Noutcheva, G., & Bechev, D. (2008) The successful laggards: Bulgaria and Romania's accession to the EU, East European politics & societies22 (1), 114-144

[3] Anderson, B. (2013) Us and them? The dangerous politics of immigration control, OUP Oxford