Europe is dead, long live Europe?: Balibar on citizenship in the migration crisis

July 10, 2015 § 1 Comment

The Balkan route of irregular migration – typically from Greece, passing Macedonia & Serbia into the European Union – has seen an increase of 880 percent over the same period last year. Not only is this the fastest growing route into the EU, the border between Serbia & Hungary now has greater quantities of migrants than are entering through Italy. As such, it is crucial for the EU & Western Balkans to align best practices in regulating the passage & protecting the well-being of migrants. Such is the sentiment of Donald Tusk [president of the European Council], who confirms, “Our approach needs to be geographically comprehensive”.

This is not happening, however. Instead, Hungary has announced that it would build a wall along its border with Serbia, just as Bulgaria had done last year on its Turkish border.

What’s more, a comprehensive EU solution is also lacking: a compulsory refugee-sharing scheme [which was supposed to relieve the asylum responsibilities of the countries of entry] could not be agreed upon in last months’s summit. This is nothing new. Traditionally, little attention has been paid to the needs of migrants in European policy, with perspectives remaining Eurocentric: either satisfying the demands of member states, including their aversion towards non-EU citizens, or representing migration as potentially beneficial to Eurozone economies. [Although the Global Approach to Migration & Mobility (2011) was supposed to introduce international protection/asylum, recent events have shown the inefficiency of the mechanism.]

As a result, smuggling continues to prosper, & with it also migrant deaths at sea, on train tracks, & from hunger. Police violence & individuals taking advantage of migrants pass almost unregulated.

This crisis, in combination with the debates surrounding Grexit, have brought to the fore long-standing problems in the narrow notions of Europeanness & the narrower-still identity of EU citizenship. Is the post-nationalist project of modern Europe a failure? Has it been a sham all along? After all, there is a conflict between social rights for nationals & human rights for internationals [just as the economic security of individual EU states is taking precedence over the integrity of the Eurozone as a whole]. “[T]hese national and social tensions have reached a rupture point. A period of uncertainty and of fluctuation has begun and with it the possibility of a new crossing, the terms of which are unpredictable”, Etienne Balibar wrote earlier this year.

How to imagine the “new crossing” has been a major project throughout the philosopher’s career. Balibar started as a specialist of Marx & an active member of the French Communist Party. In the late 1980s, he was kicked out of the PCF for opposing communist mayors of Vitry & Montigny-les-Cormeilles who forcibly bulldozed the residences of migrant workers.

In light of these events, in 1988, Balibar wrote ‘Propositions on Citizenship’ where he identifies two constant distinctions of citizenship: it is bound to (1) the existence of a state [to public sovereignty], & (2) the work of individuals engaging with political decisions & their capacity to do so. “Citizenship, understood in its strict sense as the full exercise of political rights & in its broad sense as cultural initiative or effective presence in the public space (the capacity to be “listened to” there), has therefore been codified only in order to mark a temporary equilibrium, a relation of forces & interests” (724).

The argument goes further, for other types of identities exist — minorities that do not belong to the ‘body’ of the nation in the same sense. They are placed in a negative dialectic to “true” citizens:

the distinction between legitimate national-citizens & precarious resident subjects (in short, the modern-day “metics” [a pejorative term for a foreigner or alien]). These distinctions largely support those between manual & intellectual labor, urban “centres” & the “problem”, “peripheral”, or “ghetto” areas, the relatively protected working or employed class & those who are destabilized, if not eliminated, by crisis. (727, italics mine)

We see that through dichotomization, exclusion begins to incorporate ever-more disadvantages to those outside of the “legitimate national-citizens” category. It systemizes new inequalities. Balibar poses the question, if citizenship is defined so strictly are those that fight for social & worker’s rights also fighting for a multinational & multicultural society? Although necessary & valuable, such social movements are in fact against the states’ intention to modernize the labour force & means of production, therefore protecting minorities is not high on the neoliberal political agenda. The article ends in a call to arms to redefine citizenship so that it doesn’t hold within it this paradox.

Nearly thirty years have passed since Balibar wrote this; today, he is more convinced that the solution could come in the form of a public insurrection rather than from a reconstitution of citizenship. While Balibar has gone through a minor evolution of thought, the European project has progressed rapidly on its neoliberal path & “become an instrument of penetration of world competition […] forbidding transfers between territories and discouraging common enterprises, rejecting any harmonization from above of rights and living standards, making each state into a potential predator of its neighbours”, as he describes it today.

The present European environment [of state collectivism at the cost of continental unity] cannot be relied on to develop policies that protect or welcome migrants & refugees. For this, radical reconstructions of  European identity & politics are required & cannot be achieved without great difficulty or time – neither of which are ample when trying to respond to a crisis. & this crisis has no end in sight. Statistics are one of the few things on the side of asylum seekers – the sheer quantity of migrants means that irregular forms of migration cannot be blocked effectively & that, in spite of dangers, many will still pass to their end-destinations. People will continue to take that chance & they certainly have the right to it.

Just as Balibar says it will be a public movement that can force a change in forms of government, we should be looking at civil society too to correct the gaps in policy [or absence of policy] in offering the necessary aid in the migration crisis. Now is not the time for political lethargy on the part of individuals or civil society; now is the moment to act as the corrective of policy.

& as for Europe? Again, we can turn to Balibar for answer: “Paradoxically, it is when Europe is contested – even violently – not in the name of a past it has put aside, but in the name of a present it is dividing and a future it can open or close, that it will become a durable political construction”.


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