Katharina Bodirsky: The UK voted out: Some reflections on European “unity in diversity”

Against the predictions of the last polls, a narrow majority of the UK voters decided to leave the EU. Once again, the political crisis of Europe has deepened. And once again, it does not seem as if this deepening of the crisis will force a fundamental reorientation of the “European project.”

In the following, I take issue with a mainstream framing of the crisis as one engendered by an atavistic nationalism that haunts the cosmopolitan present of Europe, a framing that directs attention away from the class character of European state-making of the past decades. If the EU is not to disintegrate, however, the latter has to be challenged.

Reaffirming “cosmopolitan Europe”
The UK referendum was set up as a choice between a “yes” to the current European status quo or a “no” that would lead to national retrenchment. While the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn had campaigned for “reform and remain,” there was no such box to tick on the ballot. Even if there had been such a choice and a Labour government to pursue it, recent events in Europe, such as the political reaction against Syriza, have made it sufficiently clear that the margin for reform is kept preciously small by political and financial elites in Europe today.

The forced choice between a “yes” or a “no” to the current EU was the first step in the construction of an imagery where a pro-European, liberal cosmopolitan camp opposes an anti-EU, racist nationalist camp. The second, and more important, step was the success of the Independence Party (UKIP), the Tory Right, and key newspapers in framing the “no” vote as a “no” to immigration.[1] This alliance was successful in channeling a largely working-class discontent that had its roots in the experiences of precarization and outright poverty resulting from neoliberal dispossession into a highly culturalized and racialized politics.[2] The latter framed the problem as one of a struggle over scarce resources that the “foreigner” must be prevented from joining—rather than foregrounding the question of the class politics that rendered resources scarce.


In response to the predominant racism and chauvinism of the mainstream “leave” campaign, many on the liberal Left have framed their support for the EU as a support for diversity and cosmopolitanism. The result was an imagery of a backward, racist neo-nationalism versus a progressive, liberal EU cosmopolitanism that has been reenforced in the wake of the referendum, also in continental Europe. With neo-nationalist parties on the continent clamoring for their own “independence days,” one is frequently reminded by well-meaning Europeans that the impetus behind European integration was about peace, and that the prevention of further nationalist wars in Europe has been its major achievement.

This imagery of an essentially cosmopolitan EU as a bulwark against the return of racist nationalism makes it very easy for those at the levers to circumvent addressing the class roots of the wider political crisis of which the Brexit is one symptom. Let us have a look then at “actually existing cosmopolitanism” and how it relates to the neo-nationalist specter in Europe.

“Actually existing” European cosmopolitanism
In the early to mid-2000s, there was much talk about the unique character of EU-European state-making in particular among academics of the liberal Left: Europe, it was proclaimed, resembled a “cosmopolitan empire” rather than a supra-nation-state. The EU’s brand of “unity in diversity” was appropriate, Ulrich Beck announced most prominently, to a “second modernity,” in contrast to the nationalism of a “first modernity.” In this account, a homogenizing neo-nationalism haunts us as a specter of the past, while cosmopolitan “unity in diversity” is the benign promise for a better future.

“United in diversity” was the motto that the EU officially adopted in 2000 to highlight that European unity, in the form of the supranational institutions of the EU, was not a threat to but rather could help reconcile cultural differences within Europe. But we can read this motto also somewhat differently: as an ideological, “culturalist” reflection of a reality of regulatory unity in diversity that has been put in place since the late 1980s[3] and that works through the (re)production of social and regional inequalities.[4]

“Unity” across (some) member states has here been established through shared economic and political frameworks such as the single market, the European Monetary Union (EMU) and its austerity regime, the Schengen Agreement, and EU citizenship. This was a “unity” that was dominated largely by a neoliberal logic, despite and against alternative visions for Europe and the fig leaf of social policy entailed in the Maastricht Treaty or later the Lisbon Agenda.[5]  It was largely the result of the interests of some national governments and of key forces of capital in the EU in “locking in” new rules of the game on a supranational level.[6]

It was a “unity” that maintained “diversity” in key realms such as welfare and labor market policies, which remained formally on the national level but were effectively constrained by the “upscaling” of monetary policy to the supranational scale, thus contributing to the political dispossession and precarization of labor. It was a “unity” that fostered diversity in the form of uneven development, increased intra-urban competition, and regional development strategies that increasingly supported “already competitive” regions. The way this particular brand of “unity in diversity” can operate was shown very effectively in the unfolding and management of the “fiscal crises” of EU member states and its devastating social consequences.[7]

In this way, the EU’s “actually existing cosmopolitanism” has worked to the advantage of in particular transnational corporations and finance capital, all the while contributing to enhance “differences” in the form of increasing regional and class inequalities.

Neo-nationalism: Ghost of times past or product of European state-making?
Europe’s “actually existing cosmopolitanism” is thus at the heart of the multiplying crises in Europe, while obscuring its own role. Though not solely responsible for it, it has certainly contributed to the profound crisis of popular legitimacy that afflict governments on all governmental scales in Europe as a consequence of the dismantling of the welfare state, institutions of liberal democracy, and national representation. The result has been the strengthening of popular support for neo-nationalism: the ethnic nation makes its appearance as a claim on the state.

The turn to neo-nationalism is thus not all that surprising if we consider that belonging and entitlement in the polity have long been determined by national identity and the citizenship rights tied to it. With the economic dispossession and political disempowerment entailed in the processes sketched above, belonging and entitlement is being reclaimed through a language and politics of “race” and “culture” that has been shaped in longer histories of empire and nation-making[8] but gains its current salience with the experience of increasing inequalities, insecurities, and dismantling of class-based social solidarities. In much of this repertoire of culturalized claims-making, the neoliberal status quo is accepted: health care, education, and unemployment benefits have become scarce resources, and the question posed is simply how to regulate—or limit—the access to them. The nationalist Right has been very successful in occupying the political terrain once articulated through a language of class.

There is a strong line of scholarship in anthropology that has examined such popular support for neo-nationalism in relation to the manifold (working-class) experiences of dispossession and precarization in contemporary neoliberal capitalism and that highlighted a political polarization between the populist national and the liberal cosmopolitan in the context of a decline of the politics of class.[9] Contemporary neo-nationalisms should therefore not be understood as atavistic elements in an otherwise cosmopolitan Europe—as remnants of “first modernity,” to say it with Ulrich Beck, or attempts to “turn back the time,” to say it with some critics of the “leave” vote. Rather, while neo-nationalisms draw on longer national as well as colonial genealogies, they are in good part produced by the contemporary, neoliberal and transnational, state-making in Europe.

An uneven distribution of “Europeanness”
EU institutions, and here in particular the European Commission, have long sought to address the EU’s popular “legitimacy deficit” through cultural policies that were to promote “European identity.” While this initially took the form of emphasizing a shared European heritage, the 2000s saw a greater embrace of non-European diversity and a cosmopolitan attitude to the world in EU rhetoric.[10]

And indeed, the referendum result had in particular young people come out and declare themselves as “European.” Was the EU campaign for promoting European identity more successful than it has long seemed? The way these reactions are phrased, however, suggests that for many of the younger generations, a sense of Europeanness has likely been engendered not so much by the symbolic politics of the Commission as by the concrete experiences of mobility associated with European frameworks such as EU citizenship, Schengen, the euro, or Erasmus.

But such experiences are, once more, very unevenly distributed. While some enjoyed the new possibilities of traveling, working, studying, and consuming in the Europe of the “four freedoms,” others were barred from such possibilities due to the institutionalized hierarchies of EU territory[11] and citizenship[12] and/or the dwindling of their financial resources. For still others in recent years, EU-internal migration was not a cosmopolitan choice but a necessity born out of, for example, austerity-driven unemployment. Not everyone has equal cause to identify with “Europe.”

In sum
In brief, the root of the contemporary crisis lies not in the return of an anachronistic nationalism but rather in the profound class inequalities in Europe—within and across the member states—that have been fostered by neoliberal state-making in general and “actually existing” EU cosmopolitanism in particular. This, of course, is in turn fundamentally implicated in a larger context of global capital running rampant. Opposing racist nationalism with liberal cosmopolitanism is thus profoundly counterproductive—it fosters an affirmation of the European status quo rather than a radical reorientation of the “European project.” And only such a radical reorientation—through a politics of class, against the escalation of profound inequalities—has a real chance to counter the current process of European disintegration.

Katharina Bodirsky is Assistant Professor in the Sociology department of Middle East Technical University in Ankara and Coordinator of its MS program in Social Anthropology. Her work focuses on the theory of the state and state transformation in neoliberal capitalism, culturalized politics, and urban policy and politics, in the political contexts of current EU-Europe and Turkey.


[1] While there was support from the Left for Brexit, in opposition in particular to the neoliberalism of the EU, this did not significantly influence the mainstream discussion.

[2] See, e.g., articles by Dreda Say Mitchell, Owen Jones, John Harris, Gary Younge, or Paul Mason in The Guardian.

[3] This round in “European integration” is part of a more generally observable set of mutual facilitations of (or “dialectical interrelations” between) changes in global capitalism, the territorial reorganization of statehood, and the neoliberalization of principles of state intervention. See, e.g., the work of David Harvey, Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell, or Bob Jessop for (quite different) approaches to this.

[4] In addition to a critique of the internally operating “unity in diversity,” an interrogation of “really existing cosmopolitanism” of Europe must include an analysis of the EU’s external policies—not least in the “refugee crisis”—which I am not attempting here.

[5] The UK cannot be portrayed as a simple victim of an EU neoliberalism—much of UK neoliberalism was “homemade” and in fact played an important role in the strengthening of neoliberal approaches within the EU; moreover, the UK had always insisted on “European integration light” given strong popular Euroscepticism. At the same time, the exit of the UK from the EU gives little hope for a more social Europe, given the neoliberal politics that the supposed “motor” of European integration, the German as well as the French governments, are currently pursuing.

[6] On this, see, e.g., the work by Elmar Altvater, Dorothea Bohle, Werner Bonefeld, Volker Bornschier, Mary Daly, John Grahl, Owen Parker, or Bastiaan Van Apeldoorn.

[7] In addition to the above, see, e.g., the work by Costas Hadjimichalis, Ray Hudson and Allan Williams, or Neil Brenner, as well as my own work on EU structural funds.

[8] See, e.g., the work by Nicholas Dirks, George Steinmetz, Ann Stoler, or Talal Asad.

[9] Such as in particular the work by Don Kalb, as well as, from somewhat different perspectives, by Andre Gingrich, Douglas Holmes, or Jonathan Friedman.

[10] In anthropology, this was most thoroughly analyzed by Cris Shore. I also draw on my own research on the role of culturalism in EU-European policies in the late 2000s.

[11] Such as the delaying of freedom of movement for eastern European workers while the freedom of capital was already guaranteed in the early years of accession.

[12] Such as the inequalities between EU and third-country nationals or the absence of national voting rights for EU citizens resident in other EU countries.

Cite as: Bodirsky, Katharina. 2016. “The UK voted out: Some reflections on European ‘unity in diversity.'” FocaalBlog, 29 June. www.focaalblog.com/2016/06/29/katharina-bodirsky-the-uk-voted-out-some-reflections-on-european-unity-in-diversity.