Europe, Foreign Policy, Security

The EU’s Cosmopolitanism Gap

Senior figures in the European Union are growing impatient with its Eastern members over their refusal to accept refugees. Emmanuel Macron, the new president of France, has threatened sanctions if Poland and Hungary remain stubborn.

Why is this? I hope to avoid unduly extending generalisations. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are all different. All contain multitudes. In Poland, where I am fortunate enough to live, I have met progressives, liberals, libertarians, conservatives, traditionalists and, perversely, given recent history, adherents of communism and national socialists; as well, of course, as many people who hate politics. Nonetheless, it is a matter of undeniable fact that nations of the CEE tend to be less receptive to mass immigration—and, especially, Islamic immigration—than their Western cousins, on the level of elites and on the level of the masses.

A simple explanation is that they are more homogenous. Western Europe has been rich enough, and liberal enough, to attract migrants for decades. The British are about 5% Muslim. Germans are about 5% Muslim. The French are probably more. People have Muslim friends, colleagues and acquaintances, or at least accept them as part of the national fabric. Poles, Hungarians and Slovaks, on the other hand, are perhaps 0.1% Muslim. It seems more abnormal and unnatural to people who maintain their belief in a unifying culture.

Another simple explanation is that they watch the news. Apart from through the imposing Poland-based MMA champion Mamed Khalidov, most Central and Eastern European citizens encounter Muslims only through footage of terrorism in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Stockholm, Berlin, London and now, horrifyingly, Manchester. Some of these attacks have been personal. Anis Amri killed twelve people at a Berlin Christmas market with a truck he had taken from a Pole who he had murdered. A Polish couple were killed at the Manchester Arena. While jihadists are a small minority of Muslims, few Poles, Hungarians, Czechs or Slovaks want to take the risk of having bombings or beheadings in their countries, however unlikely.

But I think there is more to this phenomenon, and something deeper than modernity versus tradition, or cosmopolitanism versus parochialism. There are broad psychocultural differences between the Western and Eastern European peoples of the European Union (hereon, for convenience though not exactitude, called Western Europeans and Eastern Europeans). One, I believe, is a difference between people descended from imperialists and people descended from victims of imperialism.

Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands all had empires. Several of them—as well as the Swedes—were involved in the slave trade. To the East, meanwhile, nations, though sometimes fiercely and bloodily competitive, spent centuries being shared by the Habsburgs, the Prussians and the tsars. Peoples won and lost their independence time and time again, as well as traditions, languages and men, women and children.

An entertaining illustration of the European divide can be found in one of the world’s oddest ethnic minorities. Polish Haitians are descended from legionnaires Napoleon recruited to fight the slave rebellion. Some of these soldiers empathised with the slaves and promptly switched sides. Dessalines, the leader of the Haitians, called the Poles “the white negroes of Europe”. Some have lived there ever since.

This oppression reached its hideous apotheosis in the 20th Century, as Eastern Europe was split between Stalin and Hitler. Some, through different levels of choice and compulsion, aligned themselves with the Soviets and others with the Nazis. Some resisted both. Millions died in a nightmare of murder, torture, rape and deprivation. After the war, the Soviets inserted communist dictators. Dissidents were jailed, history was suppressed and subversive influences were ruthlessly expunged.

I have no wish to present Poles, Czechs, Slovakians, Hungarians, Slovenians, Estonians, Romanians and Latvians as saintly victims. They were oppressed because they were unfortunate enough to have been sandwiched between superpowers, and did a lot of killing themselves when they had the chance. So did everyone. For all of the billions of innocent people I have never heard of an innocent people.

Nations of Central and Eastern Europe, it should also be acknowledged, are not hostages to their pasts. Since 1989 and the fall of communism they have had all kinds of triumphs and all the kinds of problems. They still do, of course. But I think it relevant, despite these qualifications, that Western Europe spent a lot of time occupying and Eastern Europe spent a lot time being occupied.

Imperialism helped to make us cosmopolitan. Most obviously, it exposed us to different cultures. We absorbed them into our cuisine, our literature, our cinema and, above all, our history. Our shared experiences with Commonwealth troops in World War II is the most prominent example of our experiences being stitched together with those of other peoples. Countries to the East have fewer such memories.

Yet as those troops were fighting, the Bengal famine was killing millions, and the British, at best, were too distracted to respond. Postcolonial studies have emphasised and publicised the faults of imperialism, and Western Europeans, especially among their cultural elites, feel ashamed of wrongs done to other people and obliged to compensate as best as they can. Eastern Europeans are likelier to think of wrongs done to them. A term like “white privilege” would seem downright comical in countries ravaged by the Nazis and the Soviets.

While this progressivism is a guilty response to our colonial past, paternalistic instincts are a product of those times. Western European imperialists tried to shape the world. They were evangelical about their religious and social institutions and ideas. Strains of these desires influence Western political and charitable interventions into distant conflicts such as the Syrian civil war. Europeans to the East can be as invested in international events but it is less common. They have enough problems of their own. I watched the BBC World News with a Pole who found it so depressing that we turned it off.

This is not a local peculiarity. We are the peculiar ones, taking an unusual interest in other people’s affairs. It is one of the odd things about our political culture that we kid ourselves into believing that more tribal and reactionary attitudes are the weird ones.

Yet we would think that because things have been going well for us. For all the blood we spilled at Waterloo and the Somme, and for all the men, women and children who have been impoverished, Western nations have long been enjoying levels of peace and wealth that most people, alive and dead, would be startled to experience. We take our institutions for granted. Many, indeed, deconstruct them. Yet the cultural complacence Douglas Murray writes of in his recent bestselling book is less pronounced in Central and Eastern European countries, where, unable to take peace, wealth and independence for granted, people can be more defensive. They know how bitterly people had to wait and fight for them.

One can understand Western Europeans, and some Eastern Europeans, who think it is absurd that Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks are so unwilling to accept a few hundred refugees. It is absurd how wildly they overstate the numbers of Muslims living in their countries. Yet one cannot understand it except as a statement. These people know well that numbers of prospective migrants are going to increase. Last year, a liberal academic at the University of Wrocław said it is “inevitable” that Poland will have to take more immigrants, and that there is “just a question of the time in which this will take place”. This stance is a clear attempt to arrest that trend.

Moreover, it is a sign of Central and Eastern European wariness not merely towards Muslims but towards superpowers. The EU, needless to say, is not the Soviet Union. It is far more generous and far less prohibitive, and membership, as the U.K. has proved, remains optional. As the Eurozone rocked with crises, however, and Merkel welcome millions of migrants into Europe, her Eastern neighbours began to question the judgement of EU authorities.

As they hear threats of sanctions—and read themselves described in unpleasantly condescending terms as the EU’s “problem children”—such people become more concerned about Western overbearingness. Poland and Hungary have deep political divisions, with ferocious arguments about political, economic and constitutional affairs, but the issue of migration unites most citizens. Their leaders were flooded with messages of thanks and support in the aftermath of this week’s attack in Manchester. Should the EU press them on this matter they should bear in mind that they are doing a lot to empower their governments. At the very least, they should remember that they, the historic occupiers, are pressuring the historically occupied.

I should acknowledge a debt in writing this article. Its thesis is not original to me. The day of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, when twelve employees of a satirical magazine were gunned down in their offices, an old Polish man of my acquaintance was heard to mumble, “Thank God we never had an empire.”


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  2. I agree with you for the most part (but why do you like Camus?).

    “Postcolonial studies have emphasised and publicised the faults of imperialism”

    Not in France, where Postcolonial studies are banned.
    France is still a empire, occupying Britanny, Corsica, etc.

  3. AS says

    From the article:

    “an old Polish man of my acquaintance was heard to mumble, “Thank God we never had an empire.””

    Really? Poland never had a colonial empire. However, was not the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th century an empire? First it was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which conquered vast lands in the Middle Ages, lands not occupied by Lithuanians but by other people (Ukrainians and Belarusians and Russians, that is, their ancestors; and Estonians and Livonians and so on). Then Lithuania merged with Poland, and over time the Polish nobility took complete control of this state, relegating the Lithuanians to a secondary role. Ask the Eastern Slavs what they think about the statement about Poland never having an empire.

    What of Hungary? Hungary in the Middle Ages was one of the great European powers, occupying vast tracts of land not inhabited by Hungarians but by other peoples. This ended in the 16th century, but in the 19th century, with the creation of Austria-Hungary, Hungary and the Hungarians became equal partners in the Hapsburgs’ empire. Austria-Hungary did not have overseas colonies, but it was an “internal” imperial & colonial power in Europe (Bosnia & Herzegovina, was, from 1878 to 1908/1918, de facto, an Austro-Hungarian colony – it was treated no differently by Vienna and Budapest than Africa was by London and Paris).

    You are correct of course that the Eastern European experience in imperialism is much lesser (and, for all the countries involved except Hungary essentially, much farther away in the past and less prominent in the national consciousness) then the Western European experience, and that, of course, Eastern Europeans have experienced a lot more of being occupied and part of someone else’s empire than Western Europeans have. There are also countries which fit your definition perfectly, such as Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia (countries which basically never existed as independent states before the 20th century), however they are in the minority.

    There is of course, a great difference of perception between how Western and Eastern Europeans see themselves, this also correct. However this is not always rooted in fact.

    Eastern Europeans have a funny double-vision of history – on one hand, they like to boast about their glorious pasts (some, likes Poles and Hungarians indeed have such pasts – others invent it, or greatly exaggerate their nation’s past achievements) and like to recollect of times when their ancestors were powerful rulers of empires. On the other, they like to think of themselves as freedom-loving perennial victims of injustice inflicted on them by imperial powers. At the same time they hate their oppressors and seek to emulate them (at least in supposed historical “achievement”).

    I’m from E. Europe myself, lest anyone accuse me of picking on the folks, just to note.

    • Fair comment, AS. I suppose I was thinking more in terms of the overseas empire building that established itself after the Age of Discovery. I sneaked in that Central and Eastern European peoples “did a lot of killing as well” but I should perhaps have been clearer that while Britain was struggling and the US was in its most embyronic stages Poland could have made some claim to being an imperial power.

      • Another complication is Iberia: in the context of attitudes towards Muslims, I wonder what role the Reconquista plays.

      • AS says

        Ben, I think your general thesis here has quite some meat on it, so to speak. I just wanted to provide some context and detail to show things are not so clear cut (as they usually never are).

        I think, in general, coming from an E. European country myself, the biggest contributor to this hostility towards refugees, if you will, beside plain old xenophobia, is the fact that the people in these countries do not feel responsible for them. They do not regard it as their problem. As you said, these peoples had no colonial empire – so they feel no guilt for the ill effects of colonialism nor do they feel they owe any debt to the formerly colonized. Furthermore, these countries do not partake very actively in international affairs – yes, a few hundred Polish troops might’ve fought in Iraq, but that was mainly to curry favour with the Americans, and Poland’s political, economic and military influence in the Middle East is negligible. Eastern Europeans see Western Europeans and Americans mucking about in other people’s business, and then pushing the refugees that result from such meddling (as seen in the eyes of many E. Europeans) on them is seen as W. Europeans offloading their problems on E. Europeans.

        In my native country, which was directly on the refugee route, the refugees were fairly well received (compared to most others – not that things were ideal for them, far from it), and there were lots of people happy to help them gather their strength, and then help them move on to, ultimately, Germany (including giving them detailed instructions how to jump the fences, and such). That, however, is the point – I think the amount of people willing to help would be much smaller if the refugees had intended to stay permanently. This way, since everyone knew they wanted to go to the West, and seeing this as just (most people regard the West as having messed up Syria and Iraq, therefore they have a moral obligation to take in the people fleeing this mess), the vast majority was indifferent, and with a vocal, active minority very much willing to help (and a mostly benevolent government) significantly outnumbering the vocal xenophobic minority. I suspect that if the refugees were just transiting through Poland or Slovakia, rather than being settled there (semi-)permanently, that the reactions would have been similar, and much less hostile.

        Keep in mind one more thing: E. European governments are prone to seeing non-EU immigrants to the EU as competition. Many of their citizens find work in the Western EU; this is an important “safety valve” for the Eastern EU (people who can’t find employment at home, do so in Germany or the UK or wherever, thus ceasing to be a problem to their native government) as well as contributing to the eastern economies in various ways (from remittances, to people coming back after a few years with savings for their retirement, capital to start a business, or important knowledge and experience acquired in the West which makes the local economies more competitive, etc.). Many a Polish or Slovakian minister may be thinking, 50k more Syrians or Africans into Germany or France is 50k less spots in those countries for a Pole or a Slovak – and they don’t see why their citizens, who are members of the club, must compete with people who are not.

        • Hello AS,

          Eastern Europeans see Western Europeans and Americans mucking about in other people’s business, and then pushing the refugees that result from such meddling (as seen in the eyes of many E. Europeans) on them is seen as W. Europeans offloading their problems on E. Europeans.

          True. And there are people who feel similarly in the West, as shown by Trump’s non-interventionist and restrictionist rhetoric.

          Many a Polish or Slovakian minister may be thinking, 50k more Syrians or Africans into Germany or France is 50k less spots in those countries for a Pole or a Slovak – and they don’t see why their citizens, who are members of the club, must compete with people who are not.

          I think citizens feel the same as well. In my experience, Poles have quite a bit of European solidarity but very little universalist feeling.

      • And this shows in a kind of immigration we gladly accept. No one really minds a million of Ukrainians, thousands Belorussians etc. settling in. It’s most likely the same post-colonial guilt feeling factor in action here, but also close language and cultural ties.

  4. Rose says

    Western peoples differ in that they had expansive empires in the lands of people of totally different culture, religion and/or race – which of course, was wrong. But such extensive colonialism is now past – as it was followed by advanced technologies it has resulted in advanced cultural globalisation with the wealth(ier) Western countries now themselves at the centre of pressure to absorb not just one culture but numerous. Some cultures are not willing to assimilate in any way and Islam wants the world to assimilate to it. As you said “no peoples is innocent”. Macron is better than the horrible national front but he and Merkel need realism about multiculturalism and had better watch it on pushing Eastern Europe too far. Could also have mentioned that some eastern European countries have been colonised at some point by the Ottomans – and others have had to fight them off. Or the history of attacks from Mongolian origin peoples who eventually converted to Islam.

  5. Santoculto says

    “Nations” you mean “people” or “representant of people”??

  6. Santoculto says

    “Less receptive to MASS and ISLAMIC immigration, at “elite” and “masses” levels than their western cousins…”


    If people is asked if they are receptive to MASS and ISLAMIC “immigration” MOST of people, aka “masses”, will be against even in hopeless places as France and Sweden. The way we ask people can have very different results.

  7. Santoculto says

    Maybe Bulgarians who are as the same level of Muslims as France be more “receptive” among eastern bloc.

  8. Santoculto says

    Western bloc has been (((“brainwashed”))) since the end of second war world. Instead a cultural continuity among generations has happened a abrupt discontinuity and many regular people more or less tend to be shaped by social conformity even they don’t believe by heart in its intimacy. Humans have that capacity to become familiarized with a diverse range of realities. What make us unique also make us vulnerable to engage or to accept factually incongruent realities. The human capacity to adapt in short and convenient term is killing their sanity or this is a common struggle attributable to their hybrid condition between a “old” world of instinct and the new world of reason.

  9. Santoculto says

    Good conjecture between imperialists and victim of imperialism but… Always exceptions there… Hungary was part of Austro Hungarian Empire, as well Russia and Turkey also were empires. And swidish role in slave trade was minimal if compared with countries, Portugal for example. So..

  10. Santoculto says

    Indeed it was expected otherwise, I mean, victims of imperialism must have solidarity with their brothers on the third world bloc…

  11. Santoculto says

    The “liberalism” on western bloc become more strong very recently.

    New (((leftism))) indeed was created to justify to give a explanation for why immigrants? 😉 all this bulschiet: equalitarianism.

    “Why I have Turkish neighbors now??”

    ” Because everyone is equal, no have human races, because nazism and six millions, because…”

  12. Santoculto says

    Of course not “US”‘ have imposed by sophisticated ways the colonization of western Europe with other people and someone who are historical enemies as “Muslims”. US appear to be a angel if compared with ex Soviet union but just appear (in some isolated instances)… The capitalistic method is use propaganda to impose its always wrong or Machiavellian goals while communist method is to use propaganda to more distractive ends than for really work with it to reach goals even they share a lot of similarities in their methods, universal use of propaganda for malignant ends. Probably because dynamic nature of capitalism propaganda must be more effective and subtle than in communism wonder world.

  13. Darwin T of BC Humanists says

    One wonders what form possible future sanctions by France and its allies in the EU will take? The Greeks are watching closely and waiting for near-imperial financial terms to be decided by Germany. They could say a pox on your impositions and simply attempt to adopt the USA dollar. Now wouldn’t that be interesting to follow? European Union is being judged by it’s citizens and the EU elites refuse to take out the ear plugs. Juncker the EU grand pooh-bah even refuses to acknowledge English as an international language and he constantly suffers from foot-in-mouth disease.

    Meanwhile in Syria the war rages and Putin and the EU manage to argue over forms of table configurations in rounds of peace talks in EU and Russia.

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