Brexit and the hierarchies of Europeanness

Despite what British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says, not all EU migrants in Brexit-Britain treat this country as if it is their own. Those that do are the already privileged and desirable, the bona fide migrants, the proper Europeans whose whiteness is never put into question. But many on the receiving end of rising post-Brexit hate crime do not feel at home in Britain, with their daily lives precarious and their futures uncertain. Kasia Narkowicz explores the hierarchies of Europeanness and the racialisation of Central and East Europeans in the context of Brexit.

A few days before the 2019 UK general election, Boris Johnson complained that EU migrants had come to Britain and treated this country as if it was their own. In order to prevent migrants from feeling at home in the UK, a points-based system discouraging unskilled workers will be implemented. Boris Johnson’s comments about migrants treating the UK as home caused anger across EU migrant communities. In a letter to the Guardian, Maike Bohn, the co-founder of ‘the3million’ challenged Johnson saying that ‘for most migrants working, studying and raising families in the UK, home is here and we are here to stay’. In the same letter she said that many migrants, including her, came to the UK unskilled, “curious to discover other countries”. Others, like the journalist Halla Mohieddeen tweeted that her Italian husband only regarded the UK as home, a home in which he ‘bought a house, paid tax, made friends’.

These are voices of privileged Western European migrants and certainly does not represent the reality for all. In contrast, many Europeans from Central and Eastern Europe live hard lives in the UK, working in low-skilled jobs (even if they were skilled upon arrival), renting rooms and houses with no prospect of home ownership and with a deepening sense that the home they left years ago is not home anymore, and the UK might never be. The truth is that even if many Eastern Europeans, like the Polish, arrived in Britain en masse over 15 years ago, they do not necessarily feel at home here. In my work as a sociologist, I have been conducting interviews with Polish immigrants in the UK. Their situations are diverse and their commitment to the UK varied, but very few take their lives in the UK for granted. Instead many talk of feeling insecure, scared and unwelcome.

Brexit and Racisms

Since coming to office as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has been set on deepening the hostile immigration policies introduced by Theresa May back when she was Home Secretary in 2012. The fact that the policies were actually named ‘the hostile environment’ might seem refreshingly honest for any political party, but it says something about the political climate we live in and about the things that can and cannot be said about immigrants in Britain today. In a short book of the same name, actor turned activist John Cusack met Indian activist Arundhati Roy and two whistle blowers; Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowdon. In an elegantly worded, idealistic and depressing book they discuss what can and cannot be said in various nations around the world that, as they conclude, tend towards the imperial. This rings true within the borders of a once global hegemon that has become so much less significant in today’s global economy.

Here in Britain, the imperial project is intimately bound up with a national identity that is currently being reclaimed in Brexit Britain, one of ‘taking back control’. But imperial nostalgia is only one part of the coin, the other is an inward-looking nostalgia, a return to a Britishness void of all those foreign bodies that were never wanted within. In their article on Brexit and racism, Satnam Virdee & Brendan McGeever show how racism is central to Brexit because of these two parallel historical developments; the loss of empire as one loss and neoliberalism contributing to structural decline since the 1970s as the second loss. With that came a loss of working class politics and consequently, working class solidarities that stretched across racial divides weakened.

In the Brexit campaign, racism was central yet rarely called out for what it was. Politicians openly said that they wanted to make the lives of migrants unbearable and tabloid journalists referred to immigrants as cockroaches. Even if this kind of rhetoric gets a light slap for echoing Nazi propaganda, it is this idea of immigrants as draining ‘our’ resources and polluting ‘our’ spaces that has led to a strong Conservative victory in the 2019 national elections, putting the final seal on Brexit.

After over 40 years of membership in the European Union, the Brits have filed for divorce because they believe, or hope, that their lives will be better without. They have been told that the source of their increasingly difficult lives are the waves of immigrants. It is the Polish plumber and the Syrian refugee, the Eastern European and the Muslim, that steal whatever is left after a decade of cuts to public services. While the Muslims are often depicted through old racist tropes of potential terrorists and sexual predators, the Eastern Europeans are responsible for stealing jobs and resources. But as Maya Goodfellow argues in her recent book titled ‘Hostile Environment’, despite the things that can and are said of immigrants, the facts consistently show that there is little evidence that immigrants are responsible for our economic problems.

But then the facts have consistently had little to do with Brexit and people’s perceptions at large. British people believe that almost a quarter of their population is immigrant, while in reality the number of foreign-born people in the UK is about 14%. A large proportion are EU migrants. According to statistics from The Migration Observatory just over half of the 3.6 million EU migrants in Britain hail from countries that entered the Union on and after 2004, which predominantly includes countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Of these, the largest group are the Polish.

The hierarchies of EU whiteness

Among the countries that joined the EU before 2004 are Western European countries including Denmark, Netherlands, Spain and Belgium. In 2004 the EU expanded with the enthusiastic inclusion of Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – all formerly part of the Eastern Bloc. In 2007 the EU further integrated Bulgaria and Romania. More countries wish to join the EU, among them Albania and Georgia. But the more the Eastern neighbours wish to be part of the Union, the lesser the Western countries seem satisfied where their project is heading, even leading to talks about a Swexit, a Swedish EU exit.

The European project is a racial project and one that scholar David Theo Goldberg argues is committed to producing and maintaining Europe as Christian and white. However, within that are also hierarchies that date back further and uphold Western Europe as the cradle of civilisation, Enlightenment and progress, and Eastern Europe as their backward cousin who is on what seems a never-ending journey of catching up with the West. After 1989, with the collapse of Communism, Poland invited Western investment to the degree that economist Thomas Piketty calls it a ‘foreign-owned country’. Yet, as Aleksandra Lewicki points out, the Eastern expansion of the EU did not only benefit the formerly Communist states. Although the 2004 EU accession was framed in a language of bringing back democracy to Eastern Europe, as Lewicki argues: ‘Western European countries were keen to secure their own economic progression by further expanding into novel markets’.

In Western discourse, Poland and other Eastern European countries have often been depicted as homogenous. Indeed, Poland is one of Europe’s most homogenous countries. But as the work of the Polish Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk so masterfully depicts, Poland was once a multi-ethnic and multi-religious place with a diverse population of Christians, Jews and Muslims. The country’s homogeneity is a more recent phenomenon, a consequence of the redrawing of the country’s borders and mass persecution of its minorities by the Nazi regime, most significantly Jews during the Second World War, and later the Communist regime.

Historically, and well before the Cold War split between East and West, the region of Central Eastern Europe was already considered as part of lesser Europe, outside the ideas of Enlightenment – irrational, superstitious and industrially backward. Back in 1824, Leopold Von Ranke who was a German historian said about Central and Eastern Europe:

‘It cannot be maintained that these peoples too belong to the unity of our nation; their customs and constitution have ever separated them from it. In that epoch they exercised no independent influence, but merely appear subordinate or antagonistic.’

German philosopher Hegel had similar thoughts. As Teshale Tibebu argued in his book on Hegel and the Third World, the philosopher considered Slavic people as not having made any significant contribution to world history. As Catholics, he considered them to not have developed a sense of individuality. Hegel said of the Slavs:

‘This entire body of peoples remain excluded from our consideration… it has not appeared as an independent element in the series of phases that Reason has assumed in the world’.

The recent political shift in Central Eastern Europe, perhaps most notably in Hungary and then Poland, has given ample reason for a continuation of a narrative of Western exceptionalism and Eastern backwardness. Despite the fact that the politics of closed borders, keeping out Muslims and maintaining Europe as Christian and white is central in these narratives, the migrants from Central Eastern Europe are, upon entrance to the West, nevertheless racialised as the Other; not quite European, not quite white or not white enough. This translates to feelings of not belonging and actual experiences of racism.

Both victims and perpetrators

In the UK, hate crimes and hate incidents have been defined as occurring across five categories: race, religion, disability, sexuality and transgender identity. In some places, like Manchester, other categories such as sub-cultures are also recognised as hate crimes.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, several hate crimes and incidents targeting Eastern Europeans were recorded. Although hate crime statistics generally have increased yearly since hate was introduced as a category of crime, in July 2016 the numbers rose by over 40% causing people to make links between Brexit and hate crime. Cards with the words ‘No More Polish vermin’ were posted through letterboxes, the Polish Social and Cultural Association in London (POSK) was targeted with graffiti and there were several reported incidents of violent hate crimes towards Poles across the UK. According to studies on hate crime Eastern European migrants experienced predominantly verbal abuse at work, on the street and online. Lincolnshire, where one of the studies took place, has one of the largest EU migrant populations and was also one of the highest Leave voting areas in the UK.

Language is a major theme in the experiences of exclusion among Eastern Europeans. In contrast to French, Spanish or Italian, their languages are not the languages that serve as elective choices in Western school curricula and are not considered as internationally desirable. In my own work, I have interviewed Poles in London, a city with the largest concentration of Eastern European migrants in the country alongside Birmingham, Slough, Leeds and Southampton. There, people talked about feelings of not belonging, a sense of insecurity and fear about their lives as migrants in the UK.

Many expressed that they felt less secure and less welcomed in Britain since 2016. One woman told me that she always ‘looks behind her shoulder’ when speaking Polish on the phone when walking in the street. Another man said that while he always speaks Polish with his British-born kids, he doesn’t think that it is received positively by the British public, in contrast with if he was speaking French. He said that it makes him more aware of people around him when out with his Polish-speaking family and that makes him feel uncomfortable. Several interviewees, often those that reported feeling most integrated and experiencing least racism, have either changed their names entirely or have made their Polish names sound English. One woman was told by her boss that she should not speak her language with the other Eastern Europeans in her workplace, despite the fact that each of them spoke a different Eastern European language and could not possibly communicate with one another in any language other than English.

Sociologist Alina Rzepnikowska from the University of Manchester has mapped experiences of racism among Eastern Europeans before and after Brexit. She discusses how markers of difference such as speaking Polish, having a differently sounding name and clothing that is considered unfashionable, serve to differentiate and racialise Eastern Europeans despite their shared whiteness with those who racially abuse them.

Perhaps the case that made the biggest headlines in the UK and abroad was the death of a Polish man only two months after the Brexit referendum. Arkadiusz Jóźwik died on a night out after being pushed by a teenager and hitting his head on the pavement. It was reported that Arkadiusz was the victim of a racially motivated attack because he spoke Polish, however evidence later emerged that Arkadiusz and his friends were also making racist comments about the teenagers before the attack. While this finding doesn’t undermine the real rise of hate crimes towards Eastern Europeans, it does point to an important aspect of being an immigrant from this part of Europe; the relative ways in which whiteness can be claimed and taken away from those migrants to the UK that occupy that precarious place of being white but not always white enough.

Relative whiteness

Eastern European migrants have been called ‘in between migrants’ by scholars because while they are affected by the hostile environment of immigration policy they are also protected by their whiteness and Europeanness, something which grants them rights that immigrants from outside the EU don’t have access to. On a global scale of border regimes, Eastern Europeans from countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania have been privileged with free movement and the ability to work in the UK while often, but not always, also being read as European and white.

As Akwugo Emejulu has pointed out: ‘It seems some people are only concerned with racism and xenophobia when their own privileged migration status is challenged.’. Indeed, the Guardian and other sections of the liberal press have frequently published stories of distraught white, Western European and often middle-class migrants. An Austrian woman admitted that with Brexit she had made a realisation: ‘now I am the immigrant‘. It is remarkable to think that an immigrant might never have realised that they are one, never felt it from the looks of others, when their names are not only mispronounced but not recognised or when their traditions and food are treated with either suspicion or with an ironic fascination. Having never felt that is a privilege that few immigrants and non-immigrant people of colour can claim experience of.

Post-Brexit, Western EU migrants seem to have noticed racism and claim that they are its victims. While this should, and has been, critiqued, it should also be treated differently to the discrimination that Eastern European EU migrants are experiencing. Not many Central Eastern Europeans can be accused of not noticing that they are immigrants. Often arriving with no money, no connections, no work and no home, the fact that no one could or would bother to pronounce their names was the least of their worries. The Austrian immigrant that shared her story with the Guardian ended her commentary with this: ‘I will pack my suitcase later – for now I am just gobsmacked.’ Because she is the deserving, desirable migrant that Boris Johnson does not want to lose, she can pack her suitcase later.

Other immigrants might not have the opportunity to pack any bags but instead be put on a charter flight ‘back’ to a place they might not even call home. As Luke de Noronha writes in his research on deportations, borders are not for white people, and so they feel ‘betrayed’ and ‘offended’. But as de Noronha also notes, Eastern Europeans occupy a more hybrid space of in-betweenness. They are not quite white enough to feel offended by Brexit and increasingly hostile border regimes but privileged enough to have time to pack their own bags and be granted indefinite leave to remain.

When Boris Johnson suggested that EU migrants treat the UK as their own country, it seems that he targeted the wrong kind of immigrants. The ones that he really wants out, the ones who do not qualify for an acceptable Europeanness, are those who already do not feel at home here despite their relative privileges. With their daily lives precarious and their futures uncertain, Eastern European migrants already know that their presence in the UK is not welcome and their existence here remains as it has always been: precarious.

Kasia Narkowicz is a lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Gloucestershire. She works on issues of racism and Islamophobia in Europe. Kasia has published on the rise of Islamophobia in Poland and is currently researching the experiences of racism by Poles in the UK.