Latex-Clad Princess or Syrian Nurse? What Europe after the Pandemic?

Łukasz Moll

There are many reasons to include Europe on the list of coronavirus victims. We do not yet know whether it will be as a fatality, or if it will join the ranks of survivors after it runs its crippling course. There are those who claim that she has been on a ventilator since at least the economic crisis of 2008. She is suffering from a lack of internal solidarity, combined with an inhospitable attitude towards all those who are denied the opportunity to become European. Competition to buy protective equipment, followed by a lack of political willingness to pool the debts of the Eurozone countries, may add further chapters to the chronicle of the disintegration of the European Union. At this time of Brexit and the growing support for right-wing sovereignists, from Italy to Hungary, such steps may convince the patient to make the desperate decision to terminate the treatment, as it has often been worse than the disease itself. There is a real risk that the next round of budget cut policies, applied to deal with the recession we have just entered, could prove deadly for Europe. The high priests of neoliberalism would then probably call the operation a success, except for one minor complication—the patient failed to survive. There is no shortage of visions and demands to quarantine Europe from the virus of neoliberalism. Intellectuals were the first to voice them. One manifesto—titled, incidentally, Patient Europe—calls for European solidarity to save democracy, the economy and integration [1]. The open letter Work: Democratize, Decommodify, Remediate proclaims the need to redefine work as a good that is irreducible to resource or commodity [2]. There is a hopeful expectation that the coronavirus will make everyone, including the political elite as well as common citizens, aware of the need for closer European integration. That if the patient wins the battle and finally comes off the ventilator, she will start to breathe fully, and now with both lungs—if the first one is the common market and currency, the other would be a social and environmental union.

‘More Europe!’ is less than enough

We have grown used to seeing Europe’s post-war history as the realization of the almost metaphysical task of unifying parts once brutally separated but intricately intertwined by fate, overcoming temporary difficulties to recover their lost wholeness. From Robert Schuman, Alexandre Kojève and Denis de Rougemont to Bronisław Geremek, Krzysztof Pomian and Jürgen Habermas [3], European ideologists have provided a variety of stories about how Europe, divided by national, religious or ideological particularisms, thrives on its contradictions, aiming for its final goal. The destination of this journey was seen as reconstruction of the medieval Christianitas or the République des Lettres of the Enlightenment, but on a new, more perfect and rational basis. The current crisis will surely increase the demand for forecasts of this kind. The answer to the damage caused by the coronavirus might simply be ‘More Europe!’

But before we rush to subscribe to this view, a dose of caution may be essential. Today more than ever, zealous Europeanism strikes me as very naive, even with the loftiest of motivations. Europeanism has become a secular religion, too often blinding its adherents to glaring facts. The facts are that, in practice, European integration cannot work without a considerable amount of disintegration, nor its unification without the demarcation and consolidation of new boundaries. Fractures between creditor states versus debtor states, EU citizens versus illegal denizens, or uprooted cosmopolitan globalists versus the necessarily marginalized localists of the peripheries are only the most tangible symptoms of the polarising tendencies being reinforced by Europeanisation. Outrageous expressions of these symptoms include the PIIGS or GIIPS discourses, the plights of shipwreck victims on the Mediterranean, and the criminalisation of ‘crimes of solidarity’, or actions taken to prevent those dramas from unfolding. Before we end up proposing a single Europe as a solution to our problems, Europe itself must be seen as a problem to be solved.

The perils of sanitary discourse

Long before the coronavirus era, philosophers of Europeanness suggested that the continent be treated in terms of ‘autoimmunity’, so it seems worthwhile juxtaposing the analyses of the course and long-term effects of the pandemic with the reflections of these theorists. Roberto Esposito [4], Étienne Balibar [5], Roberto M. Dainotto [6] and numerous others have tried to demonstrate that the concept of Europe as a nascent, increasingly coordinated political organism cannot continue without the side-effect of a growing obsession with order and cleanness. The issue of ‘Europe’s immunity’ to the viruses of jihadism, terrorism, uncontrolled immigration, communism, Euroleftism, ecologism, gender theory, LGBT or the ‘civilization of death’ is not the exclusive domain of the extreme right, it also permeatesmainstream politics. The ease with which this happens should not be reduced to how efficiently these discourses goviral and infect communication networks. It also has a lot to do with the endurance of sanitary imagery that has historically grown into the idea of Europe.

Modern Europe has been struggling with its intruders, Orientals, barbarians, heretics, ‘second class’ Europeans and so on for a long time. Researchers into the field of European identity observe that it depends on the designation of a ‘constitutive outside’ and, what is even more worrying, this process is currently manifested by the return of the seemingly archaic and once abandoned category of ‘anthropological differences’ [7].

In this way, the Other is subject to ‘racialization’, and not necessarily on the basis of skin colour or biology. Cultural differences, such as the fact of being influenced by Islam or lacking the ‘proper’ work ethic—anything can be a good criterion for delimitating ‘Europeanness’. The process of the stigmatization and rejection of the Other generates special pressure in peripheral countries, who are aware of how easy it may be to end up on the wrong side of the line. Hence the supposedly ‘native’ racism of Eastern Europeans is more a result of a discursive game initiated by the European centre. In this game, as József Böröcz and Mahua Sarkar note [8], Poles and Hungarians, along with their politicians, are aware of the capital that ‘whiteness’ constitutes. Particularly in emigration, this capital helps one to be distinguished from those who occupy the lower segments of the labour market and the worse neighbourhoods: Pakistanis, Somalians or Syrians. The latter, as Achille Mbembe argues [9], become the shifting physical borders of Europe—an African’s skin, his or her biometric material, serves to draw new lines of exclusion.

Consequently, the paradox is that Europe, which, according to its apologists, was meant to overcome exclusionary—racist, xenophobic, identarian—attitudes, is doing nothing to dismantle these borders, but is stimulating their revival in new, extremely glaring and disturbing forms. The coronavirus that came from China, which spreads through the networks globalisation has created—airports, supply chains, migration—fits and strengthens the sanitary discourse ofEurope as a besieged fortress all too easily.

Exorcising slumbering demons

Alas, it must be conceded that Europe’s immunity to racism is clearly overestimated. In this respect, the history of the European idea teaches us about its structural dependence on the fear of the exterior breaking in. This dependency can already be seen in the ancient myth of Princess Europa abducted (in some versions: raped) by Zeus. It manifests itself in the Europe/Orient dichotomy, which dates back to the Greco-Persian wars and has significantly contributed to the construction of modern European identity [10]. Subsequently, we find it in the first use of the term Europeans, the origins of which are closely linked to the spread of Islam [11]. Finally, the list ends with a sort of ‘continentalization’ of Europe, an array of processes such as the conquest of the New World, the expulsion of Moors and Jews from Spain, the Christianisation of pagans in the East, the cessation of the Viking raids and the consolidation of a bulwark against steppe nomads [12]. Modern Europe has emerged by defending and purging itself of what is different. It is no accident that the European discourse was so easily hijacked by supporters of the Holy Alliance (referred to as ‘all powers of old Europe’ in Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto), colonizers believing in the ‘white man’s burden’, and even the Nazis with their Neue Europa project.

The European Union was meant to be a political and economic vaccine against awakening demons. They were to be stopped by a quest for peace and shared prosperity. From the beginning, however, the pursuit of this goal had fragile foundations, as the integration structures never questioned the autoimmune character of Europe. It was latent when the post-war reconstruction and first communities developed under American tutelage, and the problem of the exterior was temporarily ‘solved’ by the existence of the Iron Curtain and the Eastern Bloc. However, when the fall of the Berlin Wall initiated a new stage of the integration, things happened exactly as Jacques Derrida warned: the discourse about the return of the post-communist countries to Europe was an apparent opening that obscured the formation of a new Holy Alliance [13]. In the enthusiasm that accompanied the merger of the two halves of the continent separated by the turmoil of history, the question of European borders was not given due consideration. What was missed out was not so much where the borders should be—we have witnessed incessant debates on who is to be admitted, and when—but how they should be.

Your skin is the new Lampedusa

The borders are undergoing dynamic transformations. These cannot be encapsulated in simplistic narratives of either ‘a flat world without barriers’ or ‘new walls’. Although superficial observation does indeed note the drift of border crossings and controls in one place, and the growth of new fortifications and forms of control elsewhere, modern circulation regimes are much more complex and sophisticated. Their focus is on life management—strengthening certain flows, and selecting, modulating or extinguishing others [14]. The coronavirus pandemic may make their operations more readily visible.

During the recent emergency lockdowns of states and economies, Europeans had first-hand and tangible experience of the operations of various elements of circulation regimes, many of which never used to generally bother them. Living in forced isolation, having civil rights restricted, and dealing with ingenious and flexible technologies of control—all this is the daily bread of those whose mobility Europe is trying to carefully control, even after the pandemic. Paul B. Preciado put it bluntly:

The new necropolitical frontier has shifted from the coast of Greece toward the door of your home. Lesbos now starts at your doorstep. And the border is forever tightening around you, pushing you ever closer to your body. Calais blows up in your face. The new frontier is the mask. The air that you breathe has to be yours alone. The new frontier is your epidermis. The new Lampedusa is your skin. For years, we considered migrants and refugees infectious to the community and placed them in detention centers—political limbos where they remained without rights and without citizenship; perpetual waiting rooms. Now we are living in detention centers in our own homes [15].

There is, of course, a risk that the biopolitics employed to stop the spread of the coronavirus will further consolidate the biopolitics of human migration after the pandemic, giving it political legitimacy and better technological tools. If the untamed movement of human bodies—the ‘sowers of pestilence’—has proven to be a source of danger, this desire for safety, which the Leviathan was meant guarantee, might grow even stronger [16]. This will then be accompanied by a new post-pandemic racism, the seeds of which we are already observing. It targets not only ‘strangers’, but also the ‘strangers among us’. Instances of ordinary citizens’ animosity towards nurses who have had contact with infected persons, miners from infected Silesian mines, or truck drivers crossing borders justify the suspicion that one mental repercussion of the coronavirus will be increased resentment towards ‘loose’ people, which is known to typically follow large-scale epidemics. It will not exclusively affect groups that have been traditionally stigmatised in such circumstances—migrants, homeless, beggars or the Roma people—but is likely to have spread further, affecting those workers who are not privileged to be able to resign from hired work and are thrown to the front lines of the battle against the virus.

But this does need not be the case. In spite of the ‘spectacle of sovereignty’—imposed decrees, ministerial press conferences and closed international borders—the last few weeks have made it clear that all those political acts would not be to much avail without the dedication of the many groups who kept social reproduction going. Mass-scale isolation in homes would be impossible were it not for the circulation of protective measures, caring work or necessary products in the spaces where the virus was circulating. The flip side of the #stayathome campaign was a certain amount of openness and mobility, which sustained the necessary exchange of fluids within Europe’s body politic. Due to the key roles of migrants in many European countries—for example, migrant women in caring for the elderly—Europe’s dependence on its exterior is coming to the fore. This provides an opportunity to dismantle the sanitary narrative of Europe.

Europe needs by-passes

Before it found expression in rationalised cartography, the ‘continentalization’ of Europe took the visual form of a queen, as in the popular fourteenth-century Europa regina maps. Sovereign over seas and oceans, unified into one body—most frequently, as a symbol of imperial aspirations—the image clearly alluded to the mythical Princess Europa [17].

Figure 1. Europa by Frans Hogenberg

Actually, apart from their superficial similarities, the two characters have little in common. The ancient Europa was a nomad who set off, riding Zeus, who had been turned into a bull, from some seaside site in today’s Syria or Lebanon, to reach the island of Crete. It is difficult to find similarities in her fate to Europe the queen, placing herself in the centre of the world and wanting to control it. The former might be better suited to be patroness of the present-day refugees crossing the same waters, hoping to reach the continent bearing her name.

Figure 2. The Rape of Europa by Valentin Serov

The theme of Queen Europe, ‘the world’s number one’, perfectly served expansionist tendencies, but also paranoid fears of what lay outside. Europe the queen was portrayed in an entourage of servants bringing treasures from faraway lands. At the same time, her image was a virginal one: she was constantly threatened by an uncivilized world, at risk of being raped again.

Figure 3. Like a succubus, Africa weighs on the repose of Europe. Le Rire magazine

Europe the vulnerable was also a perfect fit for seemingly contradictory nationalistic discourses: Britannia, Marianne and Germania functioned as her national incarnations. In recent years, the motif of the virgin Europe penetrated by intruders has been utilised by Islamophobic groups trying to depict Muslim refugees as rapists.

A cover of the wSieci weekly warned against an ‘Islamic rape of Europe’: a young woman, dressed in the EU flag is being shoved and stripped by perpetrators’ swarthy hands (Fig. 4). The voluminous collection of visual representations of the European idea that is Michael Wintle’s book The Image of Europe shows that this Polish cover is consistent with a long tradition of images of the princess’ rape or abduction. All too often, Europe has been presented in works of art, propaganda, satire or pop culture as victimised by foreign forces—not only Muslims and ‘savages’, but also American consumerism, Soviet communism or even the bureaucracy of Brussels. On the other hand, an equally widespread opposite tendency consists in holding Europe to blame for her abduction. This is not necessarily in the sense of the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ or, even worse, a hidden desire to be raped. Europe as a perky rider of the bull, controlling her fate, confidently heading towards the horizon, as in the picture by Valentin Serov (Fig. 2), is presently juxtaposed with images of refugee boats, deceptively reminiscent of her own peregrinations. The best known literary version of the myth of the princess, a poem by Moschos, pictures a Europe dreaming of two lands, one close by and one far away, which take on feminine forms and try to pull Europe from the other’s hands. This encounter with a foreign woman arouses Europe’s desire to travel and carries (‘abducts’) her away to the West. Hence some philosophers, such as Denis Guénoun, suggest we should not think about Europe in terms of a land, a civilisation or a continent (which it is not, in a strict geographic sense), but to see it as an isthmus between seas, a bridge or a terminal [18]. Not accidentally, the strait historically seen as separating the European continent from Asia is called the Bosphorus, which literally means ‘cow’s passage’ (from bous – cow and poros – passage).

Figure 4. A cover of wSieci

The pandemic will probably add further chapters to the saga of these two contradictory images of Europe. There is a danger that the narrative of rape and the imperative to defend the threatened virgin will develop into a princess clad in latex, protective mask and gloves, who sees the Other primarily as a pathogen—remember that, even before the pandemic, Jarosław Kaczyński accused refugees of carrying germs. The cynical European migration policy is based on ritual appeals to limit the influx of people and strengthen the external borders, though in reality, migrants are essential to Europe’s politically defective subjects and sellers of cheap labour at a bargain price—Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson described this manoeuvre as ‘inclusion through differentiation’ [19]. As if it were not enough that migrant workers do the dirty work, they are also to be blamed for all the evils of this world.

The cynicism of xenophobic politicians was brilliantly captured by British Labour Party veteran Dennis Skinner, now eighty-eight years old, who shouted at a representative of the United Kingdom Independence Party during a parliamentary address: ‘I’ve got a United Nations heart bypass… and it was done by a Syrian cardiologist, a Malaysian surgeon, a Dutch doctor and a Nigerian registrar…’ [20].

It seems that for large segments of society, the pandemic has, at least temporarily, brought an increased recognition of their reproductive work. If it is to be more than a carnivalesque reversal of normality and become an enduring basis for economic reconstruction, with care for others and the environment at its heart, we must not forget to equip that heart with bypasses against post-pandemic racism. If Europe is a patient, her full recovery means she needs nurses, including Syrian ones.

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[1] Europe, a patient:. e need economic solidarity to save the community from coronavirus’, YouMove.

[2] Work: Democratize, Decommodify, Remediate, transl. Miranda Richmond Mouillot .

[3] Denis de Rougemont, The Idea of Europe, transl.Norbert Guterman, Cleveland and New York: Meridean Books, 1968; Bronisław Geremek, Nasza Europa, od. Izabella Sariusz-Skąpska, Fundacja Centrum im. prof. Bronisława Geremka, Krakóo: Towarzystwo Autorów i Wydawców Prac Naukowych ‘„Universitas”’ 2012; Jürgen Habermas, The Crisis of the European Union:.  Response, transl.Ciaran Cronin, Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 2012; Krzysztof Pomian, L’Europe et ses nations, Paris: Gallimard, 1990.

[4] Roberto Esposito, A Philosophy for Europe. From the Outside, transl.Zakiya Hanafi, Cambridge and Medford: Polity Press, 2018.

[5] Étienne Balibar, We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, transl.James Swenson, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004.

[6] Roberto M. Dainotto, Europe (In Theory), Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007.

[7] Marc Crépon, Altérités de l’Europe, Paris: Galilée, 2006.

[8] József Böröcz, Mahua Sarkar, ‘The unbearable whiteness of the Polish plumber and the hungarianpeacock dance around “race”,’, lavic Review 2017, vol. 76, no. 2, pp. 307–14.

[9] Achille Mbembe, ‘Vu d’Europe, l’Afrique n’est qu’un grand Bantoustan’, Jeune Afrique 2018, no. 3,024.

[10] Peter Burke, ‘Did Europe Exist Before 1700?’, History of European Ideas 1980, vol. 1.

[11] Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Europe, Oxford: Malden and Carlton, 2003, p. 27.

[12] Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe. Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950–1350, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994; Michel Mollat du Jourdin, Europe and the Sea, transl.Teresa Lavender Fagan, Oxford UK and Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1993; Tzvetan Todorov, Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, transl.Richard Howard, New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

[13] Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe, transl.Pascale-Anne Brault, Michael Naas, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

[14] Nick Vaughan-Williams, Europe’s Border Crisis: Biopolitical Security and Beyond, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

[15] Paul B. Preciado, ‘Learning from the Virus’, Artforum 2020, vol. 58, no. 9.

[16] Giorgio Agamben, ‘The state of exception provoked by an unmotivated emergency’, in: Positions, February 27, 2020.

[17] Michael Wintle, The Image of Europe:.Visualizing Europe in Cartography and Iconography throughout the Ages, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[18] Denis Guénoun, About Europe:.Philosophical Hypotheses, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013, pp. 21–22.

[19] Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or:,the Multiplication of Labor, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013.

[20]  ‘Veteran MP Dennis Skinner slams Ukip’s new MP’, Channel 4 News, November 21, 2014.