Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

The Internal Contradictions of E.U. Identity Construction

There’s been a flap this week about an ad produced by the European Commission touting the benefits of E.U. enlargement. Watch:

The video draws on the martial arts film genre, and shows a woman wearing a Beatrix Kiddo-esque yellow jumpsuit walking into an abandoned warehouse and being challenged by a Chinese man practicing Kung Fu, an Indian Kalaripayattu practitioner with a sword, and a black man performing Capoeira. The woman stretches out her arms and clones herself multiple times until the men are surrounded. All then sit cross-legged, and as the camera pans up to a bird’s-eye-view of the scene, the yellow-clad women morph into the stars of the E.U. flag. The English caption then reads “The more we are, the stronger we are.”

The spot was quickly pulled amid complaints of racism. And it’s pretty hard to escape such complaints when the core dramatic tension of the piece involves dark-skinned men threatening violence against a white woman. Stefano Sannino issued a statement for the E.C. calling the piece “a viral clip targeting, through social networks and new media, a young audience (16-24) who understand the plots and themes of martial arts films and video games,” adding that it “ended with all characters showing their mutual respect, concluding in a position of peace and harmony.” Fair enough I suppose, but you’d think someone somewhere in the course of development might have realized that anyone who doesn’t watch a lot of martial arts flicks would take a very different message from the video.

In any case, the ad, and the controversy over it, lays bare some of the internal contradictions faced by the E.U. in developing strong psychological attachment among constituent citizens. Scholars of historical nation-building have long noted the important role that oppositional narratives play in constructing and cementing national identities. External threats make great foils to cement in-group solidarity (consider the words of the Marseillaise: “Do you hear in the countryside/ the roar of these ferocious soldiers?/ They’re coming right into your arms/ to cut the throats of your sons and women!”). Internal ones are even better (Huguenots in France, Catholics in Britain, Jews pretty much everywhere in Europe). This video manages to hit both targets.

People familiar with martial arts will note that the styles presented have origins in some of Europe’s major up-and-coming economic competitors – Kung Fu from China, Kalaripayattu from India, Capoeira from Brazil. So the E.U. gets presented as the crucial bulwark against the rising power of the BRICs. Closer to home, the spot works as a narrative of immigrant threat. The Kalaripayattu master is in traditional Indian dress, but the turban, beard and scimitar-like sword play to orientalist caricatures of the Arab, and the Capoeira practitioner presents African immigrants in a fairly menacing light. The European Union: Intimidating people of color since 1992.

What’s interesting here is that European officials, with their attempted emphasis on multicultural inclusion and dreams of a post-national polity, don’t generally appeal to “Europe” as a bastion of socio-cultural protectionism. Some controversial events have created pan-European discursive spaces on their own – I’m thinking in particular of the Danish Cartoon Crisis of 2005-2006 and cultural fault lines it highlighted – but E.U. elites usually haven’t taken the lead in building constituent identity through othering, effective though the strategy may be. And, indeed, the post-national values that the E.U. is supposed to embody probably make that strategy difficult; it’s hard to transcend tribalism using tribalism. And so the E.C. pulled the spot, though not before the controversy gave it plenty of “viral” publicity.

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  1. Your continued interest in “identity construction” might yet lead you to wisdom; in particular, about what is going on in Europe, and “the price of putting an Islamic crescent in the diversity quilt”: