The 2010s were characterised by rising Euroscepticism, with anti-EU voices gaining more power (and votes) and, of course, Brexit. Analysing different conceptualisations of cosmopolitanism, E&M‘s Jonas Fleega examines how this change came about and how it can be countered. 

I moved to London in September 2015. Cameron had just won a majority and the EU referendum was a distant prospect. At the time of writing this article, Boris Johnson has won a large majority and Brexit is a certainty. What has changed? Did we witness a revolt against Theresa May’s ‘citizen of nowhere’? Have identity and culture replaced class as the new cleavage in Western democracies? To develop an effective counter-narrative against populist anti-Europeanism, and to prevent a repeat of Brexit elsewhere in Europe, we need to understand the charge being brought against the EU that is centred around opposition to multiculturalism.

Citizens of nowhere

The cultural schism visible across the Western world is best encapsulated by Theresa May’s likening of ‘citizens of the world’ to ‘citizens of nowhere’. This attack on the ‘urban, cosmopolitan elite’ was her opening salvo in an increasingly polarised clash of identities. Such a backlash against cosmopolitanism is visible throughout Europe, from the AfD in Germany (“Globale Elite”) to Orban in Hungary (“the elite of 68’”). Opponents of cosmopolitanism, however, have never truly defined what this ‘citizen of nowhere’, this ‘Weltbürger’ really is. Instead, it has been a blank canvas for people to project their frustrations and anger onto. If anything, it has been defined negatively. The urban elite is not patriotic, not hardworking and has no values. The only positive descriptions have been mockeries – the stereotypical latte-macchiato-drinking, avocado-toast-eating bearded hipster sitting in a coffee shop. This makes defining the term citizen of nowhere difficult.

A starting point is cosmopolitanism, deriving from the Greek ‘kosmopolitēs’ (‘citizen of the world’). Kant was one of the earliest proponents of cosmopolitan identity, predicting the formation of a ‘league of nations’ some 300 years before the establishment of the EU. Whilst his reasoning for this was that states would need to delegate power to supranational institutions to prevent endless conflict, it coincided with his moral cosmopolitanism which viewed all humans as ‘ends in themselves’. Only through the establishment of global cosmopolitan law to administer justice and a universal civil society, Kant argued, can humans truly fulfil their potential. The idea of cosmopolitanism was picked up by various thinkers throughout the ages, ranging from Marx (‘Workers of the World, Unite!’) to Adam Smith’s economic cosmopolitanism. To truly understand the various forms of a ‘citizen of nowhere’, however, one needs to analyse cosmopolitanism from a contemporary perspective.

Passport – the presumed favourite accessory of the ‘citizens of nowhere’? | Picture: Agus Dietrich (Unsplash) | Licence: Unsplash licence

Economic cosmopolitanism

Economic cosmopolitanism is encapsulated by the spread of globalisation and the increasing interconnectedness of global markets. It is no coincidence that the Brexit vote was driven by the ‘left behind’ areas who had lost out from deindustrialisation and the neoliberal shift towards a service economy. The correlation between education levels and the Brexit vote illustrates this divide. In this conception, citizens of nowhere are economic nomads – footloose, well-educated, and employed in the service sector. It is often said that the traditional class boundaries no longer exist. This is not because some new coalitions have formed, but because the working class has been decimated by underemployment. People no longer compete for jobs locally, but globally, with migration as a driving force.

The battle against this type of cosmopolitanism has been lost. When people demonise economic migrants, they do so through their smartphones assembled in China and designed in California or Seoul. The food they eat is imported from Spain and prepared using equipment made in Germany. This helplessness against the all-encompassing force of globalised markets directs anger towards the second type of cosmopolitanism: multiculturalism.

Cultural cosmopolitanism

Multiculturalism, in its basic form, rejects the attachment to one particular culture. The rise of intersectional identities, not least due to an increasingly diverse national population, has contributed to the perceived decline of a ‘pure’ form of national identity, be it British, French or German. The urban cultural melting pots symbolise this phenomenon. People who do not identify along national boundaries are viewed with suspicion and increasingly agglomerate in metropolises such as London, Berlin or Paris. Migrants are accused of not properly integrating, with 4 out of 10 Brits believing that multiculturalism undermines British culture. Politicians have used this sentiment to their advantage. Even the ‘open’ politics of the Cameron era espoused (often symbolic) immigration quotas and rejected mandatory refugee quotas.

What used to be a fear of communism in the Cold War era, exemplified by the ‘Cold Warriors’, is now the fear of falling behind and the emergence of ‘Culture Warriors’.

It does not matter that for most multiculturalism is not a choice. I grew up in Germany and Spain, have lived in London for 5 years and have a partially Arabic background. I would be hard-pressed to fully identify with one culture. Nor does it matter that migrants contribute to the nation’s economy. Multiculturalism has become a scapegoat for the ills of economic inequality and the emergence of two-speed systems. I do not believe that Brexiteers are racist. The truth is more nuanced. Politicians have skilfully instrumentalised the fear of the ‘other’ and linked it to economic inequality caused by globalisation. What used to be a fear of communism in the Cold War era, exemplified by the ‘Cold Warriors’, is now the fear of falling behind and the emergence of ‘Culture Warriors’. What used to be a war against the USSR has become a war against ‘political cosmopolitanism’ – the EU.

Political cosmopolitanism

Pro-EU protest. | Picture: Ed Everett (Flickr) | Licence: CC BY 2.0

Political cosmopolitanism has various manifestations, one of which is the belief that the existence of a cosmopolitan population warrants the establishment of a cosmopolitan form of government. The EU exemplifies this, especially among those scholars who view the EU in the long run as the development of a federal state for an emerging European ‘demos’. Whilst the desire for a federal European super state is relegated to a minority of enthusiastic EU supporters, the idea of ‘ever closer union’ is enshrined in the treaties and has functional merits in the context of climate change, for instance.

For the opponents of the EU it is seen as a cultural project rather than a functional one. It is equated with the ‘cosmopolitan class’ that supports it most fervently – a union initiated to further economic cosmopolitanism and developed to harbour cultural cosmopolitanism. The Brexit referendum illustrates this. The Leave campaign fostered cultural opposition by engendering fear towards the supposed accession of Turkey and a stream of refugees that would flood into Britain. The culture warriors managed to equate the EU with a ‘snobbish’ form of multiculturalism and have rallied those left behind by it. Interestingly, the opposition of anti-EU populists to any sort of functional reform of the EU to tackle inequality (by completing the fiscal union, for instance) maintains the motivation of their base.

Creating an effective counter-narrative

A key insight from the Brexit drama is the need for an effective counter-narrative. The Remain campaign gave mostly functional arguments in support of the EU. The economic cost of Brexit was often highlighted in an implicit defence of the benefit of economic cosmopolitanism. We can now see that this approach gravely missed the point. A defence of economic cosmopolitanism in response to an attack on cultural cosmopolitanism is ineffective. Voters do not care much about the economic costs of leaving. A convincing counter-narrative must tackle the charge being brought against the cosmopolitan class – namely the alleged dilution of national identity. Johnson does not argue against free trade and globalisation, but against a globalisation of politics and culture. Throughout Europe, the conversation has shifted towards culture and identity.

A European citizenry needs to develop with a common cultural narrative and goal. The fight for the survival of the EU and all its benefits has become a cultural one and it is time we understood it as such.

A new form of pro-Europeanism needs to be created. Not one only appealing to those who call themselves Europeans first but one which appeals to those ‘citizens of somewhere’ who don’t. A functional defence of the EU has not and will not continue to work when facing a cultural attack. Therefore, even those who are content with the EU in a functional sense but do not want a European super state need to develop a cultural narrative in favour of the EU. The EU needs to go beyond rebranding itself as a champion of green policies, which mostly appeals to those who already support the EU, and highlight its moral cosmopolitanism which safeguards the intrinsic value of all EU citizens. A European citizenry needs to develop with a common cultural narrative and goal. The fight for the survival of the EU and all its benefits has become a cultural one and it is time we understood it as such.

Cover Photo: Michael Gaida (Pixabay), Pixabay Licence

  • Jonas Fleega is half Iraqi and half German, grew up in Southern Spain and has lived in London for the past 5 years. Having started off with an undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Jonas is now studying for an MSc in Political Economy of Europe. His interests lie in the intersection between culture, politics and economics applied to a European context. He is particularly interested in populist threats to the EU and how to navigate the increasingly uncertain political landscape of Europe. In his free time, Jonas likes to travel, eat and visit his 9 dogs in Spain.

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