American Europe/European America

Primary Source : New Europe – Europe and Migration, October 23, 2015

Some thoughts on adjectives, citizenship and the future. Content warning: This may ramble.

There was an interesting two-page spread in the Feuilleton section of Die Zeit earlier this month (October 8, 2005). On the left-hand side was a full-page essay by Etienne Balibar, a well-known French philosopher. On the right was an interview conducted by two ZEIT reporters with three refugees currently living in Germany: Larry Macauly, Kefah Ali Deeb and Hassan Oneizan.

The title of the interview on the right caught my eye: “Germany will become more American.” In context, the two interviewers from Die Zeit had just posed the question to the refugees as to how German identity would be changed through immigration.  Oneizan, a Syrian poet and scholar of English literature, asserted “Germany will become more American. It has become the strongest power in Europe, the center of the EU and secures its [the EU’s] cohesion.” Oneizan thus compares Germany and the US not just on the basis of racial diversity, but also their powerful political positions which allow both countries significant leverage in developing international foreign policy.

Balibar’s essay, “The Moment of Truth,” is primarily concerned with European solidarity and cohesion. In this essay, he proposes that Europe, like the United States, should make ius soli (birthright citizenship) the corner of Europe’s integration and refugee politics – and even perhaps develop an option for transnational citizenship, making the European Union look a bit more like a United States of Europe. Ius soli is not under American patent: many countries use ius soli as their foundation for citizenship; German citizenship reforms in 2000 also use ius soli as a partial foundation for citizenship, although children born in Germany to immigrant parents must apply for citizenship, it is not simply granted to them at birth. Birthright citizenship has come under strange criticism in the United States since Barack Obama began running for president. Donald Trump – who else? – garnered ridiculous amounts of press attention when he started insisting that he doubted the sincerity of Obama’s citizenship.

Between these two articles, three elements of American political culture – diversity, hegemony, and birthright citizenship – are proposed as possible futures for Germany and the EU. All three of these ideas are coming under fire from a variety of right-wing movements in both places.

My Twitter feed updates by the minute, tabulating the number of criminal offenses against asylum seekers; issuing reports on PEGIDA and its counterdemonstrations; and shocking me with bombastic political rhetoric about transit zones, border patrols and fences. Just as the favored method of right-wing terror in Germany today seems to be arson, some American journalists are arguing that a series of arson attacks against black churches and abortion clinics in the US should be classified as acts of right-wing domestic terrorism.  Viktor Orbán has his fence; Donald Trump wants a wall (with a door). The rhetoric of PEGIDA bares the same essential white supremacist attitudes and identities as the American right-wing: undereducated, male, Christian (although with different inflections in each location), Islamophobic, xenophobic and antagonistic to their respective sitting heads of state, respectively. PEGIDA even uses the hashtag #IMErika to reflect, if I’ve understood this correctly, their view of Merkel as spy (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter) for the East German secret police. If American political power and citizenship should or will be emulated, it is worth noting that these structures exist stateside alongside growing right-wing extremism and religious fundamentalism.

Although he proposes the idea of transnational citizenship within the EU, Balibar worries in his essay that this cannot succeed in bringing Europe together to solve a shared set of goals. Transnational nationalism (my own odd formulation), however, has – as Balibar notes – successfully united the various right-wing factions across Europe in a way that solidarity never could. The SVP in Switzerland, Marine LePen in France, and PEGIDA/Bachmann in Germany mobilize around a set of core issues and share the same fear mongering tactics to win support. This ZDF-TV documentary called “Powderkeg Germany” has some amazing footage of the Markus Wiener (Pro-NRW) and the Dutch Vlaams Belang politicians meeting to discuss using the same imagery on campaign posters: there seems to be a business in parties paying for the rights to circulate shared polemic imagery. This kind of “deal” creates homogenized rhetoric, making it more likely that right-wing parties across Europe will be “on message” rather than develop local particularities. As certain state governments in the US decide to pass laws against Sharia law (what?!), which is hardly a threat to the American political system, the right-wing message becomes more and more cohesive across the Atlantic.

At the same time, Texas is one place becoming more “European” in its approach to citizenship – if we think of traditional European national citizenship as being defined by blood lines and ethnic identity. (That the myth of bloodline citizenship persists despite the fact that material and legal realities look different for Europeans of color has been expertly analyzed by Fatima El-Tayeb in her book European Others). In Texas, there is currently an intense legal battle being fought by the parents of Americans who have been denied birth certificates because they could not provide “proper” documentation at the time of their children’s birth. This case seems to hinge on the role of the Mexican matrículo being accepted as a reliable form of identification by Texas hospitals. The refusal to issue birth certificates, however, openly flaunts established practices and laws which guarantee American birthright citizenship. It also further infringes upon the rights these American children have to essential services like simply attending school or receiving medical care. That this is happening in Texas, a state notorious for its racism and conservativism, is unsurprising.

Giving this phenomenon the moniker “European” citizenship is one way to underscore the racial undertones of the Texas debate. In the US, Native American Indians are entitled to two kinds of citizenship: the tribal passports of their indigenous nation as well as an American passport. White Americans of European descent, however, are seen as the primary holders of American citizenship. If Barack Obama had been white, I suspect that the birther movement would have had difficulty gaining traction. The American passport/birth certificate in and of itself thus bears legacy to a history of white European settler colonization, which incorporated national(ist) ideas originating in Europe. The group of parents targeted in Texas is primarily Mexican and undocumented. The confusion about issuing birth certificates in Texas is thus racially motivated by white – and tangentially – European ideas about nation and citizenship.

Given this shared history, it is contradictory to see a right-wing in Germany that shares many of these historical roots, but which simultaneously positions itself against the US as a world power, as PEGIDA does. But that is also one of the more interesting facets of contemporary right-wing ideology: despite shared rhetoric and the transnational networking of EU right-wing groups within Europe, as well as shared methods of terrorism across the Atlantic, the political goals of EU/US groups remain partially separate and antagonistic towards each other’s success.

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Johanna Schuster-Craig
Johanna Schuster-Craig : In Europe, Scandinavia and the United States, right-wing movements of all shapes and sizes are voicing political opinions that both garner public support as well as unleash xenophobia, racism and resentments against the political elite. Many are grounded in fundamentally religious ideologies. I post about a variety of topics that have to do with understanding right-wing movements, especially when these intersect with immigration, refugee, integration politics and US/Europe comparisons. I am currently an Assistant Professor of German and Global Studies at Michigan State University.
Johanna Schuster-Craig

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