The current crisis of Europe: Refugees, colonialism, and the limits of cosmopolitanism

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
AuthorGurminder K. Bhambra
The current crisis of Europe: Refugees, colonialism,
and the limits of cosmopolitanism
Gurminder K. Bhambra*
Cosmopolitan Europe,the normative commitment that is widely understood to undergird the project of the Euro-
pean Union, is under threat as never before. This is manifest perhaps most prominently in Europe's collective fail-
ure to respond to the refugee crisis. As people flee war and destruction, we, in Europe, debate whether now is the
time to give up on our human rights commitments. France is under a state of emergency and the UK in the process
of withdrawing from the European Union and its associated institutions (including the European Convention on
Human Rights). Voices have been raised against the burdens, financial and social, placed upon us by those we
see as Other, with few public voices calling for Europe to remember its traditions of hospitality and stated com-
mitments to human rights. In this article, I discuss the growing distance between the claimsand practices of Euro-
pean cosmopolitanism, its roots in our shared colonial past, and the implications for the future.
The crisis that faces us most starkly in the daily reports of the media is that of refugees fleeing war, persecution, and
the devastating destruction of their homes and homelands. While the conflict in Syria continues to be the biggest
driver of people moving, ongoing violence in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq, and serious abuses in Eritrea, are also caus-
ing people to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. While many people would argue that any invocation of cri-
sisshould refer to those fleeing such devastation, or to those trapped in it, the majority of media commentators and
politicians across Europe usually refer to the crisis facing Europe as we are called upon to aid these people in fulfilment
of our commitments made under international laws and treaties.
All EU countries are signatories to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention
of Human Rights. This means that we are obligated, by law if not by moral conscience and our oftstated common
values, to accept people claiming refuge when they are fleeing conditions of war, violence, and persecution. Indeed,
the cosmopolitan liberal order that is said to define the European project is, in its own terms, founded on a
commitment to human rights. If there is a crisis in Europe, it is a moral crisis associated with Europe's failure, in the
main, to act in a manner consistent with what are claimed as European values (at the very least, these would include
a commitment to human rights and upholding the rule of law, including international law). This has implications for the
European project as a whole, and, perhaps, has served to undermine it through the facilitation of forms of exclusionary
nationalism hostile to those values.
*I would like to thank Hauke Brunkhorst, John Holmwood, Lucy Mayblin and Agustín José Menéndez Menéndez for comments on this
paper that have enabled me to clarify and strengthen the arguments made within it. All errors, as ever, are mine.
DOI: 10.1111/eulj.12234
Eur Law J. 2017;23:395405. © 2017 John Wiley & Sons 395

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