Power politics is back with Russia and China challenging Western primacy in the arenas of international economy and politics, while threatening the Western-based liberal order. At the same time, Russia’s war on Ukraine has proven that countries across the global South are not bound to the West anymore. It became clear that these states reject colonial legacies and dependency on development aid while being ready to decide for themselves to seek new alliances. This was clearly demonstrated at the vote in the UN General Assembly in March 2022 when most of these countries decided not to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Given this rapidly changing foreign policy context, we have argued in our recent article with JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, that a reckoning with Europe’s post-imperial reflexes is required. Not only because it is the ethically right thing to do, but because it is also the best pragmatic choice for the EU to remain relevant in a multiplex world.
For many, the European Union and imperialism are unrelated. The official narrative is that the EU is a force for good in the global arena that brings prosperity and stability to its continent and beyond. After all, it is the biggest development donor on the globe, an ardent advocate for democracy and human rights, and a distinguished promoter of regional integration and conflict resolution, all laudable ends. Not surprisingly then, in 2012, it was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
For others, however, the EU is an intrinsically imperialist actor. For the critics of neo-liberalism, this is evident in its use of asymmetric economic power to discipline countries in the “East” and the “South”. For the most conservative ones, the imperial inheritance is a natural function of Europe’s role as bastion of (Western) civilization. Growing use of civilisational rhetoric to justify policies reflects the latter view, rationalizing both “fortress Europe” and imperious postures towards foreign policy partners. In short, “My way or the highway”.
EU studies has not particularly been effective in challenging these assumptions with only a handful of academics having addressed this matter to date. The Union, they argue, displays amnesia regarding not only its member states’ colonial pasts, but also the neo-colonial agenda that animated early negotiations over European integration. And just as Eurocentrism in its worst form once served colonialism, its echoes today, critics argue, prevent the EU from imagining—and effectively participating in—a diverse global order.
In short, in a post-Western world, attempts to unilaterally project Europe’s perspectives – including its valuable contributions to human rights – can generate resistance both normatively (given allergies to perceived neo-imperialism across the formerly dominated world), and practically (given the choices now available to foreign policy partners). How then to square the circle and to reckon with imperial inflections in European foreign policy without abandoning the Union’s human rights agenda?
Listening better to the plurality of voices
We argue that a reckoning with imperial legacies can be built on three pillars. First, it needs to be acknowledged that our global system consists of ‘multiple modernities’ where Western liberal modernity is only a part of what is on offer. Consider the role of neo-Confucian ideas in China’s foreign policy or the growing relevance of Islamic economics in a number of countries, with their alternatives to Western norms and practices.
Second, navigating this environment requires recognising that while some differences between worldviews are irreconcilable, a coexistence of worlds is possible without one subsuming others. To put it differently, the aim is not to replace Eurocentrism with another ‘centrism,’ but to opt for an approach relying on pluriversality.
Third, following the suggestion of Edward Said, we can learn to listen better along the lines of what is known in music as contrapuntality. As opposed to the classical emphasis on harmony in the counterpoint, the early 20th century brought an interest in dissonant counterpoints that generate a ‘polyphony’ of sound. While seemingly chaotic, consisting of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, polyphony often resolves into fresh types of harmony.
Applied to international relations and diplomacy, engaging multiplexity, pluriversality and the contrapuntal method demands mindfulness of ‘multiple ways of thinking through a problem and translating the findings of different perspectives.’ Contrapuntal engagement helps to narrate a ‘story of difference’ – including listening to silences and their causes – so that everyone is represented. Far from relativism, a contrapuntal approach entails an ethics of ‘care’ and ‘being with’ ‘Others’ which can help reinvent preferences in relational conversation with partners who share, for whatever reason, similar goals.
The outcome: new practices based on overlapping norms developed through active listening to a plurality of perspectives. In lieu of top-down principles forged in the crucible of European hegemony, we create ‘something new’ which, as Kimberly Hutchings puts it, ‘may not be describable in the terms of any of the collaborators’ [preconceived] worlds’.
To be sure, a contrapuntal approach demands willingness and humility to confront and re-define one’s own assumptions and routines. In practice, moreover, the method is most applicable to shared governance challenges where there are clear gains from an integrated approach. Climate change, global public health, or internet governance are just a few areas where overlapping priorities may be easy to imagine.
A contrapuntal approach to migration, religious and Neighbourhood governance
Naturally, many more policy areas spring to mind where the application of the contrapuntal method could bring benefits. In our research, we focused on three such areas, namely migration, religious governance and the Neighbourhood Policy.
Migration is perhaps the most evident of all. Migrant voices, for one, are given little to no space in European discourses on migration which is clearly a lost opportunity. Reading the EU’s migration policies through this lens, we discover a plurality of voices, even as active listening means registering critiques of the Union’s asylum. Listening contrapuntally likewise means to hear the slamming of doors at fortified borders as migration management—and its intrinsic violence—is outsourced to buffer states.
In the case of religious governance, unreflexive secularism has been a central tenet in EU foreign policy. For example, in 2016, the EU’s then top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, called for post-conflict Syria to be ‘united, not divided, secular, inclusive and with space for all minority groups.’ This disregard for the religious pluralism that shapes local social fabrics almost inevitably generated backlash. Seeking to address this, the EU appointed a special representative for ‘religious engagement and freedom of religion or belief’ (FoRB) but the first appointee, Jan Figel (2016-2019) promoted a conservative Christian rather than an inclusive approach in his work.
Increasingly, however, there appears to be awareness of the damage done by dismissing religious alterity. The EU has developed extensive Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) guidelines and is actively training diplomats through programs like the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPRND) which focuses on how to accommodate a variety of religious perspectives, including multiple secularisms.
A third arena ripe for contrapuntal listening is the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy initiative. The framework was established for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ transfer of EU norms and practices to partner countries. But resistance from partners and internal considerations in Brussels eventually led to new approaches tailored to local circumstances. Crucially, the move bolstered rather than hampered the EU’s ability to serve its values and interests as enshrined in its foundational treaties and macro-level strategies.
Our overarching takeaway is that despite the fraught complexities of a post-Western policy environment, the EU and its partners can learn from each other without denying their own views or belittling the practices of others, even as cooperation may at times require acknowledging red lines and some willingness to compromise. Thus, as with textiles produced by African-American artists who assemble seemingly clashing bits of fabric into stunning quilts, the apparent ‘chaos, disorder and unmanaged difference’ of our increasingly post-Western world can produce, through contrapuntal attention to dissonance, an aesthetic and functional ensemble.
Sarah Wolff is Professor of European Politics and International Relations, as well as Director of the Centre for European Research at Queen Mary University of London and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe. She researches EU-Islam relations, EU foreign policy, EU migration and border policies, and EU governance in times of crisis and EU-UK relations. ‘Secular Power Europe and Islam’ is her latest book published with Michigan University Press (2021).
David Gazsi is PhD Candidate at King’s College London and Editorial Assistant with East European Politics (published by Taylor & Francis). His research draws on critical social theory and investigates EU external relations.
Daniela Huber is Head of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa Programme at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), Editor of The International Spectator, and Adjunct Professor at Roma Tre University.
Nora Fisher-Onar, an Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of San Francisco, seeks to understand how we might better live together in an increasingly multipolar world. Her research on how to “decenter” European foreign policy seeks to offer answers via the insights of historical sociological, constructivist (“ontological insecurity”), postcolonial, gender, and memory studies. Her primary site of expertise is Turkey at the intersection of Europe and the Middle East, and she is the author of the forthcoming monograph, Pluralism in Turkey: Islam, Liberalism and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press).