Europe’s New Territorial Politics or the Uneven Spaces of Living, Breathing, Moving, Dying


Europe’s political geography is famously uncertain and contested. The luxury and burden of being the only continent to have given itself its own name is that its borders are undefined, and European history as a whole - both ‘internally’ and ‘externally’ – can be narrated as an infamous series of actions claiming, rejecting, defending or dividing lands, roots, cultures, names and symbols which all potentially can be associated with it. To tell such a history we would certainly need at least two narrators, a ‘European’ and a ‘non-European’, if only it were possible to identify a priori who is who. Riven-through with this inescapable history, acting in Europe’s name always risks taking sides, but also risks the apparent fragility of irresolvable internal contradictions, the presence of apostates, renegades and rebels in the ranks. Is there some way of thinking territory beyond these military metaphors?

As a peace-project, the EU - that celebrated ‘non-identified political object’ - makes a strong and justified claim to overcoming border conflicts and broader territorial conflicts, at least in its ‘heartlands’, and above all between France and Germany. Through various forms of integration (functional, energy, judicial, monetary, educational etc.) it displaced and decentred the causes of these conflicts, turning what was a matter of foreign policy, military power and realpolitik into administrative and legal wrangling over competences in a stratified but convergent landscape of political authority. 

The preconditions for this integration were multiple: including, at its beginning, the devastation of post-war Europe and the imperative to rebuild; access to European colonies and their resources; ongoing relatively secure sources of energy and industrial materials and climate stability; overarching American military protection; privileged access to international financial markets and long periods of global economic growth. If geopolitics was highly present in the first decades of European integration up until 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Empire and ‘reunification’ enabled the EU to narrate its teleology as one of ‘ever closer union’ coupled with enlargement to the East. Those territorial conflicts that still persisted, laying unresolved, notably at the retreating Eastern frontier, were to be dealt with ‘later’. The ferocity of the Yugoslav wars was quickly dissociated from the name ‘Europe’ – the Balkan peninsula positioned once again as a place Europe had not yet reached, allowing Western European majorities to continue to tolerate the unblemished narrative of the new Europe reborn pristine and unconflicted. The ‘hour of Europe’ was in the future. 

Europe after Europe? 

The under told history of these first decades of European integration is the displacement of Europe’s colonial concerns. The EEC included the founding member states and the colonial possessions of the member states, and a primary concern of many of those involved in promoting this was the unification and preservation of European colonies, above all through the geopolitical concept of ‘Eurafrica’. If African national independence politically introduced distance between European and African power, economic relationships of dependence and clientelism continued as closely as before, as the world went from an explicitly colonial logic towards global capitalism and its imagined ‘flat’ and frictionless landscape of equal national independence. Sublimated in narratives of economic progress or humanitarian aid, outsourced to corporations and companies - a history of violence and brutality which was consigned to the past even as it was continuing - Europe’s relationship with its colonies became a separate issue from its internal affairs in the public eye, such that the new Europe could again appear pristine and blameless.

These macro-spatial transformations, ‘rescalings’ and reorganisations may seem abstract or distant but had everything to do with the places in which individuals conceived themselves as belonging, as being-with-others and at home. If one way of looking at globalisation or advanced capitalism is the ‘annihilation of space by time’, political space is the most resistant and multidimensional. New teleologies of European integration, economic growth and human rights - which could form the basis of life-projects and imagined futures for new generations – ran-up against the prickly defence of privileges, advantages and domination in complexified and culturally-charged class struggles, in which the subordinate classes were almost invariably put at a disadvantage by their heterogeneity.

At the beginning of the 21st century, across Europe and its uncertain frontiers, space was experienced differently by different groups and individuals, in function of their access to, exclusion from and appropriation of the technologies, legal regimes and work, family and social relations that cross borders. Through the multiple and interlocking crises that emerged over the first decade of the new millennium, the gulf between the smoothing legal representation of the European order and the material, social and cultural disorder became unmissable, but the mapping of these divergences more complex by the day. Not only, to take a simple example, did European countries start to diverge socio-economically through the financial crisis starting in 2008, but intermingled populations with connections and dependencies across borders were also affected asymmetrically, in such a way that any ‘nationalised’ mapping or statistical representation is inadequate, but a non-national, continent-wide mapping would also miss out the essential intermediaries of the member states and individual connections with them.

From the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, the EU started again to have a more explicit ‘geopolitical’ ambition, firstly personified in the ‘High Representative’, but also in the provisions for defence cooperation which would be taken up later. If the response to the Twin Towers terrorist attacks that opened the millennium had shown already the potentials for a divergence between the United States of America and some major European military powers, the second decade of 2000s revealed a dramatically changing geopolitical landscape: the American ‘pivot’ towards Asia and less certainty about American defence of Europe, more insecurity over energy sources and exacerbated energy and resource wars in the neighbourhood, the overthrow of North African dictators who had been European clients, increased migration flows, radical acceleration in technological development and its impacts on interpersonal relations, economic flows and cultural production of symbols, combined with a resurgence of revisionist historical narratives challenging the fundaments of a liberal order. All of these phenomena and more had their macro and micro scales, as discernible traits of the overall panorama and the individual lived experience in the world. Together, they were undermining and removing many of the preconditions the European unification project supposed, and their concatenation demanded a step-shift in the meaning and intensity of the project itself.    

The most recent European Commission, with its ‘geopolitical’ aspect to every portfolio, and its preoccupation with the European ‘way of life’, with the Green Deal, with the Digital Age, with demography and even with a specific commissioner responsible for ‘Crisis Management’ belatedly took account of many of these changed conditions. Nonetheless, with its insistence on the newness of its geopolitical reach in a continent which has always had a geopolitics, it contributed to the continued eclipsing of the underlying and longstanding interactions and interdependencies between Europe and its outsides, and a historical and ethical blindness to its responsibilities which results (visible in the tendency for Europe’s geopolitical turn to reinforce its exclusivity, its shielding and its narrowing conception of self-interest and power-projection).

COVID-19: a transformation of our phenomenological experience of space 

Just as the Commission was beginning to address itself to this transforming world, the Corona-crisis accelerated, exacerbated or undermined some of these trends in the changing global landscape European governments as a whole had prepared themselves for. If it is still too early in the crisis to fully chart this new landscape, some key features can be seen. The virus itself, its extraordinary contagiousness and speed of transmission across the planet, and its direct attack on the interface between our bodies and our environment, as we breathe, operates a profound transformation of our phenomenological experience of space. Quite aside from the physical distancing, isolation and masking that populations have temporarily endured, our representation of our space has come under exacerbated tension. On the one hand the intensification of our international connections, aware as we are that a flare-up in one part of the world, amongst them, over there, may quickly have its consequences for us, here; our ceaseless comparisons about the intimate details of everyday life in other countries (how often are they allowed outside? with who? For how long to children go to school? etc.) On the other hand, our preoccupation with our personal spaces, keeping our hands clean, disinfected, our alertness to the smallest signs of possible illness, our intensified relations with our most intimate personal connections, and a prolonged meditation on our own mortality. 

How this experience of tension will mark durably our conceptions of the space we are in is as yet unknown, and will have its diversities, but these already interact and intersect with other aspects of our lives. Housing and working conditions have been re-politicised under new aspects of risk and safety than those that emerged from the sub-prime, financialised crisis of 2008. More generally, who is allowed to breathe freely, and who suffocates, whether under exposure to illness and pollution or under police duress, tear gas or racist hatred has emerged as a crucial thematic for our present and future. Who is tested, who is experimented upon, who is vaccinated with what vaccine, who is isolated and restricted and who can circulate, where and when are the crucial political questions of our collective re-composition, neither unprecedented nor ‘unpresent’ in our previous situation, but in the new reality they have been made more acute. 

What is more, the social distancing measures have challenged what in many cultures is the fundamental link between humans and the earth – the burying of bodies – which in the case of those who are suspected to have died with the virus, became a relationship between the isolated individual and the authorities, rather than a relationship between families and the earth. Such experiences recall previous epidemics, but also more recently in Europe war-time conditions. In some places like Milan, families went through the procedures highly familiar to those that have experienced post-war situations of identifying, exhuming and reburying bodies buried in anonymous graves.

Over the first months of 2020, Europe’s ‘spatio-temporal settlement’ was temporarily upended: some dormant border conflicts suddenly re-emerged, if only briefly (for example in Alsace at the Franco-German border), European countries rediscovered new geopolitical alliances (e.g., the extraordinary moment when Italians were celebrating Chinese solidarity and condemning a lack of European solidarity), the temporal horizon of European teleology partly disappeared, because no one knows what is ‘after’. Such a hiatus can have some rare beneficial effects, such as opening of accession processes for North Macedonia and Albania, only to get bogged-down again in domestic politics of EU countries once the immediate shock of the pandemic dissipated, leaving these countries, and the future of Europe in general, in a kind of no-man’s land unsure which direction is forward. 

Coming out of the first stages of the pandemic, the European authorities attempted to appear ahead of the game, whilst restoring some ‘normality’ of time, to use the precipitous experience several countries felt of the ground suddenly disappearing from under them, to propose a leap forward of sorts: the ‘Next-Generation’ European project announced by the Commission. In presence of danger, the European project accentuates its teleological promise, but at what price of forgetting this time? The repressed or obliviated does not disappear, and does not only belong to history as a site for learning, but concerns ongoing relations between individuals, between countries, between continents, each relationship with its inescapable demands of equity. All too quickly, the present catches up with the future, so the ‘recovery funds’ agreed midway through the pandemic now already seem outdated and in need of a future perspective.

It would be too simplistic to say that the European spatio-temporal order has been either reborn or undone: there is no simple return to a status-quo ante or a new-old nationalisation, just as there is no passage to an elevated European plain. The politics of the past and ideologies like nationalism are forced to readapt and redeploy themselves as teleological interpretations of the new territory of the present, and continue to confound optimistic predictions by doing so more adeptly than socialist and internationalist ideas. We are left with a variegated and subtle landscape of political contests over different aspects of Europe’s territoriality, and these contests take place both in the formal sphere of politics, but also in myriad ‘informal’ ways including people moving or not moving. A rich social conception of Europe’s morphology is necessary to navigate this politics as well as renew it; without it, European politics remains epiphenomenal to the vital functions of the polity of bodies: their unequal capacities to live, breath, move and die depending on their environing conditions. We know from historical experience the dangerous ways these particular thematics can be deployed by fascist agitators in the direction of death, and so it is incumbent to develop a multiplicitous and vivacious politics of the territory focussed at once on justice and the celebration of difference.

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).