In Josep Borrell’s garden utopia, Balkan savages are a threat

28 tetor 2022 10:46

On October 13, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, Joseph Borrell stated“Europe is a garden...Everything works…the rest of the world is a jungle…A nice small garden surrounded by high walls in order to prevent the jungle from coming in is not going to be a solution…the wall will never be high enough…The gardeners have to go to the jungle….Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us.” 

Borrell is not the first to use this analogy, but it is rarely articulated in such blunt terms. It is, however, a widely held view amongst Western policymakers and a powerful trope. Its currency across the EU today has profound implications for the future of the Balkans.  

The Core Needs a Periphery

Maintaining order in the centre demands the creation of a binary; in both a literal and metaphorical sense the outside must be defined and differentiated. Creating “us” requires that we also create “them”.  

For centuries, fortified walls have served to keep out the “other”, but an enclosed city will seem like a cage if those inside are not convinced that barbarity lies beyond their gated domain.

The core is civilised, orderly and organized. The outside must therefore be framed as primitive and chaotic, populated by savage people who are trapped in a cycle of violence which prevents their civilisational development.

“We” are, thus, conceptually constituted by “them”; “we” define ourselves in contradistinction to “them”; “we” have what “they” lack; “they” are what “we” are not. They live in a jungle; we live in a garden where “everything works”.

But the periphery has to be more than just a “zone of turmoil”; it must also be framed as an existential threat to the core. The insiders (the core) must thus be impelled to fear the outsiders (the periphery). If “we” are not careful, “they” will “invade the garden”, bringing plague, criminality, violence and depravity. Our cohesion thus becomes a function of our dread.

This motif is universal, but it has a particularly powerful resonance in Europe. The shadow cast by the fall of the Roman Empire is long; all subsequent European Empires demonstrated a particular propensity to stoke fear about new “barbarians” scheming to destroy “our” way of life.

The spectre of the looming menace on the edge of “our” domain did not, however, serve only to legitimize exclusion; it excused invasion. “Preventative self-defence” was thus the logical extrapolation of this framing; “we” must invade before “they” do. “The gardeners have to go to the jungle”, as Josep Borrell indicates.

The Balkan Savage

This core/periphery framing was employed to devastating effect to Africans, Asians and Americans, but it has also been used against certain European people; for centuries, the Irish were depicted as violent, ape-like degenerates, and the Roma have suffered similar demonizing. But the people of the Balkans have arguably played the role of the “savage other” more so than anyone.

Lurid depictions of a dark, foreboding region entombed by jagged mountains and populated by a bewildering array of ethnic tribes who revel in primaeval bloodletting have long titillated the sensibilities of “civilised” Europe. The region is so synonymous with violence it has the dubious honour of having become a verb; “to Balkanise”.

And thus, when conflict erupted as Yugoslavia unravelled, these tropes proliferated. Inaction on the part of many in the West was routinely excused on the grounds that the Balkan people were blinded by “ancient ethnic hatreds”. External involvement was, therefore, futile; in September 1992, US Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, thus lamented “it’s about damn time that everybody understood that there is nothing the outside world can do about it”.

This lazy stereotype reached its zenith when it came to Kosovo; indicatively, US diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, rejected the ancient ethnic hatreds theory, except in Kosovo where he claimed, “This was the real thing”.

Likewise, summarizing the nature of the conflict in Kosovo, British General Mike Jackson stated, “an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth, it’s all quite old testament stuff”. This framing is so manifestly flawed it is hardly worth engaging with. But facts matter little when one is creating a phantom.

“Close the gates, they’re Coming!”

There was a brief moment when civilised Europe believed the “uncivilised Balkans” could be saved. After the violence that had ravaged the region in the 1990s ended, the prospect of admission to the core was dangled seductively; “we will do all we can to help you succeed” the core soothed at the 2003 EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, Greece.

This was a time when Western leaders confidently proclaimed their determination to “bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world”. The EU’s promises were thus in-keeping with the general mood of imminent transformation.

This didn’t last; within six years of the Thessaloniki Summit, the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2008 global financial crisis and the Russian invasion of Georgia had signalled that history had not, in fact, been brought to a glorious end, as indicated by Francis Fukuyama. Since 2008 the West’s cohesion has also been further undermined by the rise of “home-grown terrorists” and disunity in the face of the refugee crisis.

Ambitious projects to transform the world have thus been replaced by retreat and circumspection; within the core, societies reeled as the future of plenty they had been promised dissipated. In seeking to answer the increasingly loud cries of “where did it all go wrong?” political leaders turned once again to the phantom other. The immigrants, the foreign labourers, the asylum seekers, the outsiders; “we let them in, and they wrecked everything!”, the leaders cried.

Hence, the rise of the populist parties – Alternative für Deutschland, the United Kingdom Independence Party, Partij voor de Vrijheid, Rassemblement National, Fratelli d’Italia, and Sverigedemokraterna, among others. All peddling the same message of fear and loathing.

Traditional mainstream parties scrambled to prevent the haemorrhaging of support and thus sought to claim the mantle of “defenders of the nation” promising to stem the “invasion”. The solution thus became clear; bring up the drawbridge; consolidate order in the core by invoking the spectre of the periphery; demonstrate a renewed zeal to keep the barbarians at bay.

This prevailing disposition is now deeply entrenched; it is unlikely to pass anytime soon.

Find the article in Albanian here.


28 tetor 2022

Aidan Hehir