The Limits of Analogy: Brexit and the Geopolitics of Race in Europe

The Limits of Analogy: Brexit and the Geopolitics of Race in Europe

Aleksandra Lewicki

The March for a People’s Vote on October 19th 2019 that saw around one million protesters take to the streets of London was preceded by a significantly smaller and less noted Rally for our Rights on the Saturday before. The rally was organized by associations of Brexpats, thus British people residing in Spain, France or Italy. Speakers in colourful berets shared their experiences of being overlooked, disenfranchised and left in a limbo of uncertainty. One of the presenters drew an analogy to slave labour, another compared their discrimination to Apartheid, and the crowd expressed its support by chanting ‘Windrush all over again’. I left the group in a strop, appalled by the appropriation of experiences of colonial oppression and disposability. After all, this was a group of life-style migrants fearing the removal of free movement, a privilege attainable exclusively to Europeans. While Britain’s prolonged discussions about its departure from the EU has classed and gendered effects of deprivation and disempowerment, for some British people living abroad it means they have to swap one European passport for another. This is not to diminish the significance of national ties, nor the frustration and anger at their governments’ priorities – yet, their mobilisation expresses an outrage of entitlement which cannot be compared to postcolonial struggles of resistance.

Yet, despite the inappropriateness of the comparison, the protesters put their finger on a dynamic that requires further unpacking. As Michaela Benson succinctly summarized, helpful connections have been drawn between the dynamics of colonialism, decolonial struggles and the process of European integration.

Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson, for instance, have shown how the architects of the European project saw Europe’s unification as a means to continue extorting economic profit from Europe’s former colonies. Nadine El-Enany revisited Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 to demonstrate that Britain’s relationship to the EU was intricately connected to the ebb and flow of its global imperial ambitions and attachments. Satnam Virdee and Brandon McGeever sketched how invocations of longing for Empire constituted a key motif in the Leave campaign for the 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership, which in turn played a role in enabling its cross-class appeal. Brexit, El-Enany summed up, not only constitutes an expression of colonial nostalgia, but the fruit of the British history of empire that remains ‘unaddressed and unredressed’.

I suggest that by revisiting another crucial period in the history of European integration, the enlargement of the European Union to the East in 2004, we can trace yet another way in which colonial legacies haunt us today: The terms of the enlargement of the EU to the East, I argue, constituted a partial re-enactment of well-rehearsed imperialist grammars of action; as the historic scripts they drew on, they are co-constitutive of distinct repertoires of racism. This example indicates, yet again, that race is emergent from wider geopolitical constellations and crafted by means of political interventions.

The Washington Consensus of the 1980s, initially developed with South America in mind, became paradigmatic for the management of what Ther (2019) calls the ‘Great Transformation’, East-Central Europe’s transition to a capitalist market economy. East-Central European countries’ accession to the EU was made conditional upon the fulfilment of stability criteria underpinned by the neoliberal orthodoxy of liberalisation, deregulation and privatization. Although, according to the official rhetoric, the EU’s enlargement to the East was designed to ‘to bring the neighbours in the East back into the fold of democracy and peaceful co-existence’, Western European countries were keen to secure their own economic progression by further expanding into novel markets. A rapid privatization of state-owned companies, the marketization of public welfare services, and the deregulation of the banking sector eventually led to economic growth in East-Central Europe, but also had detrimental effects, such as a radical decline in industrial production, the precaritization of labour, stagnating wages, and burgeoning unemployment.

West European companies benefited in several respects from this constellation: Relocating their production to the East meant they could access real estate and a highly skilled workforce at very low cost. In the pre-accession period, for example, Britain became the biggest foreign investor in Poland, with companies such as Tesco, Imperial Tobacco and GlaxoSmithKline establishing a leading position in their respective sectors. While creating jobs and stimulating consumption in Poland, they also involved a transfer of elites into leadership positions and a significant return of revenue to their main base in the UK. The relocation of production sites to Poland, last but not least, implied the loss of British jobs in areas such as the mobile phone or textile industries. At the time, the UK also experienced shortages in key sectors of its labour market, including hospitality, agriculture, construction, and domestic and care work; unlike most other West European states, the British government therefore did not impose a 7-year transitionary embargo, but invited immigration from the new member states of the EU.

These dynamics rested on and reinvigorated historic narratives of East-Central Europe as marginal, backward, and democratically and civilisationally underdeveloped. Harking back to the Prussian or Habsburg Empires, accounts of e.g. the Polish economy as characterized by mismanagement and chaos contributed to justifying and upholding the domination of this region (Weaver and Ozieranski 2016). Britain’s first immigration law, the Aliens Act 1905, was underpinned by related ideas, and designed to restrict the arrival of Jewish populations from Eastern Europe into Britain (Kushner 2004). The inferiorization of Slavic populations justified the mass-deployment of Poles to forced labour camps in Nazi-Germany, and the geographical expansion of the German ‘Third Reich’ to the East. Projections of inferiority upon the ‘second world’, last but not least, played an important role in maintaining the binary Cold War order.

In the pre- and post-EU-accession period, these narratives returned to frame the debate on immigration from the East of the EU. Negative depictions of people from East-Central Europe as welfare scroungers, tricksters, car thieves, and litter bugs (Fox, Moroşanu, and Szilassy 2012) ran parallel to positive gendered stereotypes of diligent, adaptable and hard-working men (‘the Polish Plumber’), and beautiful, promiscuous and domestically versed women (‘the care and/or sex worker’) – which, each in their own way, reinforce an instrumental positioning as available to serve, but also disposable.

And indeed, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the public debate increasingly problematized East-Central Europeans as putting strain onto British public services.  Immigration law reforms between 2002 and 2016 specifically focused on creating a ‘hostile environment’ by criminalizing ‘overstaying’ and the use of public services by individuals outside paid employment (Burrell and Schweyher 2019). As Luke DeNoronha shows, this resulted in the heightened deportability of population groups racialized as ‘other’ by these policies: Eastern Europeans and West European people of colour. It was these, including individuals perceived or self-describing as Muslim or Jewish, who found themselves targeted by the disproportionate rise in verbal and physical hate crime that spiked during and in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.

Thus, comparing different experiences of racialization can contribute to sharpening our understanding of how race is made, by whom, and against which geopolitical backdrop. Yet, even if e.g. Polish people in Britain are disproportionately over-represented in the lowest sectors of the labour market, subjected to everyday discrimination, violence and deadly attacks, and have been made disposable and deportable, their experiences of racism are episodic rather continuous in that sometimes they are positioned as white, while at other times not quite. Rather than drawing unhelpful analogies, we need to trace and distinguish distinct histories and political mechanisms of racialization. In the case of the enlargement of the EU to the East, Western Europe, including Britain, drew on well-rehearsed scripts of economic imperialism that also involved the re-enactment of blueprints of instrumentation and disposability. Yet, this objectification of East Central Europe and its workforce, while not unprecedented (see historic examples above), cannot sensibly be compared to hundreds of years of European colonial conquest and domination, and its lasting imprints across European public institutions. The case of Brexpats overstretches the usefulness of this analogy altogether. Rather, sensitivity to specific histories of oppression and their consequences should form the basis for solidarity and political mobilization against Brexit.

Research into the outcome of the Brexit referendum has highlighted that pre- and post-financial crisis neoliberal reforms and austerity have increased inequality and dissatisfaction with living standards in the UK. Far-right activists across Europe have successfully channelled these into nationalist-racist resentment by invoking ‘breaking point’ scenarios of an invasion from the East and, via the EU, from war-ridden areas such as Syria. Yet, the debate on Brexit has to this date hardly problematized how the demographic panics invoked in Europe’s West and East are entangled with one another, and how rising disparities and unemployment in the East and the West have also resulted from the terms under which the enlargement of the EU to the East was managed – nor do we get to hear which West European companies benefited from the tabula rasa that resulted from the neoliberal consensus. The relocation of production sites to the East of the EU, the return of revenue to Britain, and the invited mobility of Polish, Latvian or Romanian workers are an important part of this story.

Burrell, Kathy and Schweyher, Mateus (2019) ‘Conditional citizens and hostile environments: Polish Migrants in pre-Brexit Britain’, Geoforum, 106, 193 – 201.
Fox, Jon E., Moroşanu, Laura and Szilassy, Esther (2012), ‘The Racialization of new European migration to the UK’, Sociology, 46 (4): 680-695.
Kushner, Tony (2004) ‘Racialization and “white European” immigration to Britain’, Murji, Karim and Solomos, John eds., Racialization. Studies in Theory and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 207 -226.
Ther, Philipp (2019) Das andere Ende der Geschichte. Über die Große Transformation, Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Weaver, Simon and Ozieranski, Piotr (2016) ‘New European tricksters: Polish jokes in the context of European Union labour migration’, Journal of Cultural Studies, 19 (3) 577-591.


Aleksandra Lewicki is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is interested in how race is made, by whom, and to what end – as well as what it does to those subject to its effects, and those complicit in its making. She has written on the rise of the far-right in post-unification Germany, on citizenship and activism, and on Islamophobia in Britain, Germany (and Poland). She is In-House Associate Editor of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Image Credit: Marcin Jozwiak,