Europeanness on the Threshold Europeanness on the Threshold

Visual artist: Thomas Montulet

No Man's Land - Conflicts of Space#5 No Man's Land - Conflicts of Space

Luc Lauwers

Eastern Enlargement
EU accession

Europeanness on the Threshold

While the EU deals with several socio-political crises, a new candidate is knocking on its doors: Serbia. Challenged by anti-EU referenda, closing borders, high fences and heated debates on refugees, as well as by discussions on Ukraine and (recent) EU entrants Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, Serbia’s EU accession raises questions on how European citizens relate to the EU’s ongoing project of eastern enlargement. Specifically, how is the idea of Europe or Europeanness interpreted and contested, and what does it mean to be or become ‘European’?

For centuries, Serbia’s Europeanness has been disputed. Much has been written about how political elites manipulated people into war, ethnic cleansing and genocide. During the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, Serbia drifted further away from Europe, best illustrated by EU embargos and the 1999 NATO bombings. Afterwards, the world agreed that Serbia’s future, as for the rest of the Balkans, lies in Europe. However, troubles loom large.

While the EU promotes itself as the ‘Promised Land’ and Serbia’s only chance for a better future, it simultaneously keeps the country at a safe distance from integration: behind a high EU/Hungarian fence, Serbia and its citizens face grim travel and work restrictions. Additionally, every time new rules and laws have to be implemented. The most painful ones, both politically and symbolically, are the cooperation with the ICTY in The Hague and the recognition of an independent Kosovo, which Serbs still affectionately call Srca Srbije, the heart of Serbia.[1] Today, Serbs find themselves on Europe’s threshold of in an out; a liminal position in which they are condemned to stay ‘Europe that yet has to become Europe’ (Todorova, 2009). Especially young people are tired of simply waiting to be acknowledged as legitimate European citizens. They furthermore remind us that debates on Europeanness are not only about identity and space, but also inevitably linked with life plans, livelihoods, uneven development, inclusion and exclusion.

For EU citizens like myself it is easy to think: ‘Who cares about Europe?’ In Western Europe, people complain about interference from Brussels or even aspire leaving the EU. But this is a very privileged position. Throughout the Balkans, as well as in other countries that aspire to become part of the EU, like Ukraine, the meaning of ‘Europe’ is somewhat different.

When at the end of the last century the Iron Curtain was dismantled, a New World Order arose in which ideas of freedom and sovereignty were omnipresent. But while ‘the West’ experienced a period of European prosperity and peace, people in the former Yugoslavia were confronted with war and new physical borders. As a newly Croatian citizen trying to cross the just as new border with Slovenia, Slavenka Drakulić (2012) described:

‘All of a sudden I became aware of the absurdity of our situation: I knew that, while he inspected my Yugoslav passport, he must still carry the same one. There we were, citizens of one country falling apart and two countries-to be, in front of not yet a proper border, with passports that are not good anymore. (…) For the first time I experienced the border physically: it felt like a wall. In that moment, I knew that everything they say about walls coming down in Europe is lies. Walls are being erected throughout Europe, new, invisible walls that are much harder to demolish, and this border is one of them.’

Although experienced 24 years ago, it is hard to not see the resemblance to what is again, or still, happening throughout Europe and the rest of the world today. As Todorova (2009) notes, the new ‘Europe’ ends where politicians want it to end.[2] The creation of boundaries is therefore not only a geographical question, but especially a political one. When the Yugoslav wars resulted in the fragmentation of seven small sovereign states, it revived the idea of the Balkan inhabitant as the Oriental other (cf. Said, 1999) of the educated and civilized European citizen, of Europe’s other within Europe (Van de Port 1994; Armbruster et al. 2003; Todorova 2009).

Thus while during the 1990s ‘Europe’ re-united with its eastern other half, ex-Yugoslav people tumbled deeper and deeper into their very own bloody, monstrous and barbarian category. Because of this, the Serbian newspaper Vreme (October 1999) headlined: ‘For the world, [we] will always stay these insane madmen and maniacs, wild men for whom there is nothing to be found in today’s or tomorrow’s Europe.’ This headline resonates with an omnipresent national story of the Serbian people as historical ‘defenders of Europe’ against Muslim domination, living on a fault line or frontier (first between the Roman and the Byzantine Empire, then between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and recently between the capitalist West and communist East). Already in the 13th century, the important Serbian historical spiritual leader Saint Sava wrote:

‘At first we were confused. The East thought that we were West, while the West considered us to be East. Some of us misunderstood our place in this clash of currents, so they cried that we belong to neither side, and others that we belong exclusively to one side or the other. But I tell you, Irinej, we are doomed by fate to be the East of the West, and the West of the East, to acknowledge only heavenly Jerusalem beyond us, and here on earth – no one.’  (St. Sava to Irinej, 13th century)

December 19, 2009 marked a turning point in Serbia’s recent history: after twenty years of isolation, Serbia was finally added to the list of countries whose citizens can travel freely without visas across the EU. For many, this date represented the beginning of Serbia’s return to Europe. The Serbian daily Blic claimed that this day ‘symbolically marked the end of a decade we might call the decade-long-restoration of normalcy’. This shows that lives are not only defined by living standards, order and social welfare, but also by the dignity of having ‘a place in the world’. Especially young Serbs hoped that they were finally on their way to become part of what they had always felt they belonged to.

Yet now, seven years later, they are still waiting. Which leaves them frustrated and tired, and according to Serbian academics ‘out of control’. First, because Serbs themselves do not decide about their own lives and their own future, ‘Brussels’ does. Second, because in practice ‘Brussels’ does not only deny them important rights, changes and opportunities, but also their Europeanness, an integral part of their identity and their place in this world.

Today, there is no escaping from identity. Neither in academic contexts, nor in public debates. Within these debates people no longer belong to themselves alone, but are born to an identity that comes custom-packaged with religious, political and social overtones (Nordstrom, 2007).

In order to solve this, I believe that we should direct ourselves to the crucial role of stories, as people not only identify with stories, they also narrate their identities. Many, if not everybody, cherishes a story that gives sense, direction and meaning (Van de Port, 1994). When shared with others, these stories become belief systems that account for, and even celebrate, the perceived ambiguities, puzzles and paradoxes in human experience (Geertz 1973: 108). In ‘Imaginary Homelands’ Rushdie (1992) visualizes this as follows:

‘Walking as well as sleeping, our responses to the world are essentially imaginative, that is picture-making. We live in our pictures, our ideas. I mean this literally: we first construct pictures of the world and then we step inside the frames. We come to equate the picture with the world.’

This conceptualization offers a way out of current excluding, racist and rudderless debates on identity and culture: individually and collectively. Because people themselves decide about their own lives, it returns people’s agency and opens up seemingly closed or fixed categories such as national identities and culture, as well as European identity or Europeanness. Considering this as a meshwork of an almost endless intersection of multiple, interwoven stories and narratives, Europeanness is no more and no less than a core existential informational system: fluid, flexible, and profoundly multifaceted (cf. Ingold 2011).

‘I do not want a path to Europe, but a return to it.’

(Message presented on numerous billboards and posters throughout Serbia during the 2011 census)

Eastern enlargement forces citizens and politicians to question Europe’s internal and external borders. Both geographical and political, as well as cultural. In the north, west, and south, Europe has clear demarcations: the sea. This is different in the east, where Europeanness is constantly changing and negotiated. Of course, this creates tension and friction. Yet, negotiation and collaboration across differences leads to creative outcomes.

It is true that Serbia’s movement towards Europe is snail-patched. But bearing in mind its problematic recent past, Serbia is equipped with a great preparation for the future, since ethnically homogeneous states are almost non-existent, or currently under great pressure. By combining diversity and homogeneity, young Serbian Europeans narrate themselves in line with Ingold’s (2011) conceptualisation that knowledge, and therefore culture, resides in the act of storytelling and not in the power of classification. It is precisely by its context and relations that every element is identified and positioned: stories always and inexorably draw together what classifications split apart. Rediscovering the crucial relation between story and life forces us to see that life is not a movement to terminal closure, but rather a movement of opening. We, as European citizens, can and should learn from that.


[1] While most EU countries recognise Kosovo as an independent republic, the government of the Republic of Serbia considers Kosovo as an integral part of the Serbian republic. This said, in their view the EU police and civilian mission EULEX places and supports foreign soldiers on their territory.

[2] I want to make a distinction between the continent and the political project, which is closely interlinked with the EU and other hegemonic ideas about Europe. Because the latter is often also simply called Europe, from now on I will write ‘Europe’ when referring to the political project.


Luc Lauwers combined Cultural Anthropology with Conflict Studies and Slavic Studies, and conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Bosnia and Serbia. He is specialized in multiculturalism, ethnicity, nationalism, Europe and the Balkans, and currently works in the field of social activism, prejudice, racism and conflict. As a project leader at the Utrecht-based NGO Critical Mass, he researches cultural diversity and translates social science, anthropological concepts and conflict theory into interactive exhibitions, events, films, games and teaching materials. He furthermore teaches at Utrecht University, at the department of Cultural Anthropology.


Works Cited

Armbruster, H. & C. Rollo, H. Meinhoff (2003) Imagining Europe: Everyday Narratives in the European Border Communities. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 29(5): 885-899.

Drakulić, S. (2012) The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War. Zagreb (HR): V.B.Z.

Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York (USA): Basic Books.

Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London (UK): Routledge.

Nordstrom, C. (2007) Global Outlaws: Crime, Money and Power in the Contemporary World. London (UK): University of California Press.

Port, M. van de (1994) Het einde van de wereld: beschaving, redeloosheid en zigeunercafés in Servië. Amsterdam (NL): Babylon-de Geus.

Rushdie, S. (1992) Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. London (UK): Granta Books.

Said, E.W. (1999) Orientalism. New York (USA): Pantheon Books.

Todorova, M.N. (2009) Imagining the Balkans - Updated Edition. Oxford (UK): Oxford University Press.