Securitizations of Identities and Racial Eastern-Europeanization

This is part of our special feature, Diversity, Security, Mobility: Challenges for Eastern Europe.


In The Threat of Race, David Theo Goldberg (2009) unpacks the specificities of “regionalized racisms” – sets of materially, demographically, historically, and conceptually distinct ways in which “race” acts in different geographic contexts, mobilizing various kinds of securitization narratives. His chapter on racial Europeanization focuses on the colonial heritage of race, which, he claims, Europe hastened to erase from its memory, relegating its effects both to distant lands, and to a distant past – admittedly, troubled by the more recent, yet thought as exceptional, Holocaust moment. In short, race was “evaporated” from Europe, albeit always incompletely:

For Europeans generally, then, race is not, or really is no longer. European racial denial concerns wanting race in the wake of World War II categorically to implode, to erase itself. This is a wishful evaporation never quite enacted, never satisfied. A desire simultaneously frustrated and displaced. As diffuse as they are, racist implications linger, silenced but assumed, always already returned and haunting. (Goldberg 2009: 152)

Goldberg’s focus on the colonial legacies of race in Europe implicitly posits “racial Europeanization” as Western Europeanization, effectuating inadvertently an erasure of Eastern Europe from Europe itself.[1] Most probably, Eastern Europe was left out for the sake of the argument’s coherence: indeed, incorporating Eastern Europe would have troubled the colonial thread of the story told in Goldberg’s account; yet the omission remains surprising. It is not my pretense to conceptualize in such a limited space the specificities of a “racial Eastern-Europeanization,” which, I believe, is indeed in many ways distinct, both in its historical trajectory and its contemporary manifestations. I will, however, tentatively approach racial Eastern-Europeanization in a sideways fashion through the figure of “the Gypsy,” abounding as radical and unassimilable “Other.” However, this figure reunites Western and Eastern Europe in correlated mechanisms of racialization: despite the human rights discourse inherent to the eastward expansion of the EU project claiming that Roma “integration” was key to the accession of new member states as proof of political (and, in the subtext, cultural) compatibility, anti-Roma racism is not singularly typical for Eastern Europe.[2]

Yet, there is nothing new in claiming that all of Europe is enmired in what has been called antigypsyism, antiziganism, or Romaphobia, as a wide range of scholars aptly points out (van Baar 2011a, Agarin 2014). What I wish to bring into the debate is the way in which Western and Eastern European antigypsyisms can be seen in a relational perspective through the particular lens of Eastern Europe’s subalternization to its Western “core.” This process has admirably been highlighted through historical research on how “Eastern Europe” was constructed through cultural products of Western elites (Wolff 1994), in a strand of Orientalism producing Eastern Europe as backwards, primitive, and violent Other. But, as Goldberg’s argument would go, racial subalternizations are only superficially relegated to the past: Eastern Europe continues to be produced as inferior in our days, too. To hone in on this dynamic, I will examine two interrelated dimensions: the minority protection agenda that constituted EU’s spearhead during its eastward expansion, on the one hand, and the subaltern status of Eastern European migrants in Western Europe, which, I argue, intensifies antigypsyist rhetoric and practice through discourses of securitization of their identity spurred by the subaltern position they hold in Western societies. But I will start by charting the larger context in which must be placed both the EU’s expansion eastwards, with its related politics of minority rights, and the subsequent subalternization of Eastern European migrants: both take place in what has been called “securitarian neoliberalism” (Bietlot 2005).


Security and rights in securitarian neoliberalism

An important shift occurred globally, after the end of the Cold War in particular, but through a process incipient after the economic crisis of the seventies (Conze 2012): the rise of the security paradigm. In this process, security progressively became “a powerful diacritic of social relations, a key point of encounter between citizens, non-citizens, and states” (Goldstein 2016: 148), becoming productive of new imaginaries, vocabularies, visions, institutions, technologies, apparatuses, and policies. “‘Security talk,’” it has been argued, “now stands prominently alongside ‘rights talk’ in contemporary geopolitics” (Goldstein 2007: 50). It is this encounter between security talk and rights talk that makes the Roma a particularly fruitful lens in analyzing European contemporary dynamics, for they incarnate all the ambivalences and contestations with which this slippery terrain is replete (van Baar 2011b). On the one hand, for many Europeans, the Roma continue to embody a threat to their material, moral, and social orders; on the other hand, Europe’s post-war seemingly “progressive agenda” of rights (Sigona and Trehan 2011) seems to be eroding, allegedly under the pressure of welfare structures waning under austerity policies, the political capitalization of insecurities related to various figures of the “Other,” and the clamorously announced demise of multiculturalism.

In times of securitarian neoliberalism, two important dynamics seem to be taking place related to rights: firstly, the right to security has displaced other rights (Walters 2004), including the right to have rights: so it comes, for instance, that those deemed threatening to national or public security may be imprisoned or expulsed without due process. Secondly, through the mirage effected by the pervasive logic of scarcity in times of austerity, rights have become commodified as exchange currency against “duties” (Bontempelli 2007), entailing the legitimacy to deprive of rights those perceived to transgress the moral obligation of performing their “duties” to society. As in neoliberal times the primary “duty” to society is often framed in terms of one’s productivity, the poor will be more often than not found lacking in this respect (Fekete 2014). The Roma embody a figure at the nexus between these two dynamics: often evicted and, when possible, deported for reasons of “security” and public order, they are often also seen as parasites and criminals, thus lacking par excellence in the field of “social duties.” The Roma thus become unassimilable “Others” discharging society from further moral obligations. As such, the Roma are particularly “good to think” in conceptualizing the ways in which European politics – and the politics of Europeans – deploy around notions of security and rights, both transnationally and locally.


The EU goes East

In the early nineties, partly as a result of Romani activists’ lobbying in a time of recurrent episodes of collective violence against the Roma in Eastern Europe (Chirițoiu 2018), Roma issues were introduced on the political European agenda as “human security” issues; simultaneously, the Roma were increasingly framed as a European minority (van Baar 2011b). In its eastward expansion, the EU posited minority protection, and in particular Roma “integration,” as priorities in its pre-accession negotiations – the ex-ante conditionalities entailed that future member states’ efforts in this sense would be monitored and assessed top-down according to EU standards, and non-compliance with the “integration” roadmap would delay or jeopardize the accession process, and weaken the negotiation position of EU aspirants.

Despite the moral overtones of the minority rights agenda, brandished by established EU members during pre-accession negotiations, Western European states have recently blatantly infringed upon the EU free movement directive through repeated deportations of EU Roma (as is the case in France since 2010); the racial profiling – and, as my own research shows, racial policing – of the Roma continues unabashed in Italy in glaring disregard of the EU race equality directive, and this despite EU’s remonstrance of such practices. The European Commission’s rather inconsequential reaction to these infringements cogently reveals the asymmetry within the EU, and that, indeed, free movement is reserved for some, and tends to be restricted for others (Gehring 2013), effectuating gradations of EU citizenship and revealing the latter’s contradictions (Squire 2011).

Also, legal scholars have recently devoted attention to the biases of legal European institutions more broadly with regards to the Roma, reading in court-sanctioned practices of discrimination and human rights violation the inability of Europe to scrutinize its own history of colonialism and to grapple with the ensuing invisibilization of race (Dembour 2009; Möschel 2014). The inherent Orientalism of particular rulings involving the Roma transpires from the astute observation that:

…the few verdicts of violation in this area concern Bulgaria, Romania, and other Eastern European countries. It is equally troubling that they concern Roma, a population which Western Europe tends to see as epitomizing all that is wrong with human rights in Eastern Europe – as if Gypsies had not long been suffering from discrimination in Western Europe and Roma from Eastern Europe were treated adequately in/by Western Europe. (Dembour 2009: 53)

The excerpt above highlights the ambivalent role of the EU’s policies and politics towards minority protection in the East: despite the “good intentions” gleaming from this agenda, the minority rights politics slipped into Orientalist rhetorics emphasizing the inferiority and un-Europeanness of Eastern Europe, thought to be in need of a civilizational remake if it wanted to belong to the privileged core of the EU. This “geopolitics of tolerance” (Tesser 2003) marked the superiority of its advocates much in the same way the notion of “tolerance” acted to “regulate aversion” (Brown 2006); but while the Western core of the EU was industriously regulating aversion towards the Roma in its hinterlands, it concealed its own while maintaining the moral and “civilizational” upper hand.

This observation intersects with the view of the eastward expansion of the EU as a colonial project in itself (Böröcz 2001; Kovács and Kabachnik 2001); in their edited volume, Böröcz and Kovács (2001) aptly show how the discourses and vocabularies of EU documents related to the enlargement are replete with Orientalist visions, underlining the continuity of coloniality; it is not a coincidence, the authors claim, that the core EU members have “inherited the entirety of the European colonial legacy” (Böröcz 2001: 14), and that similar mechanisms of colonial power are at work in the enlargement process. The “substance of imperial order,” Böröcz argues, combines unequal exchange, coloniality as cognitive mapping of inferiorized otherness, and the export of governmentality through mechanisms of normalization and standardization (idem: 18). The “export” of minority rights may be subsumed to the latter, norm-producing mechanism. But these transnational dynamics have echoes at the local level, too.


The ambivalent politics of home

As observers have pointed out, the rationale behind the EU’s political engagement with minority rights, and with Roma issues in particular, was at best ambivalent: there was always, in the subtext, a securitizing move regarding the feared westward migration of the Roma subtly posed as undesirable; this, in turn, pushed the EU agenda towards advocating for improving the living conditions of the Roma “at home” (Guglielmo and Waters 2005; Simhandl 2009; van Baar et al. 2018). Western European states’ interests transpire brazenly from the focus on local development as a means to prevent the migration of the Roma westwards; in this sense, the EU’s minority rights agenda may be seen as a pre-emptive move aimed at containing the mobility of the Roma. But the export of governmentality through the minority rights agenda, besides being a strategy of imperial expansion as Böröcz argues, is also, and importantly, a “politics of home” (Duyvendak 2011) or “domopolitics” (Walters 2004): an emergent reconfiguration of the relationship between state, territory, and citizenship which casts the core of the EU as a home to be protected against a threatening outside to be only controllingly, in a piecemeal fashion, and quite reluctantly allowed “in.” It is not only the impulse of a politics of protection from uncivilized outsiders from the East, but also the tendency to mind the outside’s “home,” too, which characterizes the EU domopolitics in its eastward expansion. In the process, “home” was produced both at home and outside; at home, a putative European citizenship was culturalized as revolving around human rights, tolerance, diversity, and freedom, the latter often together with an emphasis on “security;” outside, vocabularies of a common European identity and of the desirability of the expansion masked the many mechanisms of othering which simultaneously produced hierarchies of Europeanness, thus of deservingness of EU boons like free movement and the right to work and settle freely in more prosperous member states. In the architecture of the EU “home,” Eastern Europe remained a sort of antechamber.

The wider context for the problematization of the mobility of Roma from Eastern Europe to and within Western Europe is the restructuring of politics in the security register effectuated by the rise of the security paradigm, leading to the securitization and subsequent greater state control of many aspects of social life, including migration (Bigo 1998; Huysmans 2006; Feldman 2011). In Western Europe, starting in the eighties and with unprecedented momentum since the mid-nineties, migrants were increasingly portrayed as criminals, as a danger to national security and urban order, to particular ways of life produced as Western and thus “civilized,” and to the eroding social security systems.

But contemporaneous to the emergence of discourses weaving criminality and immigration in the nineties, Western Europe was also getting older: its post-war baby-boomers were reaching pension age, starting to weigh increasingly on the health and care systems of their countries and on the time of their families. In order to fill the gaps, many Western European countries started importing Eastern Europeans, mainly women, to care for their elderly, mostly through private, and often informal arrangements. Since the nineties, for instance, Italy has been second home to many Romanian, Moldavian, Polish, or Ukrainian women acting as badante (caregiver): as strangers in the intimate sphere of the home, involved in the highly affective economy of care, these women came to embody a particular figure replete with ambivalence, necessary and thus sought after, but also highly mistrusted, and often suspected of abuse and treachery (Rugolotto et al. 2017). That Western Europeans were forced by circumstances to accept, in their very home, the presence of these strangers, renders the Western European “politics of home” grounded in the wish for national homogeneity deeply ambivalent.

In Western European social hierarchies, many of the caregivers from the East remained in subordinated positions, discriminated against, more often than not exploited – in any case regarded as inferior by virtue of their citizenship and class, even though many of them had higher education diplomas. The struggles of these migrants to gain recognition entailed a number of strategies of precarity management and of “adaptation” (Anghel 2013), but a central element in the efforts to acquire the symbolic capital perceived as necessary for social ascension is the mobilization of an arsenal of racial representations of the Roma in order to negotiate a superior position on Western social hierarchies. Conscious of their own subalternity, Romanian immigrants in Italy and elsewhere recurrently fabricate distinction between themselves and the shunned alterity of the “Gypsy,” through othering discourses grounded in a fierce antigypsyism. Afraid to be perceived as Gypsies by virtue of their Romanian citizenship, many migrants engage in purposefully representing the Gypsy as lazy, deviant, and essentially foreign, by contrast with their own efforts to ‘integrate’ and to be productive members of society (Kaneva and Popescu 2014); as a consequence, many Italians are taught – and often overtake – the distinction between the naturalized categories of ethnic Romanians and Romanian Gypsies. This turned out to be one of the informal policies of Romanian embassy officials, too: as an Italian police officer explained to me, Romanian officials had specifically asked the police in Rome to downplay the Romanian citizenship of any Roma in their public discourses and emphasize, instead, their “gypsiness,” explaining that the distinction is important to Romanians.

Indeed, the idea that Romanian Roma would bring bad reputation to the country is a pervasive and widely circulated trope in Romania. The Gypsies would shame Romanians, by virtue of the citizenship inscribed in their passports, but also, and importantly, if and when they call themselves “Roma;” this, is repeatedly argued, leads to confusions between the Roma and Romania, thought to be the land of the Gypsies. It is this particular logic and the obsession of distinction that has brought under way repeated legislative proposals to ban the ethnonym Roma and impose the exonym Gypsy in official documents, precisely to avoid confusion between Romanians and Roma abroad. The numerous proposals and petitions circulated since as early as 1991 were fiercely supported (and sometimes initiated) by various ministers of external affairs (Horváth and Nastasă 2012), suggesting that these symbolic status battles were fought in the blurred space between “home” and “abroad” spanned by Romanian migration. The Gypsy, thus, became a sort of national inferiority complex, but one which acquires all the more strength by virtue of the inferior status of Romanian migrants in Western Europe.

In his conceptualization of racial Europeanization, Goldberg mentions the Roma briefly in the case of violent attacks against them in Italy (2009: 351), and spends one single sentence elsewhere, claiming that “Roma, whose distant source was the Indian sub-continent, have never been thought to belong”(180). Yet, their framing as “Europe’s quintessential minority” (Goldston 2002: 147), their pervasive racialization in the rights- and security-related discourses and practices, and the ways in which their case constantly challenges notions of belonging and inclusiveness suggest that there is much left unexplored in Goldberg’s racial Europeanization. Drawing on Goldberg’s work, van Baar and Powell (2018) make the case that racism against the Roma is invisibilized through a depoliticization of the root causes of their exclusion in securitarian neoliberalism. My argument supports the claim that the Roma case should be included much more seriously in conceptualizations of racial Europeanization. Yet it also makes the point that distinct racial Western– and Eastern-Europeanization could be fruitfully conceptualized from the dynamics of securitization of the Roma, in a relational manner, as subaltern Eastern Europeans securitize their own identity, producing “nesting Orientalisms” (Bakić-Hayden 1995) as gradations of Europeanness in the differential architectures of the EU “home.”


Ana Ivasiuc is a Romanian anthropologist. She studied Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands, and moved to Paris in 2004 for a Masters degree in Migration and Interethnic Relations at the University of Paris VII Denis Diderot. After that she worked for six years for a Roma NGO in Romania. In 2014, she obtained her Ph.D from the National School of Political Science and Public Administration in Bucharest. Her current postdoc project at the Justus Liebig University of Giessen, Germany – within the Collaborative Research Center ‘Dynamics of Security: Forms of Securitization in Historical Perspective’ – researches the securitization of Eastern European Roma in the context of their migration to Italy. 

Photo: Uzhhorod, Ukraine – April 7, 2017: Participants in the celebration of the International Roma Day perform Romany folk dances in the city center | Shutterstock



[1] For linguistic parsimony, I will speak of “Eastern Europe,” but mean – risking the ire of those who insist on the distinction – “Central and Eastern Europe.”

[2] I take the word “integration” from mainstream political discourses, but keep it within scare quotes to signal the numerous criticisms addressed to the term (Wieviorka 2014).


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Published on December 6, 2017.


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