/ 9 November 2022

What we can learn from EU top diplomat’s racist metaphors

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Josep Borrel’s depiction of Europe as a garden that must protect itself from jungle invaders reveals deeply entrenched feelings of superiority. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

Josep Borrell, vice-president of the European Commission and EU high representative on foreign policy and security, gave an address at the European Diplomatic Academy in Bruges, Belgium, in mid-October which included the following words: 

“Europe is a garden. We have built a garden … The rest of the world … is not exactly a garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle. The jungle could invade the garden. The gardeners should take care of it. The jungle has a strong growth capacity … walls will never be high enough in order to protect the garden. The gardeners have to go to the jungle. Europeans have to be much more engaged with the rest of the world. Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us by different ways and means”.

This has expectedly drawn some condemnation, even though Borrell’s employers are yet to say anything. A few days later, Borrell issued a half-hearted non-apology via a blog post where he doubled down on his obnoxious words, falsely claiming, among other things, that his use of the word “invasion” is in reference to the ongoing war in Ukraine

This is clearly a failed attempt at damage control, perhaps due to the fact that the strongest condemnation (and the only one from a government) so far has come from Russia. As reprehensible as Borrell’s words and ideas are, there might be one or two things that the world can learn from it, especially from the perspective of Africa and formerly colonised countries.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that Borrell has provided further irrefutable evidence of what has been known for at least three centuries — that relations between leaders of the modern Anglo-American political establishment and the rest of the world have been marked by sustained primitive racism among the former, not only in attitude but also in principle, policy and practice. 

Borrell confirms, especially through his non-apology, that the principle, policy and practice of primordial racism towards people of non-European descent in general remains as alive and well today as it has ever been.

Borrell’s specific choice of words and imagery illustrates beyond reasonable doubt that the primary target of his racism is Africa. Given his age and high profile role, it is ludicrous for him to pretend that he does not know that the imagery of the jungle is a classic colonial racist European trope for Africa. Neither can he say that he is unaware that Africa is repeatedly described as having a strong “growth” potential in European discourses of global development. 

Furthermore, the idea that Europe needs to “go to the jungle” to prevent being “invaded” is an unsubtle reference to European border externalisation to block potential asylum-seekers and migrants from Africa. This is expressed through such arrangements as the EU-Turkey, EU-Libya and UK-Rwanda deals, all of which have been roundly condemned by human rights advocates and humanitarian organisations. Rather than deceive anyone, Borrell’s pathetic defence is a pointer to the hubris and illogicality of people like him who have no qualms about insulting our collective intelligence. 

It is no secret that claims of “invasion”, “flooding” or “besieging” is a rallying cry among far-right anti-immigrant politicians, groups and media in Europe and North America. Former US president Donald Trump infamously deployed this trope among his supporters in reference to migrants and asylum seekers who try to enter the US through its southern border with Mexico. So, if indeed, Borrell is ignorant of this and used the word “invasion” in an innocent reference to the Ukraine war, the EU needs to urgently reconsider how it chooses its chief diplomat!

Borrell’s garden-versus-jungle, invader-versus-invaded, figure of speech is a precise example of the classic racist us-versus-them, self-versus-other colonial binary logic. His innovative version is complete with the oppositional, adversarial racist hierarchy constructed between “white” and “black”; the West and the rest and between the presumed “good”, “attractive” European and the imagined “evil”, “repulsive” non-European “savage”. 

This monochrome social imagination, which seeks to demean those who are different in one way or another, is what Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said eloquently theorised in 1978 as Orientalism. 

This leads to what is perhaps the most important insight to be learned from Borrell’s speech, namely the pathological anxiety to be seen as better than, which is at the core of modern Anglo-American macho supremacist self-conception. For individuals like Borrell – mostly heterosexual males of European descent — it is not enough to be good, rich or strong. They seem tortured by a megalomaniac desire to be seen as better, richer and stronger than the other; at the expense of the other. 

It is an anxiety which pushes the self to project its own frailties and weaknesses onto the other while making false claims of superiority. Little wonder we find such people in the habit of often arbitrarily describing themselves in superlatives — the best this, the top that — using contrived and tinkered measurements with questionable verifiability, robustness and objectivity.

Which is where the real problem lies. Why? Because those who are desperate to be considered superior to others at all costs and by all means invariably engage in subterfuge and are experts at activities that undermine and destabilise others. 

This is part of the psychological inspiration for the Berlin Conference of 1884, the unending exploitation of non-European lands and economies as well as the deliberate disadvantaging, exclusion and marginalisation of the majority through deliberate rigging in virtually all domains of global engagement, especially in trade and commerce. We can understand Borrell’s words as a reminder of the ethos of zero-sum, self-centred ruthlessness that drives Anglo-American hegemony.

Borrell’s shameless triumphal claim that “we have built a garden” also reminds us of the inherently deceitful and selective nature of neocolonial Anglo-American historiography and knowledge production. While he may have conveniently forgotten, the rest of the world is fully aware that Europe’s relative prosperity and stability today was only made possible by its plunder, mass murder and enslavement of non-Europeans. 

It is an open secret that the Global North is not sustained by its much-vaunted good governance or economic sagacity but actually by continuing systematic exploitation, destabilisation and discrimination of Africa and the rest of the non-Western world. Let’s just say that not everyone is as “ignorant” as Borrell wants us to believe he is.

The fact that he has not been rebuked (and will probably never be rebuked) by his employers indicates that Borrell is speaking the mind of the European political establishment and that his words and ideas are commonly exchanged in their secure WhatsApp group chit-chats. 

His bold-faced, self-congratulatory gloat emphasises why the project of decolonising education, knowledge production and modern international relations as a whole, has to proceed at greater speed and with even greater urgency. 

As we face what might be the greatest intellectual challenge of our time, Borrell’s Freudian slip is a wake-up call to all of us — students, teachers, scholars, policymakers, politicians, civil society and community leaders across Africa and the world — that the time to decolonise is now. 

Aghogho Akpome is a senior lecturer in the English department at the University of Zululand. He is a National Research Foundation-rated researcher and writes in his personal capacity.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.