Ever since Maria Todorova’s publication of Imagining the Balkans in 1997, there has been a growing literature on the topic of identity and its social construction in the European discourse. This discussion in the academic literature has particularly benefitted from the constructivist turn in European studies, which has enabled Political Scientists, Sociologists and Areas Studies experts to ask how identity questions affect the process of European integration and the European Union’s enlargement policy.
Radeljić’s edited volume needs to be seen in light of this growing interest on identity and its changes in the process of Europeanization. In fact, as the editor states in his first chapter, “with numerous political and socioeconomic challenges as of the European integrationist project, the notions of multiculturalism and European identity have served to restate Europe’s diversities and expose inconsistencies with regard to the treatment of the Other” (p. 9). This book is indeed about the two aspects of this sentence – Europe’s and the EU’s self-perception and the creation of “Others”, either in Eastern Europe, in the Balkans, or in Turkey. This process of “Othering” is fundamentally also a process of self-definition, as Europe and Europeans define what they are, they also highlight what they are not, for example in relation to Islam as a religion in the case of Turkey.
The book is organised in 12 chapters, and a preface by the editor. In the first chapter Radeljić focuses on the complex process of identity formation and re-creation in Europe and the EU. He highlights how different elite and public discourses have affected the perception of other people(s) and countries, from Turkey to the Balkans and the countries of the former Soviet Union. What is surprising is that the EU has a generally positive and inclusive self-image, which tries to focus on geographic criteria rather than on ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic, or cultural aspects. Yet, while the EU has a positive image of itself as a multicultural, multireligious and tolerant actor, there are growing tendencies of “Othering” that undermine this self-image. These are based on public scepticism and elite stereotypes towards Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey.
In the following chapter, Jan Kvĕtina looks at Poland’s historical self-definition and Othering towards Europe, while Marius-Mircea Mitrache focuses on the French understanding of East-Central Europe between 1871 and 1925. At a time of Great Power rivalry in Europe and on the outset of the First World War, there were different perceptions of East-Central Europe in France. In the next chapter, Jasmin Hasanović looks at the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and links the current Europeanization discourse to the processes of Balkanization and auto-colonialization. Bosnia, so Hasanović, was first stigmatized as a key example of ethnic hatred and state failure in the wake of Yugoslavia, before in the late 1990s the European enlargement discourse pretended that EU integration is the only option to fix the country and overcome its internal divisions. EU enlargement, like colonial occupation, is seen as natural, and without alternative, which does not require wider debate and discussions amongst the Bosnian population. Kürşad Ertuğrul argues that the relationship between Turkey and Europe has always been dominated by Othering and what is labelled as “an eternal suspense”. This may include suspicion, Othering, but also the recognition that the two need each other. William Jay Risch looks at Ukraine’s Maidan revolution and its effect on the European discourse in the country. Whilst the beginning of the revolution was clearly linked to a commitment to Europe and the West, the country remains divided in its self-portrayal between East and West, Russia and the EU. Whilst the post-Maidan political development has strengthened Ukraine’s self-positioning towards the West, Russia’s current military actions (since February 2022) can be seen as a desperate attempt to prevent the self-positioning and eventual integration of Ukraine in the West, as a member of the EU and NATO.
In the second part of the book titled “Between Present and Future”, articles look at Georgia (Lia Tsuladze), Macedonia (Biljana Vankovska), Kosovo (Leandrit I. Mehmeti), Albania (Megena Pengili) and Turkey through the lens of critical political economy (Elif Uzgören). In her Conclusion, Zuzana Lučkay Mihailčinová focuses on the topic of dignity and how Europe needs to regain its dignity in exchange and interaction with its self-constructed Other in the East. She links her discussion on dignity to Radeljić’s arguments in the first chapter. Distinguishing between human dignity and a more functional dignity involved in the EU’s engagement with countries in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey, she identifies the conflicting nature of what Europeanness means and how European identity is constructed and deconstructed over time.
This is an interesting book, with some thought-provoking contributions. The discussions on how Europe, Europeans and the EU portray countries that want to join or that self-identify as European but are not part of the EU club remains highly relevant. At a time where the EU’s enlargement framework is failing the candidate and potential candidate countries in the Balkans, when Turkey’s membership in the EU has de facto been giving up on, and where the relationship of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to the EU require a new framework, this work makes an important contribution. Whilst the chapter selection at times feels random (for example, why are there two chapters on Turkey but none on Serbia, which itself has struggled to define as a “Western” country in the wake of the 1999 Kosovo war?), there is nevertheless a wealth of interesting cases discussed here. Not all chapters offer the same level of analytical depth and original contribution (for example the chapters on Ukraine and Bosnia offer an interesting summary of previously existing discussions and literature), but some contributions, such as the first and the last chapter, provide some thought-provoking, if at times controversial, new insights. The book will be particularly relevant for advanced students on courses in the wider field of European studies, those interested in EU enlargement, and those that want to learn more why identity matters and discourses still shape politics (and vice versa). In light of recent events in Ukraine, this books offers an interesting perspective on how Europe, and the West more generally, portray themselves, look at Others, and allow for the creation of inclusive and exclusive identity narratives and discussions.