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Could a Global Pandemic Defeat the Rule of European Difference?

The rule of European difference

Self-reflexive European conversations have produced a great variety of genres. They proceed on diverse levels of abstraction, attend to a wide range of topics and recur in numerous narrative situations, showing slight modifications depending on who is speaking to whom about whom. There is one common feature in all that variety: We are all taught to honour a single hierarchy of moral goodness. 

‘Europe,’ an evocative synecdoche that signifies almost exclusively the societies, cultures, economies, polities, folkways, etc. of western Europe, is always already at the top of this order. Everyone else, in non-western Europe or elsewhere, will be placed, perforce, on the lower rungs of goodness. Non-west-European subjects are cordially invited to join this celebration of west European goodness; this admiration is a condition for admission to the conversation.

To what extent this puerile (self-)elevation of the “western” subject is a necessary ideological component of what the intellectual-expert-politician-bureaucrat elites of the EU call “European construction” is not entirely obvious to me. It does have its origins in the Enlightenment,[1] i.e. in a historical era that preceded the establishment of the geopolitical institution of the European Union by many generations. The trouble with this discursive practice is not (only) that it is childish, exclusivist and humiliating; the real problem is that it forefends meaningful conversation. Clearly, in order for a global, or indeed European, public discussion to become a truly open, rational, fair, equitable and inclusive cultural exchange, west European narrators and their lackeys elsewhere need to be weaned away from such complexes of superiority. In this essay I define the rule of European difference and ask to what extent it is possible that the last few years’ shocks, from Brexit to the global coronavirus pandemic, might have made it easier to bring the European conversation to a more equal footing. Of special interest to me is the chatter about, and involving, the “other Europe,” the erstwhile state-socialist societies outside western Europe.

Almost fifteen years ago I proposed the concept of the rule of European difference to capture a particular configuration of west European superiority narratives.[2] I developed it as an extension of Partha Chatterjee’s notion of the rule of colonial difference.[3] Chatterjee’s idea defined the centre-piece of the moral geopolitics of repressive, colonial “dominance without hegemony”[4] by positing a matter-of-fact west European superiority, a form of exceptionalism bordering on a veritable solipsism.[5]

The colonial mindset performed two acts of erasing: “wip[ing] away all acts of evil that have taken place within [western] Europe, and set[ing western] Europe apart from the rest of the world.” [6]  As I found in the context of the emergence and successive expansions of the European Union, that “rest” routinely included various “non-western” localities within geographical Europe.

The rule of European difference introduced three further specifications to its colonial genus as it applied the purportedly global moral code of that singular west European goodness to the very existence of, and conditions in, the eastern flanks of west European centres. Its proponents insisted that not only globally, but also within geographical Europe, the essential human quality of goodness was found very unevenly. Locations outside western Europe, including within geographical Europe itself, were thus, by and large, stamped by an insufficiency, or the outright opposite, of goodness, marking the populations of these parts with a sense of privation in goodness—a quality the same narrative posits, as an essential component of humanity. The rule of European difference “found” goodness in highest empirical density in western (northern, north-western, or west-central) Europe.[7] 

As a result of this putative geospatial inequality in goodness, humanity, and, by strong implication human-ness itself, was, at least partly, questioned or, in some extreme cases, outright denied to the peoples that inhabited the lands outside western Europe. A large number of studies in a multiplicity of disciplines[8]  have come to very similar conclusions regarding, and found overwhelming evidence for, the operation of the rule of European difference.

An example will help illustrate how the rule of European difference operates. In the summer of 1995, I was doing fieldwork in the Enlargement Directorate of the European Union. I interviewed professionals involved in negotiations with, and creating the official evaluation of the membership applications of, the erstwhile state socialist states of east-central Europe. My interviewees — diplomats and other civil servants from the then member states of the EU (perhaps by coincidence, each of them with personal ties to the colonial history of their respective states) — carried on an admirably self-disciplined conversation, mainly about technicalities: “meeting the targets”, “extending the rule of law,” that sort of thing. 

Throughout the interviews, I kept coming back to asking whether, given the prevailing moral geopolitics of the time,  they really thought it was feasible , given the prevailing moral geopolitics of the time, for the EU not to admit the former-state-socialist part of the ‘continent’ on account of some technicalities. Plainly, I wanted to find out how my interlocutors “really” perceived their soon-to-be fellow-EU-member societies, given their identities as west Europeans and expert-technocrat-subjects who were negotiating  the terms of “eastern enlargement,” arguably the most momentous transformation of the geopolitics of the continent at the time.

Once I asked any version of this question, my interviewees would shift in their seats, stare out of the window with a mix of melancholy and embarrassment, and remain silent, displaying the polite body language of the diplomat who had been asked an inappropriate question. They would quickly change the subject.[9]

One of my interviewees might have taken pity on the ever so courteous but slightly frustrated sociologist — as I must have come across to him — and decided to grace my queries with an off-the-cuff remark as he was walking me to the elevator, with my voice recorder safely tucked away in my backpack:

Nobody wants yet another Greece in the EU. One is plenty. The Greeks have made deceit into an art form. Everybody knows that none of their economic figures is accurate. The Commission’s money goes there and disappears in a sinkhole, never to be seen again.

He launched into this remark on Greece with no apropos – Greece didn’t even come up in the preceding conversation. The only way I can read this shift is that Greece served, for my interlocutor, as a synecdochic marker for eastern-Europe-as-a-whole, a location suffering from an insufficiency of goodness.

The formula is rich in its implications and firm in its judgment.  Painting the [Greek < east European][10] society-subject as untrustworthy, sly, corrupt, parasitical, lazy, easy with the west’s hard earned money and essentially undisciplined, he gave me a perfect instance of the informal, discursive Orientalism that marks narrative forms produced about “east” European societies. (It also ominously pre-figured the “northern” rhetoric that unfolded in the “Greek financial crisis” a generation later.[11]) That he should apply the “Greece” analogy to the entirety of the eleven “eastern” applicant states, from Slovenia to Estonia and Bulgaria to the Czech Republic, qualifies this as an iconic product of the rule of European difference.

Much has happened since the mid-nineties. The EU has engaged in three bouts of “eastern” enlargements, with eleven erstwhile-state-socialist states having become members. Nine of them are part of the Schengen scheme at the writing of this essay in May 2020. Seven years after their inclusion, citizens of the new member states were granted full EU citizenship, including the individual rights to move, settle and work anywhere in the territory of the EU.

The “Big Bang” enlargement complicated internal politics considerably but did not increase the EU’s global economic weight.[12] (At last count, the EU accounted for only about 16.5% of the world economy, signalling that the second decade of the 21st century saw a noticeable decline in the global economic weight of the European Union, putting it increasingly at a disadvantage vis-à-vis its most powerful rivals, particularly the People’s Republic of China.) In 2017, the eleven former-state-socialist states together represented a minuscule 2.3% of the world economy, accounting for 11.5% of the total national income of the European Union.[13] Meanwhile, they jointly held 11 of the 28, i.e. just under forty percent, of the total veto power in the EU’s strategic decisions.

Half a generation elapsed, and the electorate of the UK—the second largest economic unit of the EU at the time—suddenly found the alleged presence of the anecdotal “Polish Plumber”[14] on British soil so difficult to tolerate that it decided to quit the EU, taking along its 3.5% share in the world economy, equivalent to approximately 17.5% of the EU’s total national income.[15] With the three enlargements and Brexit, the centre mass of the European Union has shifted eastward by several hundred kilometres, making it a considerably more central European entity. The secession of the United Kingdom (“the trauma of Brexit”), with its long liberal traditions, with its standoffish attitude to “continental” influence on the EU, with one of the world’s three largest financial centres, and an entryway for the desperately needed “brain drain” into European space from the Global South also dampened the optimism for the future of “European integration” among significant parts of west European intellectual and media elites.

Two Shocks and an Opportunity

It was in this, somewhat fatigued context of the “European” public conversation on Self and Other that the pandemic hit the world in early January 2020.  The coronavirus will have, no doubt, a profound, to a large extent not yet estimable impact on the world. Here I focus only on its possible effects on the European conversation. I have noted three processes that seem particularly pertinent to the global moral hierarchies embedded in both rules of difference, colonial as well as European.

First, the near-complete absence of a community-level, supra-state EU-response to the coronavirus, especially during the all-important first few weeks, left most observers astonished. Metaphorically speaking, at first news of the pandemic, Brussels went into home office mode.  Even three months after the outbreak, most of the EU’s response has a monetarist-minimalist touch, i.e. appears distant and uninvolved. The EU is creating financial instruments to help balance the member states’ soon-to-be-depleted budgets and to subsidize Big Capital in western Europe (referring to the latter, in classic neoliberal jargon, as “restarting the economy”).

There is virtually no conversation about technology transfer, no centralized, equitable and efficient supra-state distribution of health care and preventive resources, no transnational mobility of teams of experts and rescue personnel other than the Cuban and Russian medical personnel dispatched to Italy as goodwill missions. Shipments of protective equipment destined to other member states were held back at ports and airports.  Nobody even raised an eyebrow.  The glaring absence of EU-level, official expressions of transnational solidarity is clearly shown in the publicity the German state received when it made the symbolic gesture of transferring a few hundred hospitalized patients from Italy to vacant hospital beds in Germany.

It would be difficult to conceive of “Brussels’” “response” to the coronavirus as an example of Margot Wallstrom’s[16] elegant 2007 moniker for the EU as “Solutions United.”[17] Facing an epidemiological menace of as-yet-unknown character and magnitude, with no help from “Brussels,” each member state turned inward, in almost complete unison. Thus far, the European public has seen twenty-seven, almost completely “national” efforts; the handling of the crisis has been neither “European” nor “united” in any meaningful way. The loss of human lives, especially in Italy, created such a jolt that some Italian voices on the extreme-nationalist, xenophobic and overall anti-EU Right began openly flaunting the possibility of an Italian exit from the EU.

There are some serious questions just what the “sharing and pooling of sovereignty” means if the supposedly unified space of common “European” governance, widely hailed as the historic civilizational achievement of western Europe, is carved up into twenty-seven “national” fortresses in an instance, ostensibly to “flatten” the national curves of coronavirus infections. In other words, the most violent means of “border protection” available to the member states are launched to exclude all non-co-nationals, including fellow Schengen citizens, from the benefits of that protection. Meanwhile, apparently, it is possible to open the borders — i.e. endanger the lives of both the incoming seasonal workers and the populations of the areas where they are to be employed — to cater to relatively small, niche capital interests.  

On April 22, 2020, Der Spiegel reported the death of Nicolae Bahan, a Romanian farm worker employed in an asparagus harvest in Bad Krozingen

(On April 22, 2020, Der Spiegel reported the death of Nicolae Bahan, a Romanian farm worker employed in an asparagus harvest in Bad Krozingen)

The second shock caused by the onset of the pandemic had to do with the ways in which such bastions of law and order, not to mention proponents of the rule of law in all international fora, as Germany and Austria joined the — by then non-EU-member — UK in creating epidemiologically unjustifiable, informal, local exceptions to the otherwise very strictly observed closure of their own borders. Czech and Slovak, Romanian and Bulgarian elder care workers being brought into Austria, some through the shared borders, others by nocturnal, “under-the-radar” train transports through Hungary as well as chartered flights carrying masses of seasonal workers to work in Germany’s all-important asparagus harvest, the mass coronavirus infections of predominantly Romanian guest workers in German slaughterhouses — all these news have been hammering into an already weary European polity in which, in reality, “national interests,” such as they might be, automatically trump “Solutions United.” Social media suggest that increasing numbers of politically interested people around the world have begun wondering what the actual value of human lives is in the current European spatio-social order, when measured against the market price of, say, fresh asparagus.[18]

It is difficult to dismiss the sense that, judging from the practices of the German or the Austrian states, the value of all “Europeans” is not quite equal. This sense is amplified by the news of the abysmal working and living conditions, as well as the low pay, of the seasonal labour force brought in through the supposedly “sealed” borders. Needless to say, most seasonal workers are going to west European EU-member states from east-(central) — i.e. the poorest and, most relevant to my argument, matter-of-factly inferiorised — parts of the European Union. The most sought-after seasonal workers come from Romania and Bulgaria, two member states that have not yet become part of the Schengen area, i.e. the demand for seasonal labour is satisfied by risking the lives of not-quite-yet rights-bearing fellow citizen-subjects of the European Union.

And that brings me to the third and, for me, most provocative, implication of the coronavirus pandemic for the rule of European difference. About a month or so into the spread of the pandemic, statisticians working on morbidity data noticed that various parts of Europe report radically different rates of morbidity. By now news of such inequalities have given rise to serious political grandstanding. The government of Hungary, for instance, has been taking credit for the country’s relatively low infection figures as if it were relating the memory of the football “match of the century” wherein the “national” team of Hungary beat England 6-3 in 1953. The only flaw in the claim of “national triumph” is of course that Hungary does not seem to be the only “victor” here. All erstwhile-state-socialist societies of “backward eastern Europe” are reporting considerably lower infection rates than western Europe.

The former-state-socialist, “eastern” parts of the continent report much fewer coronavirus cases. Figure 1 plots the infection rates per million population for all countries[19] in geographical Europe,[20] by the country’s per capita Gross National Income in 2017.[21]

Based on these data, we must conclude that the geographical space of Europe, spread between the Atlantic and the Urals, might not follow a single pattern of morbidity. One pattern appears to cover the richer societies of western, northern and southern Europe; the other stands for all three sub-groups of those on the “eastern” flanks.[22]

I have no interest in a detailed epidemiological conversation here. I don’t know whether this pattern is a result of some as-yet unexplained protective factor thanks to the BCG vaccine (that would apply predominantly to the former-state-socialist contexts), whether it has to do with the spatial distribution of populations, the size of cities, population density, or whether it is caused by differences in the degrees to which societies in various parts of Europe have physical exposure to the rest of the world, given the location of their ports, airports, road structure, etc.  I am only interested in this distribution here to the extent it suggests that there might be a difference between the two “halves” of Europe, one that seems to match the carving of the continent promoted with so much power by the rule of European difference: it appears that there is at least one, relatively significant dimension in which the supposed hierarchy of the two halves might perhaps be reversed.

I am, however, very interested in how the spatial patterns of physical geography that emerge from this distribution translate into moral geopolitics. I am only quoting these data because they help raise a particularly important question regarding the relationships between the two “halves” of the European Union, about how we should (re-)read the historical legacies of economic history (as the eastern parts of the continent have had, throughout the centuries of their modern history, middling levels of accumulation, i.e. considerably lower than their former colonizer counterparts in western Europe) and the more recent legacies of state socialism.[23]

My intent is to point out that, even if we don’t know what exactly is making the societies of the “eastern” half of the geographical continent produce so much lower figures of infection than the western parts of Europe, the distinct distribution of morbidity suggests that there is at least a tiny modicum of advantage in the two historical features that set the societies of the “eastern” half of the continent apart from the rest:  having had a history of state socialism—for which they are routinely vilified politically—and “backwardness”—for which they are routinely patronized.  

Should the European conversation aim to transcend the rule of European difference, the coronavirus pandemic appears to have given it a unique opportunity to do so.

József Böröcz is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey and Research Professor at Corvinus University of Budapest. To find out more about his scholarship, consult . During writing of this essay, the author was a Fulbright fellow at the Institute for Social Studies at the University of Warsaw. He is grateful for useful comments and suggestions made on earlier versions of this piece by Ferenc Laczó, Attila Melegh and the editors at LeftEast.


[1] See, most prominently, Larry Wolff’s foundational work, Inventing Eastern Europe: The map of civilization on the mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 1994, as well as much of Wolff’s later oeuvre.

[2] The literature on narratives of western superiority is too vast to cite it here in detail. See the two items most relevant to east-central Europe: Wolff, Inventing . . ., and Milica Bakić-Hayden, “Nesting Orientalisms: The Case of Former Yugoslavia,” Slavic Review, 54, 4 (Winter, 1995): 917-931.

[3] Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments. Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1993.

[4] Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), 1997 (1986–1987),

[5] József Böröcz, „Goodness Is Elsewhere: The Rule of European Difference,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2006, 48, 1:110-38.

[6] Ibid., p. 126.

[7] Summary of the argument of ibid., p. 129-130.

[8] See, e.g., Manuela Boatcă, “Multiple Europes and the Politics of Difference Within,” Worlds and Knowledges Otherwise, Spring 2013, The study of Europe (pp. 51-66). Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG,  Manuela Boatcă, “No Race to the Swift: Negotiating Racial Identity in Past and Present Eastern Europe,” Human Architecture: Journal in the Sociology of Self-Knowledge,  2006, 5, 1:91-104., József Böröcz and Mahua Sarkar, “The Unbearable Whiteness of the Polish Plumber and the Hungarian Peacock Dance around ‘Race’,” Slavic Review, 2017, 76, 2: 307-314, Antoinette Burton, „Not Even Remotely Global? Method and Scale in World History,” History Workshop Journal 2007, 64: 1, pp. 323-328, Ágnes Gagyi, “Coloniality of Power” in East Central Europe: External Penetration As Internal Force in Post-Socialist Hungarian Politics,” Journal of World-System Research, 2016, 22, 2: 349-372, Barbara Hooper and Olivier T. Kramsch, „Post-Colonising Europe: The Geopolitics of Globalisation, Empire and Borders: Here and There, Now and Then,’” Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 2007, 98, 4: 526–534, Banu Karaca, Governance of or through culture? Cultural policy and the politics of culture in Europe,” Focaal—European Journal of Anthropology, 2009, 55: 27-40, Olivier Thomas Kramsch, „Negotiating the “Spatial Turn” in European Cross-Border Governance: Notes on a Research Agenda,” Geopolítica(s), 2011, 2, 2: 185-207, Adam Kubiak, „Impostors and Wardens. Lost in the Peripheral Trap of Identity,” Wschodni Rocznik Humanistyczny, XVI (2019), No1 s. 135-147, Attila Melegh, On the East-West slope: Globalization, nationalism, racism and discourses on Eastern Europe. Central European University Press, 2006, Hadley Renkin, ”Biopolitical mythologies: Róheim, Freud, (homo)phobia, and the sexual science of Eastern European Otherness,” Sexualities, 2016, 19.1-2: 168-189. , Shannon Woodcock, „Romania and EUrope: Roma, Rroma and Ţigani as sites for the contestation of ethno-national identities,” Patterns of Prejudice, 2007, 41, 5: 493-515.

[9] All this took place in the office building of the European Commission named after Charlemagne, the ninth-century Frankish ruler whose empire unified west-central Europe for a couple of generations, with the territories east of its realm—today referred to as east-central Europe–serving as tribute paying military borderlands. The end of the Carolingian Empire is conventionally dated in the year 888– eight years before the arrival of the Magyar tribes into the Carpathian basin, about five generations or so before the first Christian kingdoms were established in Poland and Hungary. That I should wonder about the choice of that name after the ruler who unified the west central part of the continent and kept the territories to the east as tax paying subordinates occurred to me only after my departure from Brussels.

[10] I use the sign “<” to mean “stands for.”

[11] See Ágnes Jele, „The Reflection of Central Bank Communication in the Media: (De)constructing a Common European Public Sphere,” paper presented at CEECOM, the 11th Central and East European Communication Conference, Szeged, May 31-June 1, 2019.

[12] For more on global economic weight and its significance for geopolitical economy, see József Böröcz. The European Union and Global Social Change: A Critical Geopolitical-Economic Analysis. Cambridge, UK: Routledge, 2009, especially chapters 1 and 4.

[13] Author’s computation from World Bank data presented at IBRD, World Development Indicators, online dataset, Gross National Income (constant 2010 US$)(NY.GNP.MKTP.KD), as of 23 May 2020.

[14]See Böröcz and Sarkar, “The Unbearable Whiteness. . .”.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Wallstrom was Commissioner for Communications in the Barroso Commission.

[17] “Barroso: European Union is ‘non-imperial empire’ (long version).” Video of press conference of the Barroso Commission, 10 July 2007, online at , 5:10.

[18] This is not idle speculation. On April 22, 2020, Der Spiegel reported the death of Nicolae Bahan, a Romanian farm worker employed in an asparagus harvest in Bad Krozingen, Germany. See: Nils Klawitter und Keno Verseck, „Ein Leben für den Spargel.” Der Spiegel, as of June 8, 2020.

[19] The red patch marks the successor states of former Yugoslavia, the maroon covers the erstwhile USSR, the orange one highlights the rest of former-state-socialist east-central Europe, and the blue one covers the European that had never been state socialist.

[20] I am of course well aware of the methodological flaws of a comparison based on partial—European—data. In fact I am strongly convinced that a global comparative-historical analysis of the coronavirus morbidity data is absolutely necessary, as it will help us come to a better understanding of global health. I only show these data because they are relevant to the European conversation.

[21] The morbidity estimates come from the website Our World In Data at ; GNI for 2018 data have been taken from the World Development Indicators Tdataset of the World Bank at .

[22] Serbia and Greece are the only notable exceptions from this rule, being outliers in opposite directions.

[23] It is interesting to note that the same combination of factors — a longue-durée history of middle-income position and the recent histories of state socialism — also characterise Cuba and the Russian Federation, the two states that have been invited to provide “hands-on” help in the Italian coronavirus crisis.