The anxious Union. Overcoming the culture of insecurity

By Marius Ghincea | Florence

The European Union prides itself on ‘making war unthinkable’ among its member states, and credits the European integration process for the great achievement of Pax Europaea, the longest period of peace in much of Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Making war unthinkable and materially impossible was the main original purpose of the European project, and represents one of the main pillars of the narrative of European identity that legitimises the European Union, at the same time providing it with significant global normative power (Schuman 1950; Diez and Manners 2007). But if Pax Europaea has been such a stupendous success, then why are the Europeans feeling so insecure, fearful and anxious about so many issues?

Successive surveys have shown that Europeans do not feel secure in an otherwise peaceful Europe, with fears and anxieties running higher in the last decade than at any other point in time since the end of the Cold War (Eurobarometer 89 2018; Borger et al. 2015). The regular Eurobarometer published by the European Commission and other surveys show increased levels of insecurity and anxiety linked with factors unrelated to the more ‘traditional’ aspects of security, such as socio-economic well-being, personal safety and terrorism, climate change, and immigration and national identity, especially in Central and Eastern Europe (Eurobarometer 88, 89; Dennison et al. 2018; Hunyadi 2016). These findings confirm that while military-related insecurity has diminished since the end of the Cold War, other types of insecurities have become more prominent and emerged to replace the ‘traditional’ fears that dominated Cold War-era Europe.

In the last decade, the European Union has faced significant, even unprecedented, overlapping challenges for which in the eyes of many Europeans it has frequently failed to provide adequate solutions. And even when it did so, the emergence and overlapping character of these challenges created social and political reactions that still have the potential to undermine the European project (Kinnvall, Manners, Mitzen 2018).

These overlapping challenges undermine not only the credibility of the European Union as an effective actor, at home and on the global stage, but also show the fluid and artificial character of external/internal divisions. External challenges like the refugee flows from the war-torn Middle East, the lingering conflict in Ukraine and the resurgence of a bellicose Russia converge with domestic crises caused by a decade of economic stagnation in much of Europe, the emergence of nativist populism across Europe, and the unpredictable Brexit process.

These external and internal challenges are serious and pose various levels of risk to the security of the European Union. The legitimacy and normative power of the EU on the world stage and at home depend on successfully providing not only effective solutions, but also a sense of security.

The existential threat to Europe is not necessarily the sum of the challenges and crises pressuring it, which in themselves are manageable. The future of the European Union hinges on its ability to manage the culture of insecurity that dominates the European public spaces, which is effectively taking hold of the public agenda.

The challenges and crises that Europe faces are real, but the way the European societies relate to them, through the lens of a dominant culture of insecurity, makes Europe incapable of acting effectively.

This culture of insecurity produces political paralysis, creates societal instability and narrows the policy options available to decision-makers, while at the same time decoupling them from the set of values and principles that define the European identity and its political tradition.

The challenges and crises that Europe faces are real, but the way the European societies relate to them, through the lens of a dominant culture of insecurity, makes Europe incapable of acting effectively, undermining its political institutions and its fundamental values. It forces European nations to look inward instead of outward, narrowing their focus to providing immediate relief to these deep-seated and culturally produced anxieties and fears.

Moreover, this insecurity is being encouraged by foreign rivals through information warfare, and instrumentalised by far-right and far-left domestic parties against the political mainstream, fuelling radicalism, heightening political alienation, and halting progress on important issues.

In order to overcome the various challenges facing Europe, the European Union and its member states must tackle the ideational and material sides of this systemic crisis simultaneously. The problem posed by the culture of insecurity that dominates European public life will not disappear even if all the external and internal challenges are resolved.

The dramatic decrease in the number of refugees arriving on Europe’s shores, basically ending the refugee crisis, has not decreased immigration and identitarian anxieties, as the most recent surveys show. While this culture of insecurity provides some opportunities for enhanced cohesion and solidarity, at least on some issues, it primarily creates political paralysis and undermines European and national political institutions.

Therefore, it is essential that the European institutions and national governments manage this culture of insecurity systematically and through a decentralised but coordinated pan-European strategy aimed at decreasing the sense of insecurity and increasing the sense of hope and trust in political institutions.

The purpose of this article is twofold. First, I focus on the production of insecurity in Europe, drawing attention to how insecurities emerge, become naturalised and are taken for granted, forgetting that these are essentially social artefacts that are culturally produced by our societies (Weldes et al. 1999, 9). The way we conceive the world and the events affecting us are shaped by these ‘taken for granted’ insecurities that permeate our culture and public discourse. Cultures of (in)securities define the way the general public and the elites perceive and respond to challenges and crises, empowering certain actors and policy options while marginalising others.

Second, I suggest several approaches that may provide effective and relatively efficient alternatives to the culture of insecurity that dominates the European public spheres. The most significant approach consists in mixing narratives with policy actions targeting the symbolic references of Europe’s insecurities. These include the promotion of counter-narratives that deploy rejuvenated liberal myths, and of the memory of the past, both as positive and as negative, in conjunction with proactive policy measures to reduce the immediate day-to-day worries about the future.

What is a ‘culture of insecurity’?

On culture

‘Culture’ has long been a fundamentally contested concept (Gallie 1956; Cobley 2008) which often awakens passionate debates over its meaning, characteristics, and even its purposefulness. Even so, culture permeates much of the existing scholarship in the social sciences, especially in political science and anthropology.

Moreover, our societies rely on ‘culture’ as an important symbolic tool to justify and describe collective and individual behaviour, historical processes, and even societal and institutional frameworks. Culture represents a system of intersubjective meanings, reinforced by practices and institutions, that human collectivities use to weigh and interpret physical and social reality.  

These systems function through meaningful symbols produced, reproduced, and disseminated through discourses, practices, and institutions. In turn, these dictate social acceptability, behaviour, desire, thoughts, and feelings. Culture, as an ideational structure shared by a human collectivity, provides a coherent, consistent, and continuous way of looking at the world, offering the necessary tools for effective and, sometimes, efficient decision-making.

 Culture liberates and constrains, creating the tools for comprehending the world but at the same time setting the limits of this comprehension. Moreover, culture plays a determinate role in defining identity, providing ontological security and oftentimes a sense of purpose. The culture(s) of our societies can make us feel secure and strong or insecure and weak, irrespective of the facts on the ground and our actual strength. The events in the physical and social world become meaningful through our social interpretation of them, and this interpretation subsequently defines our response (Berger and Luckmann 1966).

 This interpretation is neither pre-given nor universal in nature; it emerges from the constant competition between social narratives and performative practices that dominate the public sphere. This competition produces winners and losers, and the winning interpretative narrative and practices become habitualized and naturalized through mutual acceptance. Therefore, it is important to note that our own insecurities are not the direct product of the challenges we face, but are the result of the dominant interpretation of these challenges, which can be explicit or implicit.

On the production of insecurity

When it comes to the production of insecurity, we can distinguish between two main ways of creating a sense of insecurity in humans: linguistic and practice-based approaches. These two approaches can be performed separately or together, converging or diverging depending on the specific social and political context. Insecurity is not produced only in reaction to exogenous or endogenous social and physical events, but it may also produce these events in a circular process of co-constitution. Even more, these processes are the ones establishing the border between what is conceived as security and insecurity (Bigo and McCluskey 2018, 2-3).

First, the linguistic production of insecurity is realized through so-called processes of securitization. Securitization is a discursive process that transforms nonpolitical or political matters into ‘security’ issues that require extraordinary measures. It represents an extreme form of politicization that justifies extraordinary policies and institutional measures in order to eliminate or alleviate the perceived threat (Buzan et al. 1998, 25).

Such securitisation attempts are undertaken by securitising actors that have the political capital and legitimacy to attract and maintain the attention of a target audience, be it a small elite group in a national government or the general public, which the actor seeks to convince in order to allow for the use of exceptional measures or the reallocation of resources.

The collective securitization of Muslims in the European Union is such an example. Entire religious and ethnic communities have been reframed from benign to collective well-being and security into potentially existential threats (Kaunert and Léonard 2019; Hansen 2011) to European societies in various sectors of life, including public safety, culture and identity, or economic welfare.

Similarly, as Szalai (2017) shows, the refugee crisis that affected Europe starting in 2015 is another well-known case of securitization, which in his words has been a source of ‘enacted melodrama’ performed by the European governments, especially that of Hungary, as a political spectacle that reframed what seemed like a humanitarian crisis into a threatening ‘invasion’ of Europe by non-European, non-Christian immigrants (Szalai 2017; Postelnicescu 2016).

While the linguistic production of insecurity is more typical of those who have political capital, such as politicians and government professionals, it is also possible to engage in securitization from outside the government. Journalists, non-profit actors, and foreign actors are among those with enough resources and access to the public sphere to reframe certain challenges as existential threats to a certain referent object.

Second, the practice-based production of insecurity results through institutional, individual, or collective practices, habitualized procedures, or technologies employed against a target: sometimes with the intention of creating chaos and uncertainty, and at other times to create a perception of security of control. The practices and technologies that seek to produce security can have the side-effect of producing insecurity and co-constituting the security/ insecurity nexus (Pfaff 2010; Bigo 2002, 2014; Huysmans 2002).

In the military field, states are crippled by uncertainties derived from asymmetric information and strategic opacity, always seeking to become relatively invulnerable but always discovering that the pursuit of increased security always causes increased insecurity. This (in)security paradox more often than not produces security dilemmas that spiral into threat and finally war, if states fail to properly signal benign intentions. Similarly, in non-traditional security settings, the pursuit of security often is the catalyst that produces insecurity.

As Didier Bigo shows in his expansive scholarship, European governments’ pursuit of securing Europe’s borders has constituted the threats that these borders are created to protect against. Domestically, the economic and other societal policies and practices that are intended to increase the general welfare are creating the social and identitarian dichotomies that create social conflict and produce deep-seated perceptions of insecurity.

Non-state actors can also produce practice-based insecurities, especially terrorist organizations and radical domestic political movements. Terrorist attacks are practice-based insecurity-inducers that seek to produce fear and uncertainty.

Most terrorist attacks have small material and human consequences, but they produce gigantic insecurities among the target population. This is why some scholars, like Alex Schmid (2006), define terrorism as psychological warfare.

But this is only one side of the coin, because governments that devise counter-terrorist policies and programs also produce insecurity in order to build political support and cohesion around the desired course of action against terrorist organizations (Ahmed 2015). Therefore, it can be said that both state actors and non-state actors produce insecurities for political, strategic, or as a side-effect of other actions or narratives.

When this sense of insecurity becomes systematic, when it is felt by significant segments of society, reframing the public space and changing the social priorities of a collectivity, we can say that a ‘culture of insecurity’ has emerged. The sense of insecurity drives action but can also produce paralysis, which usually requires radical upheavals of the status quo to overcome. It is therefore essential that status quo forces understand the risks – and opportunities – posed by dominant cultures of insecurity.

Producers of insecurity in Europe

The production of insecurity always presupposes the existence of at least two actors’ part in what we may very well call a dialectical transaction. In this transaction, one party tries to inflict upon the other – with or without the acquiescence of the other – fear, anxieties, and a general state of insecurity regarding something the other values.

Generally, an implicit or explicit recognition of a source of insecurity is needed for such a transaction to even be considered by the actors involved. The recipient of the insecurity needs to acquiesce to the dangers posed by the source of insecurity and to develop the emotions, set of beliefs, and behaviour associated with the sense of insecurity. The refusal or even contestation of the insecurity produced may result in the producer failing to achieve the desired outcomes, and may even result in the emergence of counter-interpretations of events and situations.

The production of insecurity can take place through linguistic approaches, which involves convincing an audience about the existential threat posed by something or someone; or through practice-based approaches, like a terrorist attack or the imposition of security-enhancing technologies that themselves constitute the insecurity they seek to prevent.

Both approaches make use of pre-existing myths, interpretations of social reality, and historical & political paradigms that dominate the public space. Nationalism, personal freedom, identity narratives about minorities and non-Europeans provide a framework in which the production of new or resurrected insecurities takes place, and in which these insecurities subsequently compete for attention and dominance of the public space.

In this section, I will discuss the most common producers of insecurity in Europe, in their linguistic and practice-based forms.

Revisionist political groups: producing narratives of insecurity

Far-right and far-left political groups have long traditions of producing anxiety and fear as tools for electoral success. Most European populist parties, both on the right and the left, instrumentalize insecurity as a driver for political success.

When these marginal political groups acquire political power, they transform the production of insecurity into state policy and publicly construct financed campaigns of vilification that seek to reproduce the sense of insecurity, purposefully promoting a culture of insecurity that allows them to remain in power and, even more, to adopt extraordinary measures that undermine checks-and-balances on their own political power.

These vilification campaigns, which are instrumental in promoting a culture of insecurity and which allow revisionist groups to alter the political system to their desires, are building on pre-existing exclusionary conceptions of nationhood.

These ‘us vs. them’ nationalist conceptions are deep-seated and inherent characteristics of national identities, especially in ethnically based forms of nationalism (Smith 1998, 55-56). Revisionist groups make use of century-old identity cleavages and historical myths in order to legitimise and promote their narratives of insecurity, and are effective because they are based on living traditions that are taken for granted.

The vilification and securitization campaigns, both linguistic and practice-based, of Fidesz in Hungary are such an example. Similarly, populist parties across Europe, from the economic insecurity narratives promoted by Alternative for Germany against Germany’s membership of the Eurozone to the anti-immigration propaganda promoted by Mateo Salvini’s Lega Nord, are excellent examples of how marginal political groups produce and use insecurity as electoral tools.

Russia: Enhancing and spreading insecurity

Another source of insecurity in Europe resides in the subversive actions of third-state or state-supported actors. These states, notably Russia, use disinformation, hybrid and information warfare to enhance and spread insecurity (Thomas 2016; Stebbins 2018).

By doing so, they seek to undermine the political status quo and cause chaos in European societies, forcing them to be more inward-looking. The methods used by Russian-backed information warfare rarely produce new insecurities, and usually focus on enhancing already-existing narratives which produce insecurity, spreading them further and targeting vulnerable demographic segments (Rummer 2017; Morgan 2018; Spaulding et al. 2018).

The press as a producer of insecurity

While not usually perceived as a producer of insecurity, mass media represents one of the main producers of insecurity in Europe. Intentionally or not, mass media across the continent produces, disseminates, and enhances the insecurities they seek to explain (Lamour 2018). In this way, the press metamorphosizes from being a simple conduit of knowledge and information into the producer of that knowledge and information, framing facts to induce desired reactions and political outcomes. Emotion sells papers and increases TV audience ratings, creating perverse incentives for news outlets to enhance and promote strong emotional responses, and therefore to frame social events, facts, and even ordinary news in ways that provoke insecurity.

Moreover, the acquisition of media outlets by media moguls, like the Murdoch family in the United Kingdom, transforms these media outlets into tools of securitization for political or ideological purposes. Framing challenges and crises as potentially existential threats allows media outlets to remain relevant in an increasingly decentralized environment, with plenty of information, at the cost of destroying the fiber of society and undermining democratic politics and its liberal tradition.

Security professionals: maintaining purpose by manufacturing insecurity

Finally, a very important social group that produces insecurity is made up of security agencies and security professionals. Governmental security agencies, as bureaucratic organizations, need a reason to exist and to justify their public budget. In order to maintain and increase these budgets, security agencies need to convince legislators and decision-makers that their existence is justified by the emergence or existence of security threats, risks and vulnerabilities which need to be contained, eradicated, or alleviated (Huysmans 2002; Ghincea 2006).

In pursuing these justifications, security agencies seek and define the threats they need to combat, directly or indirectly producing insecurities in society by reframing social and political events. This does not mean that objective.

security challenges do not exist, but the way we relate to them and the way we respond to them is the result of the social interpretation provided by security technocrats and professionals that have an invested interest in justifying their own work and in increasing the budgets available to them (Huysmans 2002). Therefore security professionals, in the pursuit of their own purposefulness, can produce insecurities that reinforce and justify their own work in the eyes of decision makers and the society they seek to serve.

How to overcome the culture of insecurity?

The sense of insecurity that dominates the European public sphere risks undermining the entire European project and dismantling over half a century of progress towards integration. No single, pan-European strategy can be employed in all the member states of the EU, but national strategies can converge at the European level on the most essential aspects that need to be covered, and pan-European coordination should be an endeavour undertaken by EU supranational institutions such as the Commission and the Council.

As stated earlier in this article, an optimal approach to overcoming the culture of insecurity in Europe requires mixing counter-narratives and proactive policy actions that could undermine the existing culture of insecurity and promote a culture of security and hope among the most seriously affected segments of European societies. In this section, I suggest potential approaches that can be used to overcome the culture of insecurity and promote a culture of security that is based on liberal values, political and cultural pluralism.

Counternarrative: promoting the liberal worldview

The European Union and a majority of its member states are engaged in campaigns to combat disinformation and manipulation online. These seem to have been fairly effective in combating ‘fake news’, especially with regard to media literacy, but in my view these efforts have so far been ineffective at undermining the culture of insecurity (see also Levinger 2018, 131-132).

The disinformation and manipulation campaigns promoted by foreign actors tend to enhance and disseminate an already existing sense of insecurity that has been promoted through other means by domestic actors, especially radical political movements, certain media outlets, and even governmental agencies, as I have argued in the previous section.

Therefore, these campaigns against disinformation must be undertaken together with positive campaigns promoting counternarratives that reinforce liberal democracy formed universe formed of mythology, liberal values and principles, and build trust in democratic political institutions. It is not enough to simply signal the falsehoods promoted by revisionist actors, because those that believe such falsehoods are already alienated from the mainstream of society and have no reason to believe such signals.

What is required is a reinforcement of the liberal universe as the single most desirable and achievable option (Tuck and Silverman 2016). Moreover, it is essential for liberal counternarratives to blend offline and online realities, assuring an overlapping between the online experience and real-world feelings and social engagement (Meleagrou-Hitchens 2017).

Learning from rivals

Another important step in the process of overcoming the culture of insecurity is to learn how insecurity is produced and reproduced by those actors that engage in such endeavours. The best sources of learning about how to overcome a culture of insecurity are the very same actors that create this insecurity.

By studying and investigating their methods, approaches, and processes of production, dissemination, and improvement, liberal actors can find ways not only of undermining them, but to use the same methods for the production and promotion of counter-narratives that seek to provide an alternative worldview to that promoted by those who maintain a culture of insecurity.

Practices & policies: words into deeds

An essential component of any strategy that seeks to undermine the culture of insecurity consists in combining security-enhancing linguistic approaches with practice-based approaches. It is not enough to say that we are secure, that everything will be well, and that the future is bright; these words need to be transformed and associated with deeds.

Policies and programs intended to alleviate economic anxieties, reduce segregation, enhance intercultural communication, and promote an inclusionary national identity should be undertaken and effectively promoted by governmental and non-profit organizations.

Words need to be matched by deeds in order to be fully effective, especially because the alienation of vulnerable social groups has occurred in relation to the liberal worldview, which has failed to meet expectations and failed to provide what it promised. Therefore, it is essential that security-enhancing practices are employed together with positive narratives.

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