A Restless History of Europe

Illustration /  Lucie Ménétrier  for Are We Europe

Illustration / Lucie Ménétrier for Are We Europe


IN CHEAPSIDE, LONDON AN ANGRY CROWD IS GATHERING. Men—mostly young, all working class—are starting to fill the narrow streets. They’re here to protest the increasing number of foreign workers in the city, who they claim are stealing their jobs. “There are so many foreigners in London that English workers can scarcely make any living,” explains one. The government, they insist, is so focussed on attracting foreign labour that they’re ignoring the plight of their own compatriots.

A middle-aged man stands up to speak. “This land was given to Englishmen,” he bellows, “And as birds would defend their nest, so should Englishmen defend their country.” Those assembled around him roar their approval, and it isn’t long before things turn ugly. Persuaded by the fiery rhetoric and the plentiful supplies of cheap beer, the crowd—now 1000-strong—vent their anger. Foreign-owned shops are attacked and vandalised. Suspected immigrants are accosted in the street. It takes more than four hours for the city’s forces to re-establish order. It sounds like any other anti-immigrant demonstration that Europe has witnessed in recent years, from the sporadic clashes between Greeks and migrants on the island of Lesbos, to the right-wing protests in the German town of Chemnitz in August this year. But this wasn’t the work of the English Defence League, Britain First or any other aggressively nativist group. The reason? It took place over 500 years ago, in the year 1517.

Fast forward five centuries, and immigration is once more a flashpoint in Europe. Ever since the migrant “crisis” of 2015, when the number of people trying to enter Europe more than doubled, not a week goes by without someone predicting that immigration will tear the European Union apart. It was, after all, one of the main reasons why 17 million Britons voted to leave the EU in 2016. And anti-immigration stances remain at the core of many of the continent’s ruling parties, such as the Czech Republic’s Action for Dissatisfied Citizens and Slovakia’s Direction-Social Democracy party. Member states are even beginning to openly defy the EU on the matter, with both Poland and Hungary having refused to accept a single asylum seeker since 2015.

Debates are certainly fierce, but they’re far from comprehensive. Whether deliberately or not, current discussions about Europe and migration suffer from two big misconceptions. First, we’re led to believe that migrants and migration are distinctly modern phenomena, unwanted consequences of rapid globalisation and EU migrant quotas. Illiberal politicians like Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s strongman Prime Minister, wax poetic about a lost golden age of national sovereignty, strong borders and cultural security. “When Europe was for Europeans,” as one disgruntled E.U. citizen put it.

Second, the unending focus on African and Asian migrants has encouraged many of us to think that there’s something distinctly un-European about mass movement – that Europeans and migrants are somehow fundamentally different. Never mind the fact that for every non-European that has applied for asylum since 2015 there are five European migrants already living in the EU. Anti-immigration politicians and activists deftly avoid such figures by framing the issue as a matter of identity, a clash of civilisations. “They have their culture, we have our culture,” explained the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš in October 2018. It follows that the presence of migrants can only represent a threat to the fabric of European society. If we open the gates of fortress Europe, warns Orbán, ‘we will squander our way of life, our security, our very selves.’

But is Europe really such a stranger to migration? When we take a closer look at this continent’s past, a very different story emerges.


The truth is that Europeans have never sat still for long. Whichever page of European history you turn to, you’ll find migration. As the Roman Empire crumbled under its own deadweight 1,600 years ago, large numbers of Germanic, Hunnic and Slavic peoples crossed the continent to take advantage of newly-emerging power vacuums. Over the next few centuries Vikings migrated from their Scandinavian homeland to settle in places as far apart as Iceland, Belarus and Ukraine. From the east came the Hungarians—the same Hungarians who now have anti-immigrant Orbán as their head of state—who made the long journey from Central Asia to Central Europe sometime in the ninth century. Normans settled in Sicily; Irish in Scotland; Arabs in Spain. As the historian Leslie Moch writes, “our image of a sedentary Europe is seriously flawed.”

Europe still bears the footprints of these early migrations. France owes its name to the Franks, a Germanic people who headed west in the fourth century. England, likewise, is named after the “Angles,” who crossed the North Sea around the same time. The region of Lombardy in northern Italy simply means long-beards, the name given to the Germanic migrants who arrived there in 570s.

Europeans were on the move again in the 17th century, when religious and political turmoil scattered millions of refugees across the continent. Many came from Central Europe, where the hopelessly convoluted Thirty Years’ War was grinding the Holy Roman Empire into dust. As with the Syrian Civil War today, bitter sectarian divisions were fuelled by invested world powers looking to leverage some advantage from the fighting. And as with the conflict in Syria, it was the civilians who suffered the most from the protracted power play. Louis XIV of France added to the refugee count in 1685 when he stripped French protestants of religious protection, forcing some 150,000 asylum seekers to flee the country within just five years. A century later it would be the Catholics’ turn to run for their lives, as the increasingly bloodthirsty French Revolution vowed to wipe the country clean of Christianity. The tables would turn yet again in 1917, when France provided sanctuary to hundreds of thousands of Christians escaping the Russian Revolution.

Occasionally, people even travelled by choice, seeking out better job opportunities elsewhere in their own country or further afield. During the 19th century Dutch workers could be found operating weaving mills in western Germany, while Polish miners worked the coal mines of Prussia and Corsicans helped construct buildings in Rome. Italians found work in southern France, French sought employment in Spain and Spanish looked for jobs in Portugal. Much like economic migrants today, the vast majority of these workers were men who sent much of their earnings to their families back home. This era even saw the birth of international commuting: in the 1880s roughly 40,000 Belgians crossed the Belgian-French border twice a day as they travelled to and from the textile town of Roubaix in northern France.

By the time the industrial revolution first fired its furnaces at the end of the 18th century, many towns and cities in Europe had become so used to economic migration that they actually relied on it to prevent economic stagnation and population decline. Knowing how common international migration was, and anxious not to suffer a brain drain, the British government explicitly banned its artisans and skilled mechanics from leaving the country during the industrial revolution’s early years.

The truth is
that Europeans have never
sat still for long.
Whichever page of
European history you turn to,
you’ll find migration.


Many large-scale construction projects in western Europe were partly dependant on migrant labour, including the Palace of Versailles and many other baroque gems in and around Paris. Migrant labour was called upon to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666, and again during Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s gargantuan renovation of Paris 200 years later. On a more practical note, seasonal migrants also worked to create Europe’s network of railways, canals, roads and sewers. In a very real sense, migration helped build modern Europe.

Intellectually, too, migrants have contributed enormously to European history. As is the case today, academia has long provided an opportunity for students and scholars to travel abroad. As far back as the 1300s, the University of Paris was home to a host of international students, including German, Flemish, English, Normans, Burgundians, Bretons, Lombards, Romans and Sicilians. During the Age of Enlightenment, many of Europe’s most famous thinkers—people such as Hume, Montesquieu and Rousseau—spent time abroad. The French writer Voltaire flitted between France, England, Holland, Brussels, Prussia and Geneva, living up to his self-styled moniker as a ‘citizen of the world.’ Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many Enlightenment thinkers advocated cosmopolitan philosophy.


However, it would be a mistake to think that migration in Europe was ever entirely popular or peaceful. Those international students in Paris reportedly “hated one another” and spent much of their time trying to start fights. We even have a record of the slurs they hurled at each other: Germans were “obscene,” the Flemish were ‘slothful’ and the English were ‘drunkards’ (some insults never change, it seems). More seriously, economic competition between locals and migrants sometimes led to animosity and violence, as the anti-immigrant riot in Tudor London shows. Similar uprisings gripped southern France at the end of the 19th century, although this time the target was the “invasion” of Italian migrants in the region. Even refugees could be given rough welcomes. In the 1680s, when a group of French protestants escaped persecution at home by heading to Norwich, England, they were greeted by rioting locals who accused them of coming to steal their jobs.

In many ways, then, the issues and concerns surrounding migration in Europe are nothing new. Then, as now, politics, persecution and profit pushed and pulled people across the continent. Migrants were often willing to work the unglamorous, low-paid jobs that no one else wanted. And they were often subject to suspicion, resentment and occasionally violence from local populations.

However, there are some significant differences. Let’s head back to the London of 1517. What became of the rioters and their anti-immigration stance? In a move that would probably surprise many modern-day politicians, King Henry VIII came down hard on those involved, refusing to listen to their concerns about immigration. Of the hundreds arrested, 14 were executed and nearly 400 more were forced to quite literally beg for mercy at the feet of the King. Amazing as it may seem, they were then lectured on the importance of tolerance – being told that “strangers should be well treated in this country” – before finally being pardoned. Henry VIII, for all his political shortcomings, recognised the importance of migration when it came to economic development and growth and refused to pander to populist xenophobia in this instance.

Contrary to what such nativist politicians repeatedly imply, Europe is a continent of migration. The mass movement of people is intractably entwined with its history and its inhabitants, and Europe as we know it today is partly the product of internal and external migration. That’s not to dismiss the unique character of 21st century migration or the concerns Europeans may have about it. Nevertheless, the misconceptions currently plaguing debates about migration—that it’s both a modern and un-European phenomenon—are clearly shown to be false by our own past.

— This article appears in
Are We Europe #3: Uprooted

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