‘We are the European family’: unsettling the role of family in belonging, race, nation and the European project

Hannah Jones (University of Warwick)


In the Brexit referendum debates and their aftermath, one popular call to solidarity within the EU came from artist Wolfgang Tillmans, who released a series of posters with slogans intended to rally voters to support remaining in the EU. This article takes one of those slogans – ‘It’s a question of where you feel you belong. We are the European family’ – as a starting point to examine the openings and closures made available through calls to (trans)national solidarity on the basis of family. Drawing on critical autobiography, historical anthropology and analysis of trends in bordering and race politics, the article points to multi-layered and colonially inflected histories of ‘family’ in relation to national and continental belonging. Beginning with the sense of uncertainty over belonging and connection stirred up by Brexit, the essay acknowledges the comfort found by some in the seeming security of family. However, the article then engages with alternative realities of ‘The European Family’ – families separated by border controls, racialised as defective or oppressed by heteronormative patriarchy – and unsettles the problematic of ‘European’ in ‘The European Family’. The paper identifies how empirical and metaphorical family relate to (trans)national belonging and citizenship. Bringing Tillmans’ posters into conversation with some of Gillian Wearing’s work on family and place, the conclusion offers some possibilities for thinking family/nation while retaining ambiguity, resistance and potential and resisting the closure of normative ideas, in favour of a more empirically grounded engagement with how ‘real families’ relate to and through nation.

Keywords: Brexit, family, race, nation, Wolfgang Tillmans, Gillian Wearing

Full text: OAJ_issue8_jones (pdf, 2.7 MB).

DOI:  http://dx.doi.org/10.5456/issn.2050-3679/2020s01

Biographical note 

Dr Hannah Jones is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. She writes, researches and teaches on questions of racism, migration and belonging, and critical methods in social research and pedagogy. Her most recent book, co-authored with seven others, is Go Home? The politics of immigration controversies (2017, MUP). Her next book, Violent Ignorance, will be published by Zed Books in early 2021. On Twitter she is @uncomfy.