Returning to the European Union’s roots: the European project’s colonial dimension 

14 June 2023 /

4 min

In light of this edition of Eyes on Europe, which focuses on Europe’s global position, it seemed opportune to come back to the foundations of the European Union in order to recall how power perspectives also shaped its creation. Therefore, this article offers a retrospective analysis on the genesis of the European community and its colonial power project. 

In school textbooks, university courses on European integration, as well as in political and institutional discourses, the creation of the European political project is consistently , and exclusively, presented as a peace process. This predominant narrative is globally widespread and no serious dissenting voices seem to have emerged, so far, to challenge it. Yet in 2014, Swedish historians Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson published Eurafrique Incognita: The Colonial Origins of the European Union, which brilliantly analyses the colonial impulses that structured the rapprochement of the first six countries  of the European community. It is undeniable that the desire to pacify the continent and reconcile yesterday’s enemies, after the trauma of the Second World War, motivated the creation of a European political project. However, during the discussions, the motivations were not only focused on the mutualisation of coal and steel production. In this respect, the front page of the French daily newspaper, Le Monde, on 21 February 1957 ran the headline “Première étape vers l’Eurafrique” (First step towards Eurafrica) announcing the success of the preliminary negotiations of the Treaty of Rome. Indeed, at the time, France, Belgium and the Netherlands still ruled over their respective colonial empires. On the other hand, when defeated, Mussolini’s Italy was dispossessed of its colonial territories, some of which, like Somalia and Eritrea, were subsequently placed under Franco-British control. 

Thus, several European initiatives defend a European community including the colonial possessions of the member states, such as the Strasbourg Plan in 1952, which aimed to propel the European political project to the overseas colonies . Its rapporteur, the German CDU-CSU deputy, Johanne Semler, explains that “it is essential for Europe to encourage the development of raw material production outside the dollar zone and in particular in the zone under consideration (the overseas countries) (…) the export of raw materials from these countries would allow the re-establishment of triangular exchanges which would contribute to solving Europe’s deficit towards the dollar zone”. The barely concealed reference to the triangular trade, a dark moment in history when Europeans enslaved populations and exploited African resources, says a lot about the state of mind and the posture of some European politicians towards the African continent in the 1950s. In the context of the Cold War, the European colonial empires were perceived as a way to emancipate themselves from American tutelage and consolidate a European power, in a dependency logic. However, in the 1950s, the European colonial empires also started to be seriously threatened: the Indochina War was raging, and both Dutch Indonesia and the Belgian Congo were gradually moving towards independence. In the same perspective, 29 Asian and African “non-aligned” countries gathered at the Bandung Conference in 1956 unanimously condemned colonisation. That same year, the Suez Canal crisis revealed their strength and the support they received from the United States. Henceforth, the urgency of integrating the French and Belgian colonies into the European community became all the more pressing. Thus, one recalls the ultimatum issued by Christian Pineau, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the five other member states, which made the inclusion of the French overseas territories a sine qua non condition for the continuation of negotiations for the establishment of a common market. These few elements allow us to recall the motivations underlying the European political project for some of its advocates.

On a related topic : How should Europe confront its colonial past ?

Since then, the European political project has evolved and the colonial empires have disappeared. Nevertheless, the reflections on the consequences of colonisation and the associated work of memory remain a complex exercise for Europeans. The collective amnesia that still exists concerning the narrative of the construction of Europe with regard to its colonial dimension can bear witness to this. Nevertheless, European member states’ overseas and ultra-marine possessions remain strategic territories for the European Union. For example, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco act as military bases for the deployment of European operations to the African continent, in addition to also playing a key role in regulating immigration. Furthermore, the European Space Agency benefits from privileged conditions at the Kourou base in French Guiana. Thus, the European Union continues to use the outermost territories to benefit its own interests. If these current configurations differ from the post-war postures and respond to new dynamics, it seems nevertheless to be of public utility to raise awareness on the colonial dimension that the European project may have undergone at one point. With these elements in mind, anyone can take a critical, though not systematically rebuking, step back from the EU’s posture towards third countries, in its recent Global Gateway strategy for example.

On a related topic : Explaining the main drivers of anti-immigration attitudes in Europe

[This article was first published in the issue 38 of the magazine]

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