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  1. The Weekend Essay
17 June 2023

The delusion of a new European empire

Old forms of thinking about world order are mutating in new conditions.

By Quinn Slobodian

In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, the British historian and commentator Timothy Garton Ash posed a puzzle: in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, might the European Union have to become “more imperial” to finally shed its imperial past?

By this, he meant an EU that is “no longer… dominated by a single people or nation” but which also relies less on unanimous decisions by member states. This could happen through the expansion of the so-called qualified majority voting in the European Council which requires approval from only 55 per cent of members rather than unanimity. This would reduce the means of rogue leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to push the EU away from a foreign policy agreed on by most members. The upshot is that the EU would be able absorb the erstwhile colonies and quasi-colonies of the Soviet-Russian imperium and perhaps (one reads between the lines, but only barely) realise the vision that for many never went away: a rebooted Holy Roman Empire, decentralised, pluralist and internally free of tariffs.

It is worth asking what Garton Ash sees as the conditions for mainstreaming this vision of a neo-imperial EU.

His first suggestion is that Europe should attend to its own colonial past. He cites the path-breaking work of the Swedish historians Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson on the surprising popularity of the idea of “Eurafrica” in the 1950s. When the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, 90 per cent of the landmass of the European Economic Community was in Africa – many politicians envisioned the colonies as permanent appendages. But Garton Ash’s attention to the persistence of Europe’s overseas empires into the 1970s ends up as little more than a drive-by on the way to the place where “the lens of empire is even more revealing”: with the state known as Russia then the Soviet Union then Russia again.

Garton Ash is to be commended for raising the subject of the empire at all. Positing the colonial origins of the EU is enough to raise eyebrows in the think tank and seminar rooms of the continent. But it shouldn’t. The colonial origins of the EU are facts – the question is what one makes of them. A recent book by the historian Megan Brown only stretched a little to describe Algeria as “the seventh member state” at Europe’s inception. The French wanted to keep their overseas possessions part of the new Europe forever. Adapting a famous formulation by the British economic historian Alan Milward, Europe was not designed to rescue the nation-state but the imperial nation-state.

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The empire was not swapped for Europe; the goal was to keep both. Colonies would profit from economic transfers partially paid for by powers that had lost their empires, including West Germany which coughed up $200m for a development fund.

Taking on board these facts need not leave one with the impression of an EU that is rotten to the core. They can also illuminate how independence in an interconnected world was always a relative quality, and that empire and nation were never simple binaries. In Capital and Ideology (2019), the French economist Thomas Piketty drew on the work of the historian Frederick Cooper to explore the possibility of the West African federation discussed by thinkers such as Senegalese writer Léopold Senghor after the Second World War. Cooper’s forthcoming book, co-written with the historian of Russia Jane Burbank, has the non-judgemental title: Post-Imperial Possibilities: Eurasia, Eurafrica, Afroasia.

Even after independence, Algeria wasn’t necessarily eager to break connections with its former metropole. It was advantageous to retain some kind of preferential treatment. More comprehensive trade agreements of this kind would follow. The Lomé Convention of 1975 gave special treatment to former European colonies, allowing them to avoid competition from other low-priced providers. Bananas from the Windward Islands in the Caribbean, for example, were cheaper than those from the US Chiquita company because of the way that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy effectively stretched across oceans to cover now-independent states. Consider also the CFA franc, the currency pegged first to the franc and then to the euro, which is still used in 14 African countries. The CFA that once stood for the French Colonies of Africa now stands for Financial Community of Africa. Is it a relic of empire or a means of stabilising local economies to reassure mobile investors? Of course, it is both.

[See also: Nigel Biggar’s whitewashing of empire]

Looked at from another perspective, Eurafrica never died. France has more than 3,000 troops in Africa and has intervened in postcolonial Africa over three dozen times. Frontex, the EU’s border and coastguard agency, has plans to expand its footprint in African countries. Spanish enclaves and autonomous port cities still exist on the continent – Ceuta and Melilla – and an increasing number of African states are offering citizenship by investment even as many postcolonial elites stash their wealth in Mayfair property and Swiss bank accounts.

Decolonisation is not about performing the correct level of culpability or guilt, or the well-informed substitution of monuments and exhibits, or the creation of new professorships or research clusters, nor even the repatriation of relics. It is not a project that is primarily about words, images or feelings, and nor can it actually end.

As Kojo Koram writes in Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire (2022), empire “was not just a five-hundred-year world tour of being mean to brown people”. It hardwired the machinery of finance, manufacturing, and carved into deep grooves the unequal relationships that continue to exist, from tax havens to export processing zones. It also delivered benefits to those not directly involved. Garton Ash makes the familiar point that many eastern European nations had no colonies of their own but it only takes a thimbleful of global history to see, as the work of the sociologist Gurminder Bhambra has shown, that many millions of emigrants from that very part of the world profited from the territory cleared in advance of existing inhabitants. My own great-grandfather was happy to abandon his peasant-like status in Habsburg Galicia to take up a plot of “free” land in central Canada rendered empty by British troops.

The stakes are higher for empire and decolonisation than normal right now. With the World Trade Organisation in a condition of what looks like permanent immobility, this is a time for the remixing of global political geography. The go-to framing for pundits and politicians is to suggest humanity has only two settings: the globalisation of the post-1989 era or the nationalism that has returned since 2016. The historian sees only empires or nations. Decades ago, the political scientist Hedley Bull advised against the “tyranny of existing concepts and practices”, which made it hard for us to see emergent political forms. We are at such a spawn point now as old forms mutate under new conditions.

The unwillingness of most of the world’s governments to go along with the Nato sanctions regime against Russia has revived 1960s-era discussion of “the non-aligned world”. Some free-market think tankers are calling to “bring back the Polish-Lithuanian union”, an elective bi-national monarchy that lasted from 1385 until the 1790s, while others have called for a bilateral US-UK axis to rebuild the free-trade order. Still others see global order decomposing into a handful of blocs overseen by “civilisation states”. The musings of Vladimir Putin’s court philosopher Alexander Dugin about an expanded “Eurasia” have been influential on the far right worldwide. Even the dimmest sibling in the fictional Roy family in Succession has gotten in on the act, whispering in one episode to the president-elect about a “pan-Habsburg US-led EU alternative”.

At a similar point of flux nearly a century ago, the Austrian-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi speculated hopefully about a future of what he called “tame empires”. He thought the Großraum thinking of the National Socialists was vile in its racial hierarchy but defensible in its territorial limits. A fascist order limited to Europe might be something one has to live with. Across the Atlantic, Polanyi imagined a revived Monroe Doctrine, an early US foreign policy formulation, linking the Americas and, in the “colonial zones”, British trusteeship on the model suggested by the 20-century South African statesman Jan Smuts.

Tame empires came at a high cost: permanent continental separation. Polanyi imagined these units as autarkic, free from the world-swallowing universalism of both capitalism and socialism. Contemplations of a post-imperial EU must not indulge the fantasies of some east European conservatives that the end of the Cold War could mean a comfortable “return to Europe” if that means turning their back on the world at its doorstep. It’s not just the EU that has colonial origins – the entire world does. As Bhambra has written, the biggest obstacle to understanding decolonisation is the misconception of European states “being nations and having empires”. Shedding the latter allowed them to become more of the former. Addressing Europe’s colonial past will require more than token recognition of past sins. More radical solutions include the proposal of E Tendayi Achiume, the UN’s special rapporteur on race and racism, on migration as decolonisation: free movement into the former metropole as the most effective form of reparations. Europe’s past is not offshore. As the Egyptian politician Hamdeen Sabahi put it in 2012, “The Mediterranean is a lake.”

[See also: The New Age of Tragedy]

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