by Rhodri C. Williams
As we all know, the European Union (EU) received the Nobel Peace Prize last week for “over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. The award has been debated, not only because it comes at a moment when a largely self-made economic crisis is severely straining the very element of European solidarity that justified it, but also because it comes after a series of other controversial recipients – most notably Barack Obama in 2009, whose contribution to peace consisted, according to many commentators, of not being George W. Bush.
Although there has always been a perceptible undercurrent of skepticism about the extent to which the EU is built on a foundation of unalloyed idealism, it has rarely been expressed more concretely than in a fascinating commentary in the edition of the Swedish broadsheet Dagens Nyheter (DN) that appeared the day before the Nobel ceremony. There, the Linköping University researchers Stefan Jonsson and Peo Hansen give a preview of their forthcoming book, “Eurafrica: The untold history of European integration and colonialism”. For Europhiles well-versed in the use of Google translate, it will not make for comfortable reading.
Without denying the pacific effect of early economic integration measures such as the European Coal and Steel Community, the authors note that their primary motivation may have been a last ditch attempt to shore up the European colonial project. Faced with an increasingly assertive global anti-colonial movement and the humiliation of the Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, the EU was founded in no small part as a means of economically integrating not only Europe but also its remaining African possessions. Consider, for instance, a curious passage in the foundational 195o Schuman Declaration:
With increased resources Europe will be able to pursue the achievement of one of its essential tasks, namely, the development of the African continent. In this way, there will be realised simply and speedily that fusion of interest which is indispensable to the establishment of a common economic system; it may be the leaven from which may grow a wider and deeper community between countries long opposed to one another by sanguinary divisions.
Come again? Europe’s essential task as the development of the African continent? This statement requires some suspension of disbelief coming five years after French troops had massacred 6,000 people in Algeria in reprisals for earlier mob violence and four years before the formal beginning of the Algerian War that would kill hundreds of thousands more. Or, for that matter, two years before the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, which was suppressed through what has only recently been acknowledged as a campaign of systematic torture. While ancient “sanguinary divisions” were undoubtedly laid to rest in Europe (well, at least Western Europe), the business of opening new ones up in Africa had only begun.
The recollection of this historical context for the EU’s founding is crucial, but seemingly forgotten. A case in point is the Wikipedia entry on the Schuman Declaration, which blandly describes its foray on “the development of the African continent” as reflecting a desire “to improve the world economy and of the developing countries, such as those in Africa.” In this context, the contribution made by Jonsson and Hansen is not to deny the effectiveness of the EU as a conflict management device in Europe, but to point out that this result may have been incidental to its original purpose.
As opposed to peace-building, the pooling of the political and economic strength of Western Europe’s once-Great Powers would ostensibly allow them to stand up to both the US and the USSR as well as uppity anti-colonial leaders such as Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser. But perhaps most crucially, perpetuating colonialism could foster a form of extractive economic integration that was win-win for everyone but the populations of the colonies in question. To cite Jonsson and Hansen (in Google-assisted translation):
Eurafrika is today a forgotten part of the history of the EU. It is not difficult to understand why. It clashes with the image of the peace project. The incorporation of Africa would help France to revive their empire and justify their military repression in Algeria. It would obtain German capital for the exploitation of the Sahara and give the West German industry investment opportunities and markets through large infrastructure projects – oil extraction, mining, hydroelectric dams, aluminum plants and more. In addition, it would lay the foundation for the joint Franco-German nuclear program in Algeria.
Equally worrisome is the fact that the basic ideas behind the proposal to create a new ‘Eurafrica’ were liberally borrowed from racist ideologies. Proponents of Eurafrican integration included the likes of the British fascist politician Oswald Mosely, who argued that the pooling of assets – including colonies – was crucial to the forging of a European super-state. And as if it was not bad enough that the EU may have been born in sin, the taint of Eurafricanism lingers as well around the less-well known Council of Europe. This intergovernmental body, which today safeguards human rights and democracy in Europe, was born in part as a revival of interwar proposals to finance a united Europe by leveraging Africa. To quote Jonsson and Hansen again:
Uniting Europe required a common cause, and this cause was Africa, which was presented as a continent of opportunities with room for everyone. When the European Movement gathered at the Hague Congress in 1948 to discuss Europe’s future, the colonies were high on the agenda, and there was agreement on the internationalization of the colonial system. As we prepare to build Europe we have an urgent need for “living space” in a much larger scale than the old nations offered, explained Hendrik Brugmans, representative of the European Federalist Union. He asked his audience understand that he used the Nazi-associated “living space” (Lebensraum). They forgave him gladly; consensus that Europe’s reconstruction required enormous resources and therefore a collective hold on the colonies was strong and widespread.
From the Hague Congress was born, in turn, the Council of Europe, which developed plans for the future of Europe in which Africa accounted for commodities and opportunities for expansion. The former French Prime Minister and then-President of the Council of Economic Committee Paul Reynaud summarized the issue in 1952: “For Europe to be viable, we must jointly exploit the African continent’s wealth and there try to find the raw materials that we buy from the dollar area, without being able to pay.” Denmark’s representative Hermond Lannung concurred and noted that Europe had already lost “the battle for Asia.” Now, the Europeans would have to come together so as not to also lose the “battle for Africa”.
So how seriously should we take all of this today? After all, even the last European states to give up their colonies in Africa still did so a full two generations ago, the world has moved on in many respects and the EU is by and large a force for good both at home and abroad (would that the same could always unambiguously be said for the Council of Europe). One could reasonably argue for loving the sinner and hating the sin, both in light of the passage of time and Europe’s confused and incomplete but irreversible renunciation of colonialism. But it would help if actors such as the Nobel Committee were to acknowledge that the sin we hate may have played a fundamental role in shaping the sinner we love.