Europe’s debt towards the former colonies: the ‘South’ as a moving target


Peter Wagner (ICREA and University of Barcelona)

During the immediate aftermath of decolonization, the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union, acknowledged its historical responsibility towards the former colonies and made this debt and duty the underlying rationale for its development policy. Already during the 1980s, however, the policy orientation changed, and the responsibility of each society for its own fate under conditions of market exchange was increasingly emphasized. With the formation of the European Union, the particular nature of the relation between Europe and its former colonies was further de-emphasized. The EU as a new actor positioned itself more neutrally, devoid of any historical burden, in the field of global politics and global commerce. This shift can be analysed as a move from a paternalistic self-understanding as promotor of modernization and development abroad, consonant with the domestic Keynesian democratic welfare-state, towards a view of oneself as a market actor guided by self-interest, consonant with the enterprise culture of neo-liberalism. Furthermore, though, it has consequences for what one means by South.

During the colonial period, the South was closely connected with Europe. This is visible, for instance, in the fact that integration of metropole and colonies on equal terms was considered in Portugal and France at the moment of decolonization, even though this proposal never came close to realization except for small territories. The immediate post-colonial arrangement then was a relation between formally equal states with the former colonizer assuming debt and responsibility towards the former colonies. The more Europe started to consider itself as a unit, rather than an alliance of nation-states, however, the more distance was taken from the South. The acceleration of European integration after the Maastricht Treaty also was an attempt to finally shed the moral debt towards the former colonies entirely. The South was from now on clearly seen as outside Europe in territorial terms; it became a Global South allegedly without particular historical relation to Europe.

Looking at the past half century, in other words, one can see how European integration is increasingly conceived as the construction of a homogeneous socio-political space with relations to other world-regions that are not tainted by any particular history. Thus, Europe intended to dissociate itself from any ‘South’ by evacuating its past. Significantly, the distinction between North and South, mostly inadequate in strictly geographical terms, often carries strong conceptual connotations: the South as characterized by a certain vibrancy and density of social relations but lacking capacity for ‘development’ and contrasted with a more austere North marked by orientation towards purposeful action and efficiency. This combination of internal homogenization and strengthening of external boundaries – with some parallels to the building of “organized modernity” in nation-state form from the late 19th century onwards – can be seen as an act of intended domination of the North over the South, which significantly tried to fix the South in space.

By now one recognizes, though, that the establishment of a boundary of moral responsibility did not succeed. New forms of ‘South’ emerged at Europe’s borders and within its borders, thus getting ever closer: through urban protest by descendants of immigrants from the former colonies; through cross-Mediterranean immigration and refugees; and through the widening of politico-economic heterogeneity in the current Euro-crisis creating an “indebted” intra-European South. That which was to be dominated escapes from control; it cannot be fixed in space, rather becomes a moving target.

The relation between Europe and its former colonies, the so-called ACP countries, up to the 1990s has been analyzed in the terms presented in the first paragraph above by Nathalie Karagiannis in Avoiding Responsibility, The Discourse and Politics of EU Development Policy, London: Pluto, 2004. The proposed study will draw and build on this analysis, extending it to the present and thus allowing to relate accelerating European integration between 1992 and 2005 to the re-orientation of the global positioning of Europe.