On the EU’s Birthday, Coloniality and the Politics of European Erasure

Every single empire, in its official discourse, has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort.                                                                        

Edward Said 2003: xvi


The Rome Treaty was signed sixty years ago today, giving birth to the EU project. #EU60 has generated many celebratory tweets, quotes and pictures. One image that stands out in particular is that of the signing ceremony at the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome. The picture consists of a group made up entirely of men representing Italy, Luxembourg, West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The latter three were still waging wars on anti-colonial liberation movements in the Congo, Algiers and Dutch New Guinea. Many would argue that the image needs to be situated in a historical context and that today the EU is different.

The historical context, however, is not only relevant but also could not have been more different in another part of the world in the 1950s. Just two years prior to the Rome Summit, at the Bandung Conference in 1955, women and workers were present at almost every single session of the conference, and questions of decolonization, social and economic justice, gender equality, how to confront global racism and the very post-war initiatives that would come to characterize the Rome Treaty were ubiquitous.

The Treaty of Rome on the other hand, negotiated and signed by men with close ties to the imperial enterprise, was an act of sedimentation of coloniality. Originally known as the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community, the treaty would be the cornerstone of what would later become the EU single market, an early neoliberal project which thrived through the exploitation of fragile emerging (post) colonial economies that could neither compete nor trade fairly with their (former) colonial overlords. This is not all.

A more sober and historically-minded commemoration would reveal other ways in which the foundation of the EU was not de-linking Europe from its colonial connections, but merely expanding and transforming them into broader undertakings. Most of the people involved in the negotiation and signing of the treaty were personally immersed in subverting leftist and decolonization struggles both at home and abroad. France, for instance, was represented, among others, by Christian Pineau who would also negotiate the secret treaty known as the Protocol of Sèvres designed to topple the non-aligned Egyptian leader Nasser, one of the most noted figures of socialist decolonization. Joseph Luns, the representative of the Netherlands, who also supported the Protocol of Sèvres and would later go on to become the General Secretary of NATO, was an equally controversial figure, for everything from his support for the dictatorship in Portugal to his involvement in the infamous massacre of leftists in Indonesia. The Treaty of Rome was an attempt to maintain European power in the face of converging fears over the imminent loss of the colonial territories as well as the post-war rise of leftist and workers’ movements within the signatory countries, which, combined with the latter’s solidarity with the colonized people and the emergence of the Cold War, were not to be taken lightly. Yet, an exploration of the connectivities between the EU and colonialism, as Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson (2014) argue, have “been systematically neglected”, a phenomena that has “enabled colonialism’s historical relation to the European integration project to remain undetected and has thus also reproduced within the present EU precisely those colonial or neo-colonial preconceptions that the European partner states, in official discourse and policy, falsely claim that they have abandoned.”

Why is this relevant today and what does it mean for the EU’s expansion in Balkans? There is a general amnesia about how the pre-EU European colonial enterprise is deeply interwoven into the fabric of the EU today. This form of amnesia is also visible in the current EU ‘integration’ projects and the broader understanding that colonialism, as Fatima El-Tayeb points out, “while admittedly committed by (descendants of) Europeans has no impact on Europe itself.” Extending this critique to the Balkans, Dušan Bjelić (2016:3) has pointed out how “foreclosure of the Balkans’ postcoloniality as a discourse on colonial and neocolonial presence is a fragment of a much larger strategic manoeuvring inside a European historiography ruled by national paradigm aimed at disowning colonial history.” Relations between European colonial pasts and European presents, as Bjelić further argues,  are erased under the assumption that “the European Union is a new political entity without previous history. It somehow deserves a clean slate after formally denouncing colonialism and anti-Semitism, and the right to shift the ownership of its colonial histories to former colonial subjects.”

It is perhaps in this trajectory that the EU recruits (post) socialist East European and Balkan countries into a colonial undertaking now manifested not only in economic terms but also through interconnected bordering regimes. Tjaša Kancler points out how “The countries of the former Eastern Europe, which became subsidiary States, peripherilized in its servile relation to the EU politics, show on the one hand, contempt towards ‘those below them’ in processes of constant hierarchization, and on the other, intensified servitude towards European colonial/imperial centers.”

The tentative invitation to ‘belong’ to the EU thus comes at the price of exclusion of those left to die at borders and refugee camps while corroborating and legitimizing the EU project as a desirable and destined political project. Unsurprisingly, the politics of EU integration demand the fragmentation of peripheries not only along political and economic geographies, but also along racial and class hierarchies that have come to designate certain populations as more worthy of life than others – all of this manifested in the closure of refugee routes, corridors and passages, and the parallel EU member state agreements with authoritarian regimes trading refugees, weapons and capital.


Cover photo: Signing of the Treaty of Rome/the European Union

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Piro Rexhepi

Piro Rexhepi is a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. His research focuses on the politics of religion, sexuality and coloniality in international relations, with a particular focus on the Balkans and the Middle East. His work has been published in Critical Muslims, East European Quarterly and Big Data & Society.