Written by Maria Martins

The core identity of the European integration project is closely linked to the idea of a new chapter of European history, a chapter of peace, where a new community would prompt the necessary cooperation to put an end to wars. Nevertheless, the academic community (Sierp, 2017; Pasture, 2018; Mitzen, 2018; Della Salla, 2018; Nicolaïdis and Onar, 2013) has pointed out that, by turning the page from within, Europe has encouraged a narrative of selective amnesia towards its recent history, especially in all which has to do with colonialism. However, this is a history that can hardly be ignored, let alone forgotten in much of the former colonial world. It’s all about a past with present-day implications for the credibility and accountability of contemporary European relations with the Middle East and North Africa (Zielonka 2013; Stivachtis 2018).

In effect, European former colonies have had a fundamental role in the construction of the European integration project, economically and politically speaking. However, the fact is that post-colonial relations between European and African states are more nuanced, and the target of neo-colonial criticism. (D’Alfonso, 2014).

In this sense, the purpose of this article is to discuss the role played by former European colonies in the construction of the EU’s self-image,  with a focus on the North African and Middle Eastern countries.

A historical overview

The European Economic Community (EEC) was the first – and biggest – step toward further European integration, leading up to what the European Union represents today. Commonly referred to as “the six founding members of the European Communities” – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands -, might instead be “the eighteen” (Akinsanya 1975). In 1957, when the Treaty of Rome was signed, the founding European members, namely France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, still had colonial control of overseas territories (European Communities 1957). This was a particularly painful moment for France, as it was faced with the choice of either having to sever its historic connections with its dependencies, or request for its colonies to be regarded as members of the EEC (Soper 1963). In order to solve the French conundrum, a compromise was reached: overseas territories from the six countries would enjoy special terms of association, embodied in part VI of the Treaty of Rome, and were to last a five-year period (Akinsanya 1975). 

The European colonies which enjoyed the special terms of association were Senegal,  Sudan, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Mauritania, Niger and Upper Volta. As part of French Equatorial Africa, they included Congo, Ubangi-Shari, Chad and Gabon; St. Pierre and Miquelon, the Comoro Archipelago, Madagascar and dependencies, the French Somali Coast, New Caledonia and dependencies, the French Settlements in Oceania, the Southern and Antarctic Territories; the Republic of Togoland; the French Trusteeship Territory in the Cameroons; the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi; the Italian Trusteeship Territory in Somaliland; and Netherlands’ New Guinea (Akinsaya 1975).

On the one hand, these colonies benefitted from duty-free access to a dynamic European market of 170 million people, freedom to protect their own industries, and a development fund which was over and above any bilateral aid they were already receiving (Akinsanya 1975). However, on the other hand, this also meant collective economic exploitation by the six European powers (Pasture 2018).

Akinsanya (1975) explains that after the Second World War, with the USSR and the United States asserting their sphere of influence, and with the decolonization process of the Afro-Asian world, the European economies joined forces to be stronger economically and politically. This was also part of a colonial agenda (Gruhn 1976; Hassen and Jonsson 2014; Nicolaïdis et al. 2015; Pasture 2018; Pasture 2015; Stevens & Kennan 2005;). Being aware of the mounting pressure against colonialism throughout the world, European powers looked for other ways to maintain their colonial possessions in Africa (Kottos 2015 apud Pasture 2018; Shipway 2017). Born from post-war dynamics and from the need to find ways to modernize their colonial control, “Eurafrica” was created. The term, coined by Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergis, one of the founding fathers of the Pan European Union movement, supported the belief that merging the African colonies would represent a first step towards a federal Europe. Under this project, African colonies would provide Europe with raw materials such as uranium in Niger, cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Middle Eastern and the Gulf countries are rich in petrol and oil, such as Egypt, Libya, Iraq interalia Kuwait and Qatar (Laak 2010 apud Pasture 2018), thus, ensuring its former colonial masters with revenue. 

The Organization for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) argued that, by including a “Eurafrican” perspective, it could imply that, contrary to the American means – namely Marshall funds which were granted by the US to the reconstruction of Europe in the face of the physical destruction caused by the WWII – “Eurafrica” would be used to sustain colonial policies (Montarsolo 2010). 

Although it did not gain much attention in the 1950s, given the renewed strategy of EU-Africa and the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, public opinion and academic debate has gone through a revival of this idea in recent years. As trade relations between Africa and the EU are a step in a history of colonial and post-colonial power relations, the renewed EU-Africa strategy from 2005 onwards has been the target of criticism, as a form of contemporary neocolonial behaviour from European members (Akinkugbe 2020; Hassen and Jonsson 2017; Hansen and Jonsson 2013). This has also been the case with Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and with the European Neighborhood Policy for the Southern Neighborhood, as scholars have argued that the benchmarks and policies established by the European Union are frequently one-sided and unilaterally decided (Amaro Dias 2014a and 2014b; Bicchi 2014; Chandler 2007; Diez 2005; Noutcheva 2015; Zielonka 2013; El-Tayeb 2008;  Lavenex 2008; Stivatchis 2018;).

It is noticeable that the arguments for establishing “Eurfrica” in the 1950s were the same as in the 1920s and 1930s, that is to combine European high culture and African “primitive” vitalism, for the benefit of both continents (Paneuropa, 1929). Members of the Pan European Union movement saw a “Eurafrican” alliance as a way of using the European colonies like a “dowry” (Hansen & Jonsson, 2011). As the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, said in the Council of Europe in 1952,  “we must also, if a free Europe is to be made viable, jointly exploit the riches of the African continent, and try to find there those raw materials which we are getting from the dollar area, and for which we are unable to pay.” (Pasture 2018 apud Hansen & Jonsson 2011).

In effect, Pasture (2018) explains, one must always interpret with a critical perspective the following sentence of the 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‘. 

Despite the political context of the Yaounde Convention being significantly different, given the independence of the former European colonies, some behavioural power patterns remained and have influenced European relations with the African continent. For instance, Langan and Price (2018) have studied how the EU has pushed a narrative of complementarity and interdependence with countries in North Africa to promote the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) to push forwards a pattern of highly asymmetrical trade and aid arrangements that might be characterized as neocolonial. I will return to this aspect in the next section of the paper. 

The Yaounde Convention, although signed by the Eighteen, was not supported unanimously. For example, Ali Mazrui, a known Pan-Africanist, wrote in ‘African Attitudes to the European Economic Community’ in 1963 that signing the Association Convention instead of choosing to discontinue it, was perpetuating colonial patterns through economic dependency on the Six (Mazrui 1963):

 “Indeed, the irony of the matter is that Europe is offering associate membership specifically to Europe’s former subjects, the very poor people who may be forgiven for being suspicious of any altruism that smacks of the ‘White Man’s Burden’. […] The passport to African entry into the EEC must […] bear the mark ‘Certificate as Ex-colonial Territory of a Member’.” 

As Pasture (2018) reminds us: “forgetting is not innocent”. The EC/EU presents itself as a benevolent organization, hesitant to call “Eurafrica” colonial, and attempting to erase the colonial past from European integration history (Bentley 2015; Deschamps 2011; Whitling 2010; Jansen 2010). Often, faced with decolonization processes, European powers have attempted to narrate decolonization in a framework of modernization and progress that finds its origin in Europe, for example, how France made in the final days of the Algerian war of liberation and associated the ongoing extension of national self-determination with its democratic values: liberty, fraternity, equality, and the Rights of Man – that began with the French Revolution (Shepard 2008). 

Therefore, by effectively dissociating itself from its colonial past, the European powers have escaped from the ‘ethical imperative’ that accompanies such recognition – and from associated demands for excuses and reparations (Pasture 2018). As Sierp (2017) explains, the creation of a shared narrative as the base of a founding myth necessarily implies processes of selection and simplification. To build a common identity, the European Community based itself on a founding myth, generating a Self-image (a social and international identity) like most countries and international actors do (Rumelili 2015; 2003).

However, one must note that such desirable unity between Member-States purposely ignored a part of its past to secure an unstained identity of the European integration project, based on overcoming wars and promoting human rights throughout the world. Ian Manners and Thomas Diez (2007) argue that the EU is naturally prone to be a normative actor – who changes what is the norm within the international system without making use of military power – based on the aforementioned self-image, present-day discussions and unravelling of its colonial past contest this notion. Most of the efforts put into pushing the new narrative of the post-World War II European Identity – one based on liberal values, democracy, and human rights – directly collides with the post-colonial narratives emerging from former colonies in the 80s and 90s (Mitzen 2018; El-Tayeb 2008; Shani 2017; Lenz & Nicolaïdis 2019; Keukeleire & Lecocq 2021).

Interdependence or Amnesia? 

The European Communities allowed continuity of the colonialist enterprise, for example, as France continued to view Africa as its symbolic territory, resulting in recurrent tensions with the EC Directorate-General for Development (DG VIII) which today is DG ECHO at the European Commission (Akinsaya 1975; Pace 2010).  

As Pace (2010) explains, the construction of the Mediterranean region by EU institutions might be helpful as an intellectual abstract, but it can be also read as a simplistic postcolonial reading of its Member-States. The Mediterranean is far too complex of a region to be reduced to one denomination (Cleveland & Button 2018). For example, it requires distinctions between North Africa and the Middle East for historical and geopolitical reasons, as well as Mashreq and Maghreb (relating to such factors as political orientations, political regimes, alliance systems, and economic status) (Cleveland & Bunton 2018; Pace 2010). Nonetheless, although simplistic, this one-designation of the region helps us better understand how it is constructed and how European countries still view it as a sphere of their post-colonial interest (Chourou 2004). In this perspective,  France will see the Mediterranean region as a Latin lake of a former colonial empire, representing elements of power, security and cultural hegemony (Pace 2010). Moreover, the Mediterranean region has been construed as a source of insecurity (e.g., immigration, fundamentalism and terrorism) for Europe, translating this notion into a hierarchical division vis-à-vis its southern partners (Adler & Barnett 1998; Derrida 1992). 

Furthermore, postcolonial interpretations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) area such as the Latin lake for France or Mare Nostrum for Italy (Della Salla 2021) or as an area of chaos and ungovernability, have been rather evident through its trade relations. Critical theoretical scholars such as Galtung (1973), Hurt (2003), Nunn and Price (2004), Langan and Price (2020), Zielonka (2006), Del Sarto (2015; 2016) and Nicolaidis (2015) have historically demonstrated how EU trade policies entrench commercial prerogatives in Africa at the expense of the long-term growth of their poorer partners. Soon after the independence of former colonies of the European ‘Six’, such as Niger and Algeria, the “Eurafrica” project was launched, alongside the initiative of establishing economic ties with the recently independent nations (Akinsaya 1975; Pasture 2018; Langan & Price 2020). 

Under DCFTAs (Deep Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements) and Association Agreements with the North African and Middle Eastern countries in the 1960s, the European Communities sought to impose liberalization in MENA economies, despite the ground realities of being recently politically and economically independent were still not ready for such a macroeconomic shock (Chang 2002; Thorpe 2018). As Paris (2007) explains, liberal policies that are introduced in war-shattered countries, as was the case with most decolonization processes, often end up having a perverse effect. As the author explains:

In developing countries, […] attempts to create functioning market systems through economic liberalization frequently result in the widening of distributional inequalities-largely because such policies often entail reductions in government subsidies, social expenditures, and public-sector employment, which tend to have disproportionately detrimental effects on the poor and the urban working class.” (Paris 2007:77).

African economies had been dependent on and explored by the European metropoles for their primary commodities for decades, and trade liberalization would only continue to feed into the historic and economic dependency on Europe, not aiding their independence (Zielonka 2007; Langan and Price 2020). One might argue that today’s EU-MENA relations are based upon this rationale of premature liberalization and neocolonial economic dependency on their former colonial rulers (Chadwick 2018; Nkrumah 1965; Fanon 2001). 

In the name of interdependency, the European mission civilisatrice was continued through other means (Nicolaïdis 2015; Morrilas & Soleri i Lecha 2017) through the persistent dependency of former colonies with their former colonial masters through Association Agreements. An example of such dynamics can be found in the  Yaounde Agreement, where the African partners were still dependent on external European aid and liberalization market policies (Touré 1962). Despite knowing that the complexity of the DCFTA is incompatible with the ground realities and that it exacerbates existing inequalities, European powers continued to ensure North African states’ subordinate economic position through trade agreements (Djafari 2018 apud Langan & Price 2020).

The biggest evidence of the dependency is visible in the power asymmetries of trade flows between the MENA countries and the EU, where the Union is a high-ranking trading partner for the region while the opposite is not true. While the EU is one of the biggest trading partners for countries such as Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia, they are only ranked  47th, 22nd and 34th in return, respectively (European Commission 2019a, 2019b). Thus, it is clear that the region still remains dependent on exports to Europe, as it did in colonial times, but the Union does not seem to share the same dependence (Langan & Price 2020). 

As previously explained, the amnesia approach (Morillas & Soleri i Lecha, 2017; Nicolaïdis 2015; Langan 2017; Pace 2007) towards colonialism in the early years of the European Economic Communities has been important not only to create unity amongst Member-States, but also to build the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP). The North African and Middle Eastern region has been constructed purposefully as interdependent and unstable, in dire need of European aid and guidance (Said, 1993; Kabbani 1986; Derrida 1992). Consequently, this selective memory is helpful in understanding the EU as a project based on liberal values as peace and democracy, and the MENA region as an unstable and chaotic partner (Chandler 2003; Natorski 2016; Onar & Nicolaïdis 2013; Pace 2007; Trombetta 2014; Stivatchis 2018; Schumacher 2015; Zielonka 2013). Such approach has been successful in downplaying any accusations that it is acting as a neocolonial power (Langan & Price 2020; Pasture 2018; Sierp 2017). Through this narrative, post-colonial relations are perceived in terms of cooperation and interdependency in order to sustain the imposition of premature trade liberalization and lock-in of colonial patterns of commodities exports. 


The EU, by projecting itself as a completely benevolent international power, indulges in a short-term fix to heal its ever-present wounds. Indeed, forgetting is selective and a conscious act. Thus, the aim of this article is to shed light on the often forgotten influences of the past help to shape and better understand the present, specifically that former European colonies in the African continent had a crucial impact on the construction of the European project. 

As previously explained, MENA countries, whose economies were tainted by economic and financial exploitation and built-in dependence, were also great contributors to the European integration project (Morillas & Soleri i Lecha, 2017; Nicolaïdis 2015; Langan 2017; Pace 2007; Langan & Price 2020; Pasture 2018; Langan and Price 2020). In effect, it is important to bear in mind that many of the founding pillars of the EU’s external action, such as the European Development Fund – a crucial part of European foreign policy – are drawn from neocolonial ambitions which sought to retain a level of dependency of recently emancipated African and Middle Eastern colonies. Furthermore, it is also vital to reflect on how this has had an impact on the economies and state-building in European former colonies too. One cannot understand contemporary European-MENA relations without reflecting on how and to what extent colonial and post-colonial relations have deeply affected North Africa and Middle Eastern societies.

In conclusion, many of the discussions nowadays also refer to this selectively forgotten past of the EU that cannot be understood in isolation from its history nor from a more holistic understanding of memory politics that catered for European unity (Onar & Nicolaïdis 2013; Derrida 1992). 


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