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Peo Hansen

October 31st, 2023

The colonial origins of European integration

0 comments | 44 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Peo Hansen

October 31st, 2023

The colonial origins of European integration

0 comments | 44 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The EU is often presented as a “peace project” that emerged in opposition to nationalism, war and the turbulence of geopolitics. Peo Hansen argues that while this narrative continues to shape perceptions today, it overlooks the role that geopolitical concerns have always played in the integration process.


The EU is relaunching itself as a geopolitical player. It wants to be “sovereign”, “strategically autonomous”, “a power balancer” and a projector of “hard power”. As Josep Borrell and Ursula von der Leyen’s “geopolitical Commission” has clarified on numerous occasions, “the era of a conciliatory, if not naïve, Europe has come of age. Virtuous ‘soft power’ is no longer enough in today’s world. We need to complement it with a ‘hard power’ dimension.” The war in Ukraine, Borrell has just announced, “has converted us into a geopolitical power, not just an economic one”.

What this will entail in concrete policy measures is of course a different matter, and scholars and think tank analysts are relentlessly debating what the near future might hold. On one thing, though, there is total agreement, and that concerns the alleged fact that the EU’s geopolitical turn is a radically novel and unprecedented development. For many, this is what makes the turn so hugely significant.

The geopolitical turn marks a shift away from what is said to be the EU’s unique “soft power” approach to world affairs. Yet by openly embracing “hard power”, Brussels is also severing the continuity between the present rhetoric and its own carefully crafted historical narrative about the original EU as an anti-geopolitical pioneer and peace project, an achievement for which the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. Upon receiving the Peace Prize, then Commission President José Manuel Barroso spoke of the “experience of extreme nationalism, wars and the absolute evil of the Shoah” that convinced the EU to embrace a “cosmopolitan order” and part ways with the “balance of power” logic.

Much EU-scholarship has also been instrumental in perpetuating this image of the EU’s genesis in the 1950s, claiming, for instance, that “the EC emerged after, not before, the resolution of major geopolitical issues”, and that the Treaty of Rome negotiations were guided by “the realisation that geopolitical issues were no longer at stake”.

The big problem, though, is that this foundational tale of innocent origins, untainted by ugly geopolitical concerns, does not stand up to historical scrutiny. Today’s extensive debate on the EU’s geopolitical turn is thus oblivious to the fact that the EU, when it was founded in 1957, constituted a vast imperial polity that annexed or “associated” France’s and Belgium’s African colonies and fully incorporated French Algeria.

The EU’s founders stressed the Community’s huge extra-European scope and natural sphere of influence, which was designated as “Eurafrica” and codified in the Rome Treaty’s colonial association regime. By incorporating a large part of Africa’s natural resources into a western European sphere of influence, the European Economic Community aspired to emerge as a “third force” in world geopolitics, able to balance the Soviet Union and the United States.

Geopolitical stratagems

In December 1956, the intergovernmental Ad-Hoc Overseas Territories Group, which was tasked with preparing the Rome Treaty’s colonial association regime, presented its final report to the negotiating parties:

Economically speaking, the European member states of the common market have an essential need for the cooperation and support that the overseas territories – particularly the African ones – are able to offer in order to establish long-term balance of the European economy. The sources of raw material, variegated and abundant, which the overseas territories dispose of are likely to ensure for the entirety of the European economy of the common market the indispensable foundation for an expanding economy and present the additional advantage of being situated in countries whose orientation may be influenced by the European countries themselves.

“The proposed enterprise”, the report concluded, “entails consequences of major importance for the future of Europe. […] In aiding Africa and supporting itself on her, the community of the Six is able to furnish Europe with its equilibrium and a new youth.”

European integration in the 1950s thus had everything to do with geopolitical stratagems, and anything else should strike us wholly counterintuitive. Just think about the obvious bearing of the enormous French and Belgium African empires, and of all the colonial wars fought primarily by France in the years when European integration took shape.

Yet, this fact has never been allowed to complicate the historical image of the EU as a non-geopolitical peace project. Given that the Rome Treaty incorporated France’s Algerian departments into the EEC, this also meant that one of the bloodiest and most atrocious wars in the postwar era was fought inside the EU. It was a war that the European “peace project” thus helped to legitimise by acknowledging that Algeria indeed was an integral part of France.

A reunion with the past

The amnesia that impedes knowledge of the EU’s colonial origins helps explain why the geopolitical turn today is seen as so utterly novel and poles apart from how the EU approached geopolitics in the 1950s. What appears to be a break with the past, then, is in fact a reunion with the past, in the sense that the current EU-leaders’ open embrace of geopolitics follows in the footsteps of the EU founders.

This is crucial not least since Brussels, as was the case in the 1950s, describes its geopolitical turn as pivoting on a close “alliance” with Africa. Although much has changed since 1957, the EU’s quest to politically influence and harness Africa’s vast resources has not. This explains why Brussels wants a “strategic alliance” with Africa, rather than merely a partnership.

Such a strategic alliance is said to be “crucial in a multipolar world where collective action is sorely needed”. Brussels points out that “together Africa and Europe form the largest voting bloc in the UN” and that this joint force should be used to push for common global causes. In his opening statement at the EU-AU summit last year, European Council President Charles Michel reiterated the primacy of EU-Africa security interdependence.

The EU’s bid to form a strategic alliance with the African Union is a striking development, especially when explicitly framed as helping Europe boost her geopolitical stamina and navigate the stormy waters of a “multipolar world”. In invoking a “multipolar world”, the EU acknowledges that its position in Africa is being challenged by other powers, a challenge often framed in zero-sum terms:

As Africa’s neighbour and its main partner, we are directly concerned by the conditions in which the rise of this young and dynamic continent takes place. If we do not give this matter sufficient attention, others will – and probably at our expense.

Again, this echoes the 1950s Eurafrican rationale for the Treaty of Rome’s colonial associating regime. As argued in Le Monde in February 1957: “The Six are also aware that the political fate of Europe is more or less linked to that of Africa, and that if other influences were to supplant ours in these territories, serious risks would appear on the horizon.”

As the competition for Africa’s resources and markets stiffens, various geopolitical interests will also increasingly clash in and over Africa. So far, the EU is handling this by turning to a more aggressive attitude towards its competitors in Africa, foremost China. Borrell’s advisor at the EU’s External Action Service, Bruno Dupré, defines the EU’s task as follows: “There can be no sovereignty for Europe without the creation, beyond the neighbourhood, of an arc of countries that share and defend the same values. Strategic autonomy is not synonymous with independence or autarky but rather with interdependence that is chosen rather than suffered.”

Since such a sphere of influence may not appeal to African countries that, just like the EU, want to choose their interdependencies – rather than being their victims – this may escalate geopolitical tensions in Africa even further. In turn, this may lend more incentive to exhume and resuscitate a “Eurafrica 2.0”. That is why today’s developments should encourage us to engage more with the EU’s colonial past. Such a dialogue between present and past will help us better understand the current EU’s plans for its African sphere of influence.


Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: rarrarorro/Shutterstock.com


About the author

Peo Hansen.

Peo Hansen

Peo Hansen is a Professor of Political Science at the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO), Linköping University. Currently, he is Simone Veil Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies in Florence. His books include A Modern Migration Theory: An Alternative Economic Approach to Failed EU Policy (Agenda Publishing, 2021); and Eurafrica: The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism (co-authored with S. Jonsson, Bloomsbury, 2014). Eurafrica was published in French in 2022: Eurafrique: Aux origins colonials de l’Union européenne (La Découverte).

Posted In: EU Politics | Politics

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