A full version of this article has been originally published on ideu.eu here.
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Is Colonialism our past or our present?
The European history has been told many times, in many ways and through many eyes. While we share a common European history, as Union of many nations, the history books reflecting our national past also differ from one and another. And while we most often discuss our common history within our geographical borders, we sometimes forget that Europeans also have been forming other countries and nations pasts. Our European ancestors have conquered many parts of the world: they arrived as settlers, as pillagers, as occupiers, as warriors and as immigrants. And while for us, this past has filled books with stories and tales, for many who have been conquered, it’s not just blank pages that have been overwritten. It remains part of a tangible reality.
While the discourse in Europe about colonialism has manifested itself in a discussion about the past, in the perception of South American nations, colonialism remains in their very present.
Last year I was living and travelling in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, mainly to investigate the economic relations and the trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, a regional organisation including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay as member states. Throughout these months I had endless interesting conversations, I listened to many personal stories, fought for my European perspective in many discussions, read the daily news and listened to prevalent discourse.
This partly intimate, partly observing experiences allowed me to see how strong the political and societal discourse in South America is still dominated by ideas and elements discussing Colonialism.
To name a few examples, in 2013, Héctor Timerman -Argentina’s foreign minister from 2010 to 2015- criticised the WTO for reproducing old dependency structures.
In literature, a book very popular among students is ‘Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina’, by Eduardo Galeano who retells the Latin American history as ‘una miseria’ of exploitation. This year, Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil attacked the French president’s “lamentable colonialist stance” after European countries criticised the uncontrolled deforestation in the amazon rain forest.
While these are only famous examples, this discourse on the humiliation of colonialism is a recurring theme. The perception that the systems of colonialism are continuing is deeply rooted in their societies and regularly is able to affect politics, economics and people’s personal relations.
From colonialism to neocolonialism?
A recurring element of the discourse on colonialism is to structure our world into two segregated blocs. One bloc, representing the richest countries of the world, is associated to wealth built on the exploitation of natural resources and treasuries. The second bloc consists of those countries that have been suffering from weak political and economic structures due to their colonial past.
This asymmetric structure has been discussed in political philosophy and economic theory and scholars have published empirical and theoretical works: Among the most read pieces can be found “The hegemony of the capital class” (Gramsci and Robert Cox), Karl Marx’s capitalist and globalisation theory, Singer’s dependency theory (Singer) and the North-South model (Findley), as well as the World-systems approach of Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank.
In the academic world, students and scholars reproduce, reflect and build upon these theories until today. But the debate is not restricted to science, as the aftermath of colonialism in which South American nations perceive themselves trapped in forms a substantial part of their daily lives.
To mention an example, the announcement of the EU-Mercosur trade agreement this year has been followed by a public outcry in which journalists cited Marx and Gramsci to argue that the agreement reproduces colonial structures. For them the EU’s “extraction” of natural resources, primary goods and alimentation products is an attempt of neo-colonisation.
The European discourse appears in contrast to how most Europeans view colonialism nowadays. Sure, we know about our countries’ meddling up of lands, exploiting natural resources and uprooting communities and culture. But we feel like liberated from our colonial past, and therefore to a certain extent also from the ‘colonial guilt’ that is associated with it.
Some would deny the crimes committed or the long-term structural effects on colonised nations. Others argue that the cultural and societal colonisation brought European education, knowledge and institutions. While there is agreement on the fact that the colonial past has not liberated other nations, but instead laid out a difficult path for the development of colonised societies and economies, we often remain blind to this reality nowadays.
The ongoing debate in South America is spurred by the idea that the European nations have been silent. Many citizens believe that the European wealth and our strong economic and political systems are built on this exploitation – in their view it explains why we remain so silent.
In the following, you find a discourse analysis divided by South American discourse and European discourse.
The first paragraphs show how Colonialism is perceived among South American nations.
Politics and coordinated discourse
International relations, economic relations and diplomacy between the countries that have been colonised in the past and the countries that colonised them remain difficult. A main problematic I perceived, while looking at the discourse elites followed in South America, was that they utilise colonialism to defeat political conflicts.
From the Kirchner governments in Argentina over Henrique Cardoso in the 90s until Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, politicians have recycled images and linguistic elements linked to the country’s colonial past.
While the historical processing and the education in school on the own history is a very important pillar of a nations development, precisely looking at when and why political elites have used the colonisation argument shows that political interests were most often more important than the well-being of the nation or the honest interest to process the national history.
International institutions, agreements or ad-hoc coalitions of actors have often been defeated because they are perceived as perpetrators of an unjust power relation. As soon as there are conflicts of interest or conflicts of normative elements, this discourse damages any balanced and problem-solving dialogue. In practical terms, it is undeniable that our nations cling onto their power in international relations, the question is why they do so. Why are we trying to maintain our right to structure diplomatic relations in a way conducive to neocolonialism? Is it because we try to remain loyal to a structure that we believe has worked for us?
All Nations can defend their sovereignty and territory, it is and should be a legal and fair right. But if certain ideas about how to protect human rights, the environment or political rights are being contested by arguing that neocolonial ideas prevail in the relations between nations, any balanced dialogue on solutions becomes a polemic and personalised struggle.
This is particularly problematic when politicians use neocolonialism as a concept to justify a political course or decision that is controversial and to stimulate the public opinion in a manipulative way. It is for that reason that we have to discuss colonialism and its effect on society. It is important to base political discourse on facts. The goal should be to improve structural imbalances instead of utilising them in an opportunistic way to achieve only political goals.
Present events in the light of the past
In South America, present events are most often viewed in the light of the past and perceived as ongoing or re-occurring colonialism. For example, trade agreements are interpreted as the means through which Western nations exploit natural resources and steal a country’s wealth or richness.
Colonial powers were guilty of robbing resources and exporting them to enhance the development of their own society. Additionally, it is true that a lot of the financial institutions and capitalist corporations originate from colonial times, as they started to invest in products such as natural resources, coffee and cacao beans already back then.
However, trade relations nowadays are complex, have many facets and levels and therefore, viewing economic relations as neocolonialism is an oversimplification of reality. Specifically trade relations between the EU and Mercosur can reveal the underlying complexity very well. European interests in the region are the expansion of technologies, services, manufactured goods and investments, while South American countries economies are not competitive within this range of products.
Therefore, the biggest trade opportunities for Mercosur come from goods that European companies cannot be competitive in. Discourses often only interpret the behaviour of the EU as controlling and neo-colonising markets and individual business remedies. The EU is being accused to purposefully empower actors that then let our rent-seeking firms and investments benefit.
However, there are three forces at hand that have influenced the outcome of the negotiations. First, the EU is under pressure to keep up competition internally and globally with the US and China. Second, the EU must internally balance between the interests of sectors that aim to expand their exports, investors and those that want to protect themselves. Supporters aim to create larger consumer markets abroad and fight the Mercosur’s protection of their sensitive industries, while the Common Agricultural Policy sector desires to protect its share in the economy.
This interconnection and variety of interests makes it hard for the EU to be lenient and agree to too many concessions, even more so if there is no understanding of the needs of Mercosur among the actors involved. In the end, one sector will lose as long as, on the one hand, the economic incompatibility of both regions persists and, on the other, a win-win outcome for the EU means a double loss for Mercosur.
The EU-Mercosur agreement is also a good example that shows how opportunities were lost due to the maintenance of this discourse on asymmetric relations or systemic dependency. Negotiations have been initiated already in the mid-90s, when the EU was a smaller, less competitive, weaker institutionalised region, and countries in South America were challenged with their initial years of democratisation and their transformation into a free market economy after the military dictatorships. The compromise achieved in 2019 took twenty years to be concluded, mainly because of policymakers who were not willing or able to pay the political and economic costs of the agreement on both sides and because of the fear of asymmetry (Doctor, 2007).
Now more than twenty years later, this asymmetric relationship has grown and the costs of adjusting the economies are even larger. Over the years, the conflicting industries in Mercosur have lost competitive advantages to the benefit of other economic actors. Also, the EU has been enlarged and trade agreements nowadays include endless clauses, regulations and standards to which Mercosur has to adapt to, which makes a beneficial trade relation for both even more difficult.
Therefore, the discourse held on the injustice of the trade agreement has prolonged the process and has put the countries in an even less beneficial position towards the EU. The cause is not an effort by the EU to purposefully exploit other nations, but rather international globalisation processes and the EU’s citizens requirements to meet quality standards and regulations.
The next paragraph analyses the discourse in Europe and suggest ways to improve mutual understanding.
The discourse in Europe
The ongoing discourse contributes to building walls and not bridges. how the underlying ideas stand in the way of empowering and emancipating colonised countries from the perceived hegemony of Europe.
The current public discourse about colonialism in Europe appears self-contradictory.
Sure, we know about our continent’s meddling up of lands, exploiting natural resources and colonising communities and cultures. But we feel like liberated from our colonial past, and therefore to a certain extent also from the ‘colonial guilt’ associated to it. As Europeans we are often kept in our reality, trying to solve problems that occur within our national borders or within the European Union.
Colonialism is a frame that we attach to the past, and while we are briefly taught in school how colonialism has affected colonised countries, it remains a problematic far removed from our current political and societal reality nowadays. The choice not to confront these realities is tantamount to neglecting our duty and amounts to the denial of the importance of the well-being of people suffering from poverty, underdevelopment and crime. This lack of discussion among our societies and educational systems does not only harm our awareness but is also a part of the broader problematic.
Former colonised countries interpret this lack of reflection and discourse as very negative, as many argue that the problems these nations face nowadays originate in the colonial history. As a way to process how our nations built their wealth by using other countries’ human and natural resources (of course, not all European countries have been colonisers. However colonisation by a few has contributed to the development of our current common institutions), research in postcolonial studies investigates how history is told and how we can interpret our past in a more holistic way.
Thereby, scholars try to re-tell the history of colonialism that has often been imprinted with cultural ethnocentrism or euro-centrism within a fact-based narrative, but it remains a niche debate among academics. To improve our awareness and to become more sensitive to the needs of these societies, for example of political and economic support, our basic educational systems should shed light on Europe’s place in the world.
Education and research on causes and effects: A guilt question?
Research has found direct links between economic development and colonialism. Therefore, cause effect relationships of present problematics must be examined and researched profoundly. Continuing poverty, violence or economic difficulties also originate in political decisions, destabilised institutions, wrong allocation of resources, or sometimes the grief of individual actors.
Not only during colonial times, but also later, European investments, business decisions, the protection of their markets and aid allocation had considerable negative impacts on the economic development of former colonies.
We have to analyse these problematics, understand origins, examine where political and economic choices have supported regimes and elites that only follow self-interested behaviour and focus on effective measures that we can take to ensure a more equal development in societies (see for example Harrison et al., 2018; Waldkirch, 2010).
A good example of such an important research is Mark Langan’s examination of African neo-colonialism and their experiences (2018). In fact, this research is a plea for both regions: Improving profound and fact-based investigation to analyse cause-effect relationships, improve understanding in a cross-case examination to evaluate which factors do play a role in improving the economic development of a country and reflecting on how societal systems have become dominant.
For example, the results of money loans issued by the IMF and other financial debt flows between nations should be questioned and reflected upon. Further we need to investigate aid effectiveness, consequences of protectionist policies, liberal policies, redistribution of resources and where in fact European firms exact public goods from nations for their own prosperity.
Lastly, we need to deepen our understanding of the links that explain how violence, poverty and underdevelopment are connected to politics. Only through the investigation of those connections and linkages can we change the discourse and develop it into solutions. It is also the best way to improve the wealthier countries’ grasp on special needs in trade relations in order to manage and balance future trade negotiations on just grounds.
Acknowledging facts about trade
To create fair and equal trade, the economist Dani Rodrik remarks that “developing nations may be allowed to subsidise some industries in return for rich nations being allowed to use tariffs against countries “dumping” goods produced under substandard labor or environmental standards” (2016).
But even where we can see policymakers’ interest in balancing trade relations, for instance through Generalised Preference schemes, Economic Partnership Agreement, or certain clauses in the EU trade agreements, the EU faces restrictions from business, domestic sectors and stakeholders in liberalising trade agreements (Young & Peterson, 2013).
The EU-Mercosur agreement highlights the European-wide neglect of the Mercosur perspective, as conditions are not considered in the light of Mercosur interests or needs but from a Euro-centric view. For instance, internal interests became utilised to criticise the EU-Mercosur trade deal.
The allowances on exports of South-American agricultural products, to one of the most subsidised and protected trade areas in the world (with the Common Agricultural Policy), even if very limited, were publicly disfigured by agricultural producers and elites in Europe.
Stakeholders seemed to be overly concerned about the preservation of our environment due to the Brazilian policies in the Amazon-region. But if we look at the same stakeholder’s reaction already in 2007, in 2016 and today, it seems that the critique was all the time motivated by the sectors’ interests – by their business interests.
Economic development as an international, in place of a national, problem
All in all, one would wish for an EU-approach that addresses the specific needs of the former colonies and improves the difficulties they are currently facing. It further requires an understanding of the fear of South Americans to become providers of resources and primary goods. It also requires understanding why policymakers have fought to protect their industries and manufacturing sectors for so long.
South Americans have wished for industrialisation and a diversified economy that can autonomously survive. South-American nations still wish for their independence from the world’s leading economic nations. The hegemony of European nations, their wealth and their continuing development is part of the perception in South America of being trapped in a secondary place and leads to a melancholic feeling that there is no opportunity to catch up. South Americans face the reality of living in a whole economic bloc that has recurring economic problematics, where violence and criminality rates are increasing and poverty and hunger are daily problems affecting the many and not the few.
These feelings only intensify the nations desire to become fully independent, as the dependency that has been prevalent for several hundreds of years has not borne the desired fruits of development for the majority of the population until today. In this sense, we should ask ourselves about ways to close this gap and avoid contributing to the enlargement of the already-wide rift.
That could be done by resisting claims to enhance European competitiveness all the time. Apart from economic terms, the South-American desire for sovereignty and independence should make Europeans question how and why criticism is voiced. We should thus be more conscious of our national and economic interconnectivity.
The exclusivity of a normative Europe
Within the EU, the discussion about its normative power is a concept to describe the moral values and standards the EU aims to represent and share with the world (Diez, 2013). Examples are the EU’s attempt to work towards the eradication of human rights violations, to criticise and sanction regimes that harm their citizens or conflict with other nations. In the economic realm, this entails adopting trade sustainability approaches, or the requirements to condition trade relations to human right clauses.
While within our discourse we believe to have the moral right and can therefore effectively enhance universal standards by conditioning agreements and promoting our values among societies and political systems, countries receiving these clauses look at them from a very different angle. With the trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur for example, both regions agreed on establishing a civil society forum, composed by actors chosen by the countries themselves.
However, the EU criticised the civil society forum established by the South American nations and demanded a better inclusion of civil actors. This criticism was not interpreted as benevolent, but as a humiliation of civil society actors that fought for the inclusion of their rights in the agreement. In fact, the concessions made by Mercosur policymakers were not motivated by excluding national interests but were caused by the insensitivity and powerful bargaining position from the EU.
Additionally, we should try to be more careful as to what our discourse conveys and when and how we can criticise conditions that are within the remit of the sovereignty of countries. It has become part of our European vision that our systems and ideas are universal, which is understandably interpreted as arrogant.
Even though it is not our intention, often enough the European ‘improving the world’-complex is perceived as cultural ethnocentrism in which is central the belief that our cultural and moral standards are, bluntly said, better. While we should not give up on our right to discursively promote universal values, it is important to be sensitive about the reasons and intentions we link them with. If we want to have an equal and balanced dialogue based on problem-solving, we should ask ourselves first why and how we can address diverging ideas in a way of mutual understanding.
You, me and us?
I had many conversations over the different cultural experiences we have when we grow up in a certain environment. From the first experiences we make in our surroundings, to the things we see and feel every day but also about how we put ourselves in relation to those experiences. We can endure our situation passively by striking or we can fight for our rights. It’s a human experience to feel like taking a step forward is immediately followed by two steps backwards.
We will never have the same cultural experiences if we come from two different societies, either from Europe or from South America. We grow up in different worlds. But through media and communication we believe we know the other culture, we believe the pictures and information we receive give us a leverage to understand and live the experiences.
From an honest perspective, we might never perceive and interpret the world in the exact same way, yet we should try to engage with each other by communicating openly and fair. Only by doing so, we can start a discourse and challenge our worldviews, ideas and interests instead of reproducing old and rigid patterns. The more hopeful point of departure is to believe in the fact that we can create another, more equal experience for our nations in the future, one that is desirable for all and that manages to bind the world’s mosaic together.