Author Response: Constructing Europe and Defending Empire

24 February 2023

**This is the author’s response in our book forum on Megan Brown’s The Seventh Member State: Algeria, France, and the European Community. This week, we have published four reviews of Brown’s book.

1. When Algeria Was Europe? — Danielle Beaujon

2. The Last Dreams of Empire — Melissa K. Byrnes

3. Inclusion, Exclusion: Algeria and the Making of Europe — Ariel Mond

4. Was Europe Ever The Dream? — Arthur Asseraf


In 1991, Pieds-Noirs Magazine, which catered to Algeria’s former settler population, ran an article on the upcoming Rassemblement mondial des pieds-noirs et harkis. The gathering would take place the following summer in Vincennes, just outside of Paris, and would coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of Algeria’s independence. The author extolled the people bound for Vincennes as “ready to accept [their] destiny as European avant la lettre.” Indeed, “this community, composed of populations originally from Spain, France, Italy… and of different religious confessions […] understood, as much there [in North Africa] as in France or elsewhere, how to integrate toward new horizons.”


The reference to integration was not accidental. As the magazine went to press, European diplomats were finalizing the Maastricht Treaty, signed in February 1992 by the twelve member states of the European Communities, which founded the European Union. The organization behind the Rassemblement called itself Horizon Europe, a name that projected a forward-moving, transnational outlook, rather than a revanchist, nostalgic gaze. Building on their attempts to harness the harkis’ plight for their own political gain, the settlers linked their settler colonial past to integrated Europe’s celebratory present, painting French Algeria as a harmonious and modern proto-EU.


Horizon Europe’s version of events glossed over decades (1830-1962) of violence and repression in Algeria. And yet, unwittingly, this group nodded to a part of France and Algeria’s history that has been all but erased. In a very different manner than Horizon Europe argued, Algeria was deeply bound up in the project of integrated Europe. Indeed, it was named in the foundational treaty of the EU’s key precursor, the European Economic Community (EEC). In my book, I examine why French officials insisted that Algeria be named in the 1957 Treaty of Rome and how that insistence impacted integrated Europe and, later, independent Algeria. Algeria, I argue, appeared in the Treaty of Rome because French officials in the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Overseas France came to view European integration as a tool through which to assert the legitimacy of France’s continued colonial project and to secure European funds for Algerian development. Following Algeria’s 1962 independence, that decision opened the door for Algeria’s new leaders to demand resources, favorable trade conditions, and rights for their citizens, such as training programs funded by the EEC. At the same time, the vagaries of Algeria’s precise legal status before independence allowed the EEC’s founding members, known as the Six, to avoid implementing European regulations or rights that could have materially benefited Algerians. Legal ambiguity had been useful for France during over a century of rule in Algeria. Now, that ambiguity allowed for the foreclosure of rights that were seemingly promised in the Treaty of Rome.


The process of constructing Europe was never just about continental territory, despite well-worn tropes about postwar European friendship and a supposed pivot from empire to Europe. European construction began in earnest as the guns of World War II cooled, leading to, among other institutions, the European Coal and Steel Community, founded in 1951. Algeria would not celebrate its independence until 1962. How could there have been a pivot from empire to Europe when the intervening decade witnessed an intertwining on the diplomatic stage of imperial imperatives and European aspirations? Rather, the two were inseparable. In my book, I demonstrate how concerns about empire drove European decision-making. This underscores France’s postwar political goals. Paris bureaucrats remained intent on positioning France as the center of both an imperial world and an emergent integrated Europe. It also reorients integrated Europe’s history away from a mythology of progress and harmony and toward a more complicated narrative of intransigence and competition.


Diplomatic historians focus on high-level decision-making and behind-the-scenes dealings, and in recent years, have pushed for new approaches to the international that center lesser-known figures, including non-state actors. Lingering on diplomacy invites an understanding of how states or institutions negotiated their relations; sheds light onto how particular versions of alliances or regulations emerged; and exposes the complex interplay of domestic concerns and international prerogatives. Work like mine, emphasizing the significance of empire to an institution, challenges origin stories that shape contemporary understandings of these international bodies. Even as I focus on French bureaucrats, such attention pushes against the persistently Eurocentric histories of the postwar period.


While my work focuses on French demands emanating from Paris, I also examine how independent Algeria’s first administrators worked to leverage the recent colonial past through European channels. It is clear from the newspapers and speeches I cite that Algerian officials were well aware that the EEC treaty was a useful tool in bilateral and multilateral talks with European powers. As I and other scholars have shown, Algerian officials after July 1962  pursued a range of diplomatic connections and even supranational configurations. Prior to 1962, I suspect that for members and supporters of the FLN and other groups, the question of Algeria’s place in Europe was of very little interest. Indeed, because they were fighting and dying to assert that Algeria was not French, they surely would not have entertained the notion that it was European (and even less so because French authorities were attempting to use this claim to fight against Algerian nationalism).


For Algerian workers in France, Belgium, West Germany, and the Netherlands—all important sites of labor migration—the question of European integration may have been more salient. Indeed, an ECJ case I detail in my last chapter involved an Algerian laborer trying to collect European social security when he retired in West Germany. Diplomatic history reveals many things, but the lives and ideas of everyday people are rarely incorporated into such studies. Our understanding of European integration is stronger thanks to works examining people and events outside of the halls of power in Brussels, and important research on the entanglements of empire, decolonization, and the construction of European identity. As Danielle Beaujon and Ariel Mond suggest, there remains much more to be said about Algerian attitudes toward the history I detail. I hope to see more research that will amplify Algerian voices within the longer history of European integration. Such studies, including those that make use of internal Algerian government documents, would elucidate which ministries saw the Treaty of Rome as a tool for securing European aid. It would also shed light on how Algerian officials understood the 1976 treaty: were they frustrated, disappointed, or relieved to have resolved questions that had gone unanswered since 1962? And what about the Algerians working in Europe in this period? I look forward to a study of Algerian migrant labor in the larger context of integrated Europe.


In framing my book, I write that my work reveals a “foreclosure of utopian futures” (19). The maneuvers made by French diplomats and their European partners read on the surface like steps toward extending the rights and privileges of European citizenship to Algerian people. But as I show, the racist assumptions these diplomats brought to the table made them unwilling to engage Algerians as equals, let alone to believe that independent Algeria should have a seat at the table as a member state, as my deliberately provocative title might suggest. Indeed, I draw the title from a French official calling such membership “obviously absurd,” while in the same breath admitting that it was unclear what sort of status Algeria actually held (181). Rather than paint France’s 1957 insistence to include Algeria as a missed opportunity, I emphasize that it was a desperate diplomatic ploy. French authorities attempted to use European integration proceedings and time-worn tactics of legal ambiguity and exception to stave off anti-imperial nationalism. In so doing, they only appeared to be reconstructing the French empire in a more egalitarian manner.


Ultimately, these administrators were unwilling to implement such rights, and those fighting against the French were disinterested (to use a mild word) in participating in such a world. Mond and Arthur Asseraf push back against my suggestion of utopia, especially with regards to the aspirations of Algerians themselves regarding Algeria’s ostensible European future. As I show in the book’s last two chapters, detailing independent Algeria’s diplomatic overtures to the EEC from 1962 to 1976, Algerian officials did not aim to label their state as European or to allege that their constituents yearned for or felt a European identity. Rather, they saw the treaty wording as opening a door to claim a special status for funding, trade, and protections for citizens living and working in the Six.


Examining how and why French officials Europeanized the Algerian question—at the precise moment that Algerians took to the UN to internationalize it—invites a new reading of how French officials contended with anti-imperial nationalism. It also underscores how the French attempted to remain the influential power in both Europe and Africa even after the loss of most of the French empire. I trace the legal discourse within France, which simultaneously insisted on Algeria’s Frenchness and stopped short of fulfilling the promises that actual integration into French political life would have entailed: political rights, economic security, and more. As Melissa Byrnes writes, “the rhetoric of imperial belonging had been a convenient lie all along.” Members of the FLN understood this, including independent Algeria’s first leaders. But that did not stop them from demanding that the French make good on the promises bound up in the Treaty of Rome. The 1976 erasure of these promises allowed for the foundational mythology of European integration to live on. Only by exposing the complexity of Algeria’s history within and then outside of France’s EEC vision can we get to a clearer picture of the European Union’s imperial genealogy.


Megan Brown is Assistant Professor of History at Swarthmore College.

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