Was Europe Ever The Dream?

23 February 2023

** This is the fourth in a series of four reviews of Megan Brown’s The Seventh Member State: Algeria, France, and the European CommunityPrevious reviews include:

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

Brown will respond tomorrow. **

For some time now, historians have pointed out that the European Union has a distorted narrative of its own origins. Current European institutions tell a story of post-war idealism, a quest for peace, and shared values. In The Seventh Member State, Megan Brown plants a final, gleaming empirical nail in the coffin of this European dream. By looking at Algeria’s ambiguous presence within the Common Market from 1957 to 1976, Brown’s careful research reveals the formation of the European Economic Community to be one of raw power, diplomacy, and expedience rather than values, ideals and geography. In turn, as I will elaborate here, Brown’s research has important implications for how we understand the contemporary usage of ‘European values’.


French diplomats lie at the core of this story. In 1957, they forced their European partners to name Algeria in the Treaty of Rome in order to secure their increasingly threatened claim that Algeria was part of France. In the formative period of the first European treaties, French officials stretched the boundaries of what they deemed to be ‘Europe’ based on what they found expedient at different times, pursuing a rather inconsistent policy. Brown shows, in remarkably clear and arresting prose, that post-war European leaders did not in fact jettison the colonial empire in favour of a more profitable regional economic bloc. Rather, French diplomats pursued influence by any means possible, attempting to combine overseas possession with European integration as much as possible, and seeing no contradiction between the two.


Brown joins a wider trend of critical histories of European institutions which have highlighted various projects to fold ‘Eurafrica’ into European integration. But she also highlights the peculiar status of Algeria at the time. After all, the Dutch and Belgians also pursued varying arrangements for their possessions beyond Europe. But Algeria was the only territory to be specifically named in the Treaty of Rome. As Brown shows, the French government came to separate Algeria from other overseas possessions because of the threat of the FLN’s insurgency which weakened France’s legitimacy in Algeria.


This unique status within the Common Market had unexpected effects after Algeria’s independence in 1962. The newly formed Algerian government tried to leverage this status to gain material benefits, such as better tariffs to export their goods, and greater rights for Algerians living in Europe. This did not mean that Algerian leaders were particularly ideologically keen on belonging to Europe. For an extremely poor, fragile, new state with an economy devastated by years of anti-colonial war and the departure of its European settler professional class, anything they could grab from Europe was essential for survival. Only in 1976 was Algeria’s status outside of the Common Market finally resolved, after a number of changes including Algeria’s nationalization of the oil industry. In this, Brown joins a growing and important new cluster of works that show that Algeria’s disentanglement from France involved a series of turning points ending in the early 1970s rather than a single, though fateful, year in 1962.


Finally, Brown is able to show the significant role of the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and West Germany in France’s ongoing and complicated relationship with Algeria. This has not been paid enough attention. After all, one could easily forget, reading most of the historiography, that Algerian workers not only migrated to France, but also to industrial regions of Belgium and Germany at the same time. Similarly, the Dutch war in Indonesia and subsequent withdrawal from all but New Guinea in 1949, as well as Belgian attempts to remain in the Congo until 1960, all shaped the French-Algerian relationship. By looking at events on a European scale, Brown contributes to our growing understanding of Algeria’s decolonization from an international perspective.


Throughout, Brown’s evidence makes a compelling case for diplomatic history. By following the minutiae of negotiations, ‘Europe’ comes across as much less of a civilizational project or a set of shared values, and more like a convenient geopolitical arrangement. Discourses of identity and notions of shared culture, though they did play a part, are remarkably expedient compared to raw power.


Pursuing this analysis of power however, we might ask: what exactly was Algeria’s status within the EEC? Here, Brown’s title, though beautifully evocative, is somewhat misleading: Algeria was never the seventh member state. This would have involved Ben Bella sitting at the same table as de Gaulle and Adenauer, capable of voting for policies or vetoing Britain’s admission on an equal footing with the others. The extent to which this is unthinkable is a true diagnostic of racism in international relations: Algeria could occupy an ambiguous status in the Common Market precisely because it was not given the dignity of a fully sovereign state. It is because Algerian sovereignty was considered non-existent before independence that the French lobbied for its inclusion in 1957 to extend their own power. It is because Algerian sovereignty was considered incomplete or even fictitious by Europeans after 1962 that it could retain an ambiguous status within the EEC until 1976. To put it differently, there was no seat at the table for Algeria in Europe.


This brings me to a slightly more critical note on what is otherwise an extremely valuable and enlightening book. In the introduction and conclusion, extending her findings towards the present, Brown writes that this is ‘a history of the foreclosure of utopian futures’ (190). That is, if things had taken a different turn, we might have seen an ‘expansive, egalitarian Europe’ including Algerians (252). Of course, one can see how seductive this might look as a counter-argument against the anti-immigrant Islamophobic hysteria of Fortress Europe.


But whose utopia is it that makes Algerians part of Europe? There is a danger here of assuming that Algerians wanted to be part of Europe, and that it is only French racism that prevented them from doing so. This reveals a number of serious problems in the way we confuse certain rights and dignities with membership of European states. I should stress that this is a rather minor part of Brown’s otherwise convincing argument, but I believe this contention is worth discussing here less for Brown herself, but because the counterpoint might be less familiar to specialists of European and French history that form the readers of this publication.


In Algerian history, assuming that Algerians could have become French follows a familiar liberal narrative: France could have in fact avoided the bloodshed of the Algerian War if only it had genuinely tried to integrate Algerians, as opposed to merely pretending to. This is known as the ‘missed opportunities’ (occasions manquées) narrative. Historians (mostly French) who have followed this narrative focus on particular turning-points, and lament that they could have led to a harmonious future of Algerians integrated into the Republic. This is sometimes used to address issues of ‘integration’ in France now. This narrative has come under heavy criticism, partly for being inaccurate, often for minimizing the extent of colonial violence.


But above all, the core problem of Algerian history is not whether or not it could have been integrated successfully into France, despite what you might think from reading certain historians. Algerians had a history before and after colonialism in which they had to deal with many other problems.


Assuming that Algeria could have been happier by being successfully integrated into France erases the desires of Algerians. To put it briefly (and it is unwise to attempt to summarise the political imaginaries of a large and diverse nation), most Algerians did want greater rights and dignity than was afforded to them under colonial rule. To some, this indeed involved asking for greater integration within France. But for many, France was never the horizon. Dignity might mean, for instance, the end of rule by corrupt foreigners and a restoration of Islam and morals to a central place within government – this was one of the FLN’s central objectives when launching the insurrection in 1954. For others, gaining more rights in the world could involve forming part of a larger regional alliance with Moroccans and Tunisians, or Egyptians and Iraqis, or the Soviets and the Chinese. What we might call pan-Islamic, pan-Arab, pan-African, and Communist projects, to name but a few, all had important followers in Algeria before and after independence. Among these, desire for integration to France was never the only or even the dominant option (especially if we take into consideration more vernacular political expressions beyond the elite). There is a reason why independence became the overwhelmingly popular option throughout the years of the Algerian War.


I am spending some time on this because it has some bearing on the core problem of understanding the role of “values” in the formation of European institutions. What I am describing here applies well beyond Algeria: the aspirations of people to dignity should not be confused with their desire to be part of Europe. In fact, such an interpretation risks embracing European diplomats’ own inflated self-importance as being the sole bearers of these values, while there is little empirical evidence that they have ever enforced them. While it is important and worthwhile to uncover Algeria’s ambiguous status within emerging European institutions, it is quite different to say that had Algeria actually been part of Europe we would live in a better world. This is the danger of seeing Algeria through the prism of France, as if the only Algerians who existed were those who had become immigrants in a foreign land. Or, to put it differently, the problem of making most people alive in this world, whether in Africa, Asia, or the Americas, an offshoot or extension of a problem in European history rather than the location of history itself.


Brown has assembled important evidence that European integration and colonialism were not separate, but intertwined in their origins. This is a valuable contribution, but one that can lead the reader to different conclusions about the present. I am tempted to say that Brown’s own conclusions do not got as far as her research does: rather than suggesting a possible ‘utopian future’, looking at European integration from an Algerian perspective, as she so carefully does, reveals European institutions to be stillborn from the very start. Europe’s past is revealed to be incapable of generating any utopian future, as it could only include non-Europeans in a subordinate position.


Arthur Asseraf is Associate Professor in the History of France and the Francophone World at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Electric News in Colonial Algeria, which won the prize for Best Book in Middle East Studies by the British-Kuwaiti Friendship Association, and Le désinformateur.

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