When Algeria Was Europe?

20 February 2023

** This is the first in a series of four reviews of Megan Brown’s The Seventh Member State: Algeria, France, and the European Community. Each day this week one review will be published, and Brown will then respond on Friday. **


“Sofiane had gone the way of the harragas – the ‘path-burners’…We’ve all witnessed it: satellite TV beams back the pictures of corpses lying broken on the rocks, or tossed by the waves, frozen or suffocated in the cargo hold of a boat, a plane, in the back of a refrigerated van. As though we did not already have enough, the harragas have invented new ways of dying.” (p.37-38).


This is how Boualem Sansal describes the harraga in his 2005 novel of the same name. The book follows the lives of two siblings, the protagonist sister who remains in Algeria and an absent brother who fled for Europe. The brother, Sofiane, has become a harraga, an Arabic word denoting the North Africans who attempt to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean on precarious, makeshift rafts. Harraga (حراقة) in Arabic literally translates to the ones who burn. The migrants are so called because they burn their papers so that if caught, European Union authorities will not know their identity.


The harraga are the subject of recurrent debates in the EU.  Anti-immigration politicians have loudly asserted that migrants from North Africa and the Middle East are creating a “crisis,” threatening the cultural (and racial) cohesion of the EU. North Africans, these politicians claim, are not just inherently non-European, they are incapable of becoming European and their entry would undermine the continued existence of Europe. But the borders of the EU did not always end at the Mediterranean. For a brief historical moment, the harraga crossing the Mediterranean might have been going from one European state to another.


In her wonderful book, Megan Brown introduces this evocative counterfactual. What would have happened if Algeria, as her title suggests, became the “Seventh Member State” of the European Community? What if we reframed our understanding of Europe to include empire? The book invites us to reimagine “an administrative geography for the EEC, one that comprises the southern shores of the Mediterranean” (6). In the early years of European integration, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands all held colonial possessions or trust territories and the place of empire in Europe was an essential question. Algeria was integral to the construction of the EC, explicitly named in Article 227 of the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Brown argues convincingly that including Algeria in the history of the EC forces us to rethink the boundaries of Europe and the chronology of decolonization. As a former state of France and thus a part of Europe, Algeria remained entangled in debates about European resources, development, and mobility for more than a decade after its formal independence from France.


Brown begins by looking at the role of empire and the dream of “Eurafrica” in the political debates about Europe after World War II. After the war, France shifted its relationship with its African colonies through the creation of the French Union and reforms to colonial citizenship. A département rather than a colony, Algeria’s place in the French Union was complicated. Still, post-war reforms expanded Algerians’ political agency. The statut organique in 1947, for example, gave Algerians voting rights, even if the resulting two-tiered political system disproportionately empowered the European settler population. At times, it can be difficult to tease apart the legal specificity of Algeria in Brown’s discussion of Eurafrica and the French Union. But this is because French administrators also elided the peculiar place of Algeria, lumping it with other colonial possessions when it suited France’s broader geopolitical aims. By framing imperial questions as a purely domestic issue, French diplomats sought to “emphasize the indissolubility of the French Union and to allow Paris to position itself as an imperial and a global power” (72).  As Brown highlights, French policy on Algeria’s place in European integration was not fixed or consistent in the post-war but shifted in response to France’s changing commercial or material interests.


The major turning point came with the debates around the Treaty of Rome, the subject of Brown’s third chapter. The 1957 treaty, signed at the height of the Algerian War of Independence, represented a reversal of earlier French policy. To combat the FLN’s diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and the party’s growing popularity among the Algerian people, the French intentionally built Algeria into the EEC. In doing so, French officials sought to establish international support for French sovereignty in Algeria. No longer lumped with the rest of the French Union, Algeria now stood apart. Algeria was an integral part of France and, therefore, it was part of Europe, too. France even proved willing to pressure its European partners to achieve favorable loans and development aid for Algeria. Italy feared that Algeria would divert resources away from its own underdeveloped regions and Germany balked at the price tag of Algeria’s inclusion. Despite protests from these allies, however, France, insisted that Algeria was part of Europe.


In 1962, the Evian Accords brought an end the blood and battles of the Algerian War. Algeria would become an independent nation after more than 130 years of French rule. However, many of the policies that included Algeria in the EEC went into effect only after independence. As Brown shows, this resulted in surprising diplomatic exchanges in which independent Algerian leaders attempted to negotiate Algeria’s new relationship to France and, simultaneously, Algeria’s potential place within Europe. Ultimately, Algeria and France both moved away from a European Algeria. France focused efforts on establishing French dominance in Brussels, rather than tending colonial legacies. Algerian leaders, in contrast, gravitated towards Third World alliances and collaboration with other North African nations. Despite this eventual resolution, Algeria’s inclusion in “Europe” did not formally end until a 1976 treaty wrote Algeria out of the EU. Algeria’s fleeting place in the EU had long-term ramifications. In her final chapter, Brown explores European court cases from the 1970s in which workers sought to have jobs in Algeria recognized for their European pensions. As these cases show, Algerian independence did not neatly end the relationship between Algeria and Europe. Decolonization unfolded in fits and starts, particularly at the European level.


The breadth of archival research in this book is impressive. Brown’s narrative draws on multiple French archives and diverse European perspectives. I particularly enjoyed Brown’s incorporation of political cartoons from French, Dutch, and German newspapers to explore how these countries thought about France, Algeria, and European integration. Not only does this demonstrate Brown skillful use of multi-lingual and multi-media sources, but it also gives a rare popular-level view of weighty diplomatic matters. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how incorporating Algerian archives might have changed the story. Particularly for the post-1962 portion of the book, would consulting the internal records of the Algerian government, in addition to their correspondence with French or European authorities, have revealed a different story? Although Brown does include some Algerian newspapers, would adding Arabic-language press sources have offered a different perspective on European inclusion?


From the outset, Brown is clear about the scope of her analysis – this is a project about diplomacy and international cooperation. Brown carefully includes the voice of African and Algerian leaders, treated by the author as equal partners in the creation of Europe, if not by French politicians at the time. But Brown concludes her introduction by asking, “What if the worker departing Algiers had made his way to Amsterdam? Had he entered into Europe, or had he never left? And what would that mean for him and his family in Algeria?” (26). It was these evocative questions of identity and everyday experience that remained, for me, unanswered. How did the Algerians working in France and Europe feel about the process of integration and their own role in it? For the Algerians who claimed Algerian citizenship in 1962 or those who chose to retain a French passport, what did being European mean? Brown tells us that French citizens were largely indifferent to debates about Europe in the 1950s. But what about Algerians? Was the potential for European inclusion a moment of utopian imagining or sought-after mobility for them? Did they feel European? Did they want to? Focusing on diplomatic analysis, we perhaps necessarily lose these more individual questions of belonging and identity.


Yet it is precisely an idea of belonging, or rather not belonging, that is wielded against North African migrants today. The harraga who climb into boats and desperately launch themselves across the Mediterranean are seeking an elusive entry into Europe. They leave to find economic opportunity, a better life for themselves, but also to gain a new identity – that of European. Brown points out that as empire fell out of the European project, whiteness became more important as a unifying identity. Whereas Europe once stretched across the Mediterranean, today members of EU debate the inclusion of Turkey and decry the arrival of Muslim refugees, based on their supposed racial and religious difference from a Europe implicitly conceived of as white and Christian.


No book can do all things, however, and the questions I raise do not diminish the rich historical perspective Brown offers her readers. I must admit that I am not normally a fan of diplomatic history. I tend to get lost in the acronyms, bureaucratic double-speak, and formulaic conversations about trade, tariffs, and labor regulations. In Brown’s retelling, however, diplomatic history becomes eminently readable. What is at stake, as she points out, is our understanding of the edges of Europe, but also the timeline of decolonization and the afterlives of empire. Scholars like Gary Wilder and Nicolas Bancel, Pascal Blanchard, and Françoise Vergès have shown how the origins of the French republican nation-state are inextricably tied to empire. Brown’s work gives a fresh perspective on this theme, looking at how the legacies of empire shaded not just the construction and reinvention of the French nation but the creation of the European Union, too. Brown’s examination of the inclusion and eventual rejection of Algeria within the boundaries of Europe forces us to rethink what Europe might have meant and reveals a new context for the anxieties of unity and dissolution unleashed by waves of economic crisis, debates over immigration and borders, and the ultimately successful “Brexit” campaign.


Danielle Beaujon is a Bridge-to-Faculty Postdoctoral Research Associate in the department of Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Danielle is a historian with broad research interests in policing, race, and power in the French Empire. 

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