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Past and Present of Colonialism: EU-Mercosur (Part I)

Mis à jour : juin 22

Written by Helene Dötsch

This article is the first part of “Past and present of Colonialism”. The first part tells the perception of colonialism in South American nations, where a majority feels entrapped in the continuation of colonial times nowadays. Further, the problematics of this discourse will be examined. In a second part, light will be shed on the EU's internal discourse with regard to colonialism in order to allow self-reflection.

I. How Europe’s colonial past remains one 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. So, 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.

The past eight months I was living and traveling in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, mainly to investigate the economic relations and the trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, a regional organization 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- criticized 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 criticized the uncontrolled deforestation in the amazon rainforest. While these are only famous examples, this discourse on the humiliation 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.

In these next sections, I would like to show some of the many discourses I have observed and argue how and why we can challenge those ideas that segregate us from another. This reflection consists of two parts, this first part summarizes the debates that I perceived as dominant during my research in South America. In the second part, I shed light on our European interpretation of events and how to counter these discourses with alternative ideas.

II. 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 globalization 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-colonization.

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 colonized nations. Others argue that the cultural and societal colonization 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 colonized 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.

As a way to process how our nations built their wealth by using other countries’ human and natural resources, 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 a cultural ethnocentrism or eurocentrism within a fact-based narrative. Nevertheless, it remains a niche debate among academics.

As mentioned, there is a discourse in which the world is being structured as two diverging blocs, the rich and the poor or the colonizers and the colonized. The former colonies' past will remain a part in their discourse, as long as the symbolic asymmetries between both worlds persist. This perception is an issue that politicians, economists and students in Europe should be aware of and reflect on more frequently. I believe we should avoid some common mistakes that have been made on how to address colonialism and its relation to the present situation.

III. Why discourses matter

Discourses are the rules and type of elements that enable or reproduce practices (Foucault, 1972: 49) and can be followed with linguistic as well as nonlinguistic elements. Laffay and Weldes argue that discourses are inherently political as they produce and distribute power, reveal struggles over knowledge, identity and social relations (Laffay). By analyzing these discourses, we can reveal these underlying identities, ideas and interests. Discursive elements, how often and in which situation they occur shed light on the broader concept in which they are embedded in. Therefore, it can not only create but also maintain a power structure that makes empowerment and emancipation from the underlying power structures difficult, if not impossible. Even if the possibility for change is limited by hegemonic ideas (cf. Fairclough 1995, ch. 4), discursive challenges can open a discursive space and allow counter-hegemonic discourses.

In the next section I touch upon when and how colonial symbolism is used in discourses and why I perceived it as problematic.

IV. Politics and coordinated discourse

International relations, economic relations and diplomacy between the countries that have been colonized in the past and the countries that colonized them remain difficult. A main problematic I perceived, while looking at the discourse elites followed in South America, was that they utilize 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 evolvement, precisely looking at when and why political elites have used the colonization argument shows that political interests were most often more important than the wellbeing 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 perpetuators 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 personalized 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 utilizing them in an opportunistic way to achieve only political goals.

V. 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 behavior of the EU as controlling and neo-colonizing 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 interconnectedness 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 institutionalized region, and countries in South America were challenged with their initial years of democratization 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 globalization processes and the EU's citizens requirements to meet quality standards and regulations. A similar dynamic played a role in the protection of intellectual property rights. Countries such as Brazil and Argentina fought against an international agreement at WTO level because they feared the hegemony of patents by the EU and the US (Diwan & Rodrik, 1991). But without this agreement, the markets in which South Americans had a comparative advantage would never have been protected. Therefore, corporations were enabled to utilize intellectual property to maximize their gains. This has propelled South America as a leading innovator in many creative sectors, such as designs, art and fashion, music and images. Furthermore, intellectual property rights have yielded positive effects on the quality of innovation (Diwan & Rodrik, 1991). What can be inferred from this is that by gripping on the perception of asymmetry and injustice of international relations, policymakers reproduce the same structures instead of challenging these patterns of thought. Instead, Europeans should realize that South Americans are not less creative or innovative or could not keep up with other nations.

My aim in the last paragraphs was to show how the discourse contributes to building walls and not bridges and how the underlying ideas stand in the way of empowering and emancipating colonized countries from the perceived hegemony of Europe. With this conclusion, the first part of the article ends. The second part will shed light on the discourses that prevail in Europe and addresses how to challenge them.

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