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

Mis à jour : juin 22

Written by Helene Dötsch

This article is the second part of Past and Present of Colonialism: EU-Mercosur. The first part discusses the perception and discourses of South Americans of a continuation of colonialism. To read the first part click here. This second issue sheds light on discourses inside the EU and develops alternative pathways to counterweigh their hegemonic nature.

The current public discourse about colonialism appears self-contradictory. Sure, we know about our continent’s meddling up of lands, exploiting natural resources and colonizing 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 colonized 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 wellbeing 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 colonized 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 colonizers, 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 eurocentrism 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.

I. 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, destabilized 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 analyze 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 analyze 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.

II. Acknowledging facts about EU-Mercosur trade

To create fair and equal trade, the economist Dani Rodrik remarks that “developing nations may be allowed to subsidize 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 Generalized Preference schemes, Economic Partnership Agreement, or certain clauses in the EU trade agreements, the EU faces restrictions from business, domestic sectors and stakeholders in liberalizing 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 Eurocentric view. For instance, internal interests became utilized to criticize the EU-Mercosur trade deal. The allowances on exports of South-American agricultural products, to one of the most subsidized 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.

III. 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 industrialization 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 independency should make Europeans question how and why criticism is voiced. We should thus be more conscious of our national and economic interconnectedness.

IV. 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 criticize 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 criticized 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 criticize 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.

V. 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.

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