Ain Salah in central Algeria (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Empire by way of Europe

A new book places the quest to keep Algeria French squarely at the centre of European integration

Artillery Row Books

In the wake of the 1957 Franco-English embarrassment at Suez, when West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer told his counterpart across the Rhine, Guy Mollet, that “Europe will be your revenge”, he could have just as well used the present tense. To prop up its war-torn empire through other means, Mollet’s France had clearly not been waiting on British PM Anthony Eden to cancel the two countries’ operation to retake the canal from Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser (the likely backstory to Adenauer’s apocryphal quote). Already by 1957, headlong into negotiations that would culminate the year after in Rome with the signing of the namesake treaty, the crisis-struck French Fourth Republic laboured to get even with an emergent world order that was fast questioning the status of its satrapies. This came to a head in Algeria, a settler’s colony that France considered fully part of its territory. A war (which France feigned wasn’t happening, calling it “the events of Algeria”) had been in fact raging for three years with the borderline terrorist Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).

The Seventh Member State: Algeria, France, and the European Community, Megan Brown (Harvard University Press, $29.99)

Rather than seeking redress, as Adenauer suggested, for the imminent loss of a colony it could barely keep control of, France turned to Europe in a last-ditch attempt to reaffirm its grip on Algeria. It dubbed it The Seventh Member State (2022) of the European Economic Community (EEC) that the Rome Treaty birthed, per the title of a new book by historian Megan Brown. Beyond shedding light on the complex history of France’s empire, the book entirely recasts the motives driving Europe’s founding fathers through the 1950s. Whereas euro-federalist mythology portrays Monnet and his cadre of supranational leaders marching arms locked towards a future of prosperity and cooperation, French diplomats appear here far more self-interested and less high-minded. “The EU’s history, writes Brown in the conclusion, “can’t and mustn’t be told without a discussion of empire’s place in its forerunners’ treaties and institutions.” Rather than constituting, in Alan Milward’s famed formulation, the “rescue of the nation-state”, European integration appears here as the attempted rescue of the imperial-state.

Brown traces Algeria’s role in European integration all the way back to “Eurafrica”, an ideology ascendant since the interwar that saw deepened ties with Europe’s neighbours across the Mediterranean as the continent’s “last chance” to rebuild and prosper. The ideology’s substance varied, both by whom it placed at the cockpit (whether France alone or the whole of Europe) and by the role given to Africa in the coalition. Writers like Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor famously advocated a partnership of equals, but the more common formulation, Brown tells, us, was calling “for a collective European subjugation of Africa through the shared exploitation of its resources and the opening of its territory to European migration as central to the project of binding Europe”. Yet even those who viewed it as an “exclusively French tool for colonial mastery” framed Eurafrica in win-win, even humanitarian terms. Whereas Eugène Guernier had famously called in the title of his 1933 book for Africa to be a “terrain of expansion for Europe”, by 1955 Pierre Nord labelled it “Europe’s last chance” in a book of his own.

France’s civilising mission would be increasingly cast as a partnership of equals in legislation, too. In 1946, Lamine Guèye’s namesake bill extended French citizenship to all those born anywhere in the Empire. In 1944 and 1947, France respectively abolished the indigénat and replaced it with the statut organique de l’Algérie, a new “ambiguity” as to Algeria’s status that French officials keenly capitalised on. In the immediate postwar, their move to reaffirm their grip on Algeria had to be balanced against the need to keep it “away from the prying hands of its would-be European partners”, such as Italian steelmakers who stood to profit from exploiting Algeria’s mines. Gradually thereafter, they warmed to the prospect of wielding European integration as a tool to keep Algeria on their side, particularly on account of the European funds they hoped to unlock for the territory. “Officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Overseas Territory, writes Brown, “turned to a tool they had not previously thought necessary to secure their imperial sovereignty: European integration.

France’s colonial policy had virtually merged with its European policy

This strategy came to a head in the lead-up to the 1958 Treaty of Rome and its accompanying Euratom treaty, which “afforded French administrators the chance to showcase the fact that other European states agreed that Algeria was a constitutive part of France, undercutting the Algerian nationalists’ claims”. This was nothing short of a revolution in France’s negotiating posture: “the French had come to believe that inserting the empire in integrated Europe was the best way to preserve their overseas sovereignty and remain relevant in the world”. This epiphany is not unlike the post-imperial hangover that Robert Tombs in This Sovereign Isle (2022) ascribes to Britain’s joining the EEC some 15 years later. Brown minces no words in underscoring the coarseness of this posture: “imperial inclusion [ … ] stood not as a potential conduct of equality”, as the more progressive Eurafricanist faction would have hoped, “but as a cudgel against decolonization”. The Treaty thus became “a means to combat calls for independence” and to “affirm the legitimacy of French Algeria”.

The case for inclusion rested on an economic calculus, an alliance between lobbyists and diplomats, with “the European dream” and “the overseas one” marching in lockstep. Whereas Eugène Cartier had famously claimed in 1956 that Algeria cost France more than it yielded in revenue, including it in the EEC made it eligible for a pool of funds to which France was only one amongst six contributors. This net benefit grew even larger with the discovery of Saharan oil that same year. It prompted criticism in other EEC countries, primarily West Germany, that their contribution would end up financing a war not their own. It also undergirded Charles de Gaulle’s Constantine Plan the year the Treaty of Rome was signed, an ambitious plan of reforms and lavish spending that underscored how much France believed it could hold onto Algeria. Brown remarks how, in the period when Algeria was part of Europe (1958–1962), France’s colonial policy had virtually merged with its European policy, “grasping to maintain a position of dominance in Europe via what was left of its imperial grandeur”.

Brown then spotlights France’s insistence that Algeria be included in article 227 of the Rome Treaty and what it reveals about the country’s evolving position in Europe. That inclusion amounted to a desperate lunge for relevance in Europe-Africa relations by a fast-receding France. In 1963, the EEC signed the Yaoundé Convention with several African countries, Algeria not included. Even after Algeria officially wrestled its independence at the war’s closing in 1962, its past inclusion in the Rome Treaty had an unforeseen afterlife in which the ambiguity highlighted by Brown only intensified. In March 1963, with Algeria marking one year since independence, the Six agreed to maintain the status quo in which the country continued enjoying preferential tariff rates, the same migrant social security regime and customs rules. Despite France’s continued attempts to assert its supremacy in Brussels and the colonies, the bloc’s gradual pivot towards supranationalism (which de Gaulle abhorred) ended up diluting its influence. Settler land was expropriated in 1963, and the dinar was introduced the year after.

Algeria’s persistently ambiguous status matched the ambiguousness of France’s stance

That afterlife was partly also a function of the time it took for both sides to conclude a new agreement governing their future relations — no less than 14 years. Algeria’s persistently ambiguous status matched the ambiguousness of France’s stance through the European institutions. Whilst “French representatives in Brussels saw themselves as upholding Algerian interests” (by demanding that it be considered part of the EEC), they also pursued policies that advanced its own interests before those of Algeria, such as limiting Algerian wine’s access to the European market. Even after the 1976 treaty, Algeria’s eight-year membership in the EEC continued reverberating in the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) case law. In 1963, a German firm importing wheat bran from Algeria failed to acquire a certificate of origin from the EEC, which Algerian authorities protested shouldn’t be required. Two more landmark cases, Fiege and Hirardin, serve to this day as precedent mandating the equal treatment of member-state workers beyond the EU’s borders.

Brown has sought to show that “Europe’s history is inseparable from that of empire, and that the story of Algeria’s independence is bound up with the EU’s predecessor. Her cogency is limited by the possibility that although holding onto the empire was no doubt a paramount concern, integrating Europe regardless of that empire’s fate could have been an equally potent motive in the minds of French diplomats in those years. She ends with another slapdash claim, spotlighting the Daily Mail’s Brexit frontpage of migrants crossing the Channel over the headline “We’re from Europe, Let Us In”. Having demonstrated the imperialism behind determining who counted as European in 1954–62, she seems to claim that the EU’s present version of that determination is also tinged with racial bias. “Algeria’s EEC years,” she writes, “invite us to imagine a world where communities of color aren’t deemed racialized outsiders needing education to become European. Having produced an impeccable work of history recasting the EU’s pillars in new light, one wonders where this urge to appear woke came from.

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