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The current relationship between Africa and Europe may seem to have moved past colonialism, but a dynamic of economic subordination of the first to the second persists. The vision of Eurafrica, in fact, is built on the legacy of colonialism and positions Africans as the eternal Other.

The recent debate on African migrants to Europe, oftentimes intertwining with the danger of international terrorism or the increase in national unemployment, imposes a wider reflection on a phenomenon, that of migration, which is far from being simply an 'emergency’. On the contrary, I argue that it is dynamic, totally physiological and even predictable, within a well-defined system of international relations whose historical profile will be briefly described in the following article.

The collective imagination propagated by politics, media and much common speech suggests seeing Europe and Africa as otherwise separate continents that get in contact with each other through that perilous and highly symbolic act that is the arrival of a boat to the shores of southern Europe. The rescue and reception of migrants are often highlighted firstly as an act of solidarity on the part of European governments, and we tend to underestimate that this logic has a major role in activating the mechanisms for the definition of European consciousness: essentially, the exposure to speeches of this kind facilitates the construction of an imaginary in which European countries take on the role of ‘saviors’ against nations and populations that can be blamed instead for the grim fate that they were able to forge for themselves.

This type of narrative, emphasizing the African migrant as essentially being ‘Other’ in respect to the European ‘We’, was first made legitimate by a historic step that proved to be essential for the social construction of that ‘We’ just mentioned above: the said step was the final and solemn settlement of the colonial past as well as the atrocities and injustices committed during the European expansion in Africa.

In 2004, Germany in fact apologized to Namibia for the genocide of 65,000 Herero [1]; in 2008, the then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi did the same to Gaddafi, agreeing also to compensate for the damage caused by colonialism [2] (and in the same year the obelisk of Axum was returned to Ethiopia). More recently, Sarkozy, Hollande, Brown and Cameron offered public apologies for the violence of colonialism in the countries respectively ruled by France and Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; however, both their tones and arguments were, still, rather problematic [3].

On the whole, yet, while this long-awaited action generated mixed reactions in Africa, it was functional in Europe in order to create the perception that the accounts with the past had been closed, thus opening up the opportunity to establish new relationships between the two continents based on claimed parity and equality. Therefore, in the collective imaginary as much as in the words of the European political leaders that succeeded one another in recent years, the thread that necessarily held together the stories and the destinies of Europe and Africa in a relation of subordinating power was finally cut.

As mentioned above, the new position of equilibrium has given Europe new impetus to intervene in African affairs. Ironically, colonialism has now turned into a double-edged sword to criticize Africa opportunistically: for example, Gordon Brown made the suggestion already in 2005 to ‘celebrate’ the ‘great British values’ exported with colonialism [4]; former French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that ‘We’ve especially got to stop excusing them from all responsibility for the underdevelopment of their continent….Blaming Africa’s failure only on the consequences of colonialism is contrary to reality’ [5]. Even US President Barack Obama would join the group in 2009, telling Africans to stop blaming colonialism in instrumental ways [6].

Why bother? This alleged evolution in the relations hides an important contradiction: Africa and Europe are more interconnected than we might think, and a relationship of economic subordination of the first to the second does persist. Traces of that can be found in the analysis of the policies of the European Union (EU).

As early as in 1982, Professor Guy Martin noted that the post-independence agreements between Europe and Africa (from Yaoundé to Lomé II) represented the realization of the neoclassical theory of international development based on the division of labor, where Africa was responsible for providing both raw materials and, at the same time, emerging markets for Europe’s finished products [7]: this dynamic was nothing more than the continuation of colonialism by other means, namely those of modern finance corresponding to liberalization, open markets and deregulation. In this regard, Martin retrieves in particular the continuity between the French penchant for a ‘policy of non-industrialization’ in colonial Africa and the nature of French relations with Africa in the post-independence years.

This ‘balance’, which obviously is not a balance at all, made Africa de facto dependent on European technology, while Europe too became dependent on raw materials imported from Africa, yet with an important distinction: the control that the global north (including Europe) could exercise at any time on Africa and its raw materials was decisively larger than the pressure that African governments and markets could instead ever apply on the first. Examples of this are the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) provided to the continent in the 1980s by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and partly by other creditors (including the EU): the SAPs consisted of loans that included conditionality clauses, like the application of the neo-liberal recipe as a solution to the problem of debts. The results produced by SAPs are well-summarized in the famous reference to the period 1980-1990 as Africa’s ‘lost decade’: the continent entered the new millennium with mass unemployment, deteriorating terms of trade and national GDPs lower than what it had forty years before [8].

A vision of this type of European-African relation has a name, ‘ideology of Eurafrica’, which has been spreading within European circles since the 1920s. According to the aforementioned Martin, the ideology consists of the integration, and ideally the absorption, of Africa by Europe [9].

In more recent times, Professor Peo Hansen extended the concept of Eurafrica, noting how it was essential for the very process of European integration during the twentieth century [10]: in the first half of the century, Africa represented the natural way out to solve European problems of overpopulation; later, in the European political debate, Africa was instead represented as a ‘reservoir’ of resources from which could be extracted those assets that were necessary for the development of the continent, ranging from hydroelectric power to other natural resources, eventually to the employment of African human capital, with the scope of solving the demographic problems afflicting the European continent that now, in the second half of the century, needed in fact the inflow of individuals to balance the expected aging of its population.

Hence, Africa was party to the European integration discourse to the extent that it was necessary for the development of European countries themselves. This domination in disguise was in fact justifiable on the ideological basis that partly perpetuated the idea of Africa as a backward territory without history; this made the European intervention, despite the past colonial experience, morally right as it was moreover often mixed with humanitarian intervention.

Even in recent times, Hansen reminds us, the project of Eurafrica has not gone into the background at the EU level, especially as concerns demographic and migration policies: it seems that the French Prime Minister Guy Mollet was not wrong when he declared in 1957 that Eurafrica would be ‘the reality of tomorrow’ [11].

But how does the ideology of Eurafrica find space in current affairs?

From the economic point of view, the Africa-Europe trade occurs ‘between unequal partners’ [12], given that it emphasizes the creation of jobs in the EU, whose members are moreover the largest trading partners of many African countries. Europe has pursued a specific project over time that aims at treating Africa as an extension of its market, but then does not take responsibility for the consequences that this market has on the lives of the individuals and the communities. In other words, Europe does not assume the responsibility, above all the social responsibility, arising from the failure of the market that it has planned for the Eurafrican region with so much care: and migration is after all one of the possible and rather predictable answers people everywhere have always given to the deterioration of economic conditions.

On this basis, we can state that EU policies themselves in primis perpetuate the status of Africa as a continent of emigration: consequently, the migration flows that we are witnessing should be classified according to the physiology of an integrated system and for no reason as an emergency situation of any sort. Following the same principle, it is less clear on which level the measures enacted to block these flows can be motivated and justified.

In addition, the recent policy of the European Union does not hide the need to accommodate migrants in the perspective of the aging European population, stating that ‘more sustained immigration flows could increasingly be required to meet the needs of the European labor markets and ensure Europe’s prosperity’ [13]; the goal remains nevertheless to attract only ‘highly qualified workers from third countries’ [14] on the basis, thus, of the strict needs of the Union, in a clear re-evocation of the approach described above, according to which Africa is a tool for Europe’s demographic balance.

Therefore, we need to point out an alarming continuity between the colonial period and that of SAPs: if colonialism had allowed the extraction of and the profiting from continental resources, SAPs have later secured the opening and the integration of African markets into the neo-liberal system. The destruction of local economies, plus the harsh experiences linked to state building, have contributed in determining the resulting mass mobilization in search of better opportunities. The EU now sits on this uncomfortable legacy, attempting to manage African emigration, both at the community level and as single member states’ initiatives with governments beyond the Mediterranean. Is this a further step toward the consolidation of the Eurafrican structure?

These dynamics should therefore be understood in the context of a macro Eurafrican region, as this is indeed the horizon at which many of the policies developed in recent decades seem to be directed.

And if there is a Eurafrican region, there must be also a population connected to this geographical space and yet Africans are still represented as eternal ‘Others’ from the European ‘We’, being not only excluded from the circle of legality and rights but often even from circles of solidarity. According to the perspective proposed here, migrants instead should not just be welcomed, but welcomed as the most vulnerable parts of a socio-economic system that includes them fully, to which they contribute with their work (whether considered legal or not), maintaining so the functionality of European societies.

All of this directs me to the last point of the analysis: despite nations’ strategies for representing African migrants as different from the European ‘We’, both ethnically and culturally, they represent instead a specific part of this ‘We’: the migrants arriving on European shores are nothing but a new social class of an economic system that is currently integrating: in particular, they embody the most vulnerable class, victims of historical and economic injustices to whom it comes now to provide remedy, ensuring them equal opportunities and rights. This society is also their society, even more so since the redistribution of risks and consequences of market failures has mainly burdened Africa, while Europe has been more eager to put hands on the dividends of this ‘partnership’, relegating, then, humanitarian intervention and cooperation to the comfortable realm of voluntary solidarity.

Even when talking about terrorism, poverty and unemployment (themes that are strongly felt in the contemporary European debate), it should be recalled that African states are the ones currently paying the heaviest price. It takes a clearer view on the origins of the migration flows in order to understand to what extent these are caused by poor leadership or political or environmental crises, and in what cases they are provoked and accelerated by neoliberal economic policies exposing societies to more volatility they can actually take.

Meanwhile, in European societies, the strategic representation of migrants in ethno-cultural terms, rather than in economic and social ones, performs a vital function: creating the perception that they are non-members, in order to ‘legitimize’ the refusal of hospitality or, alternatively, their exploitation on all levels and from all activities that may instead advantage the market of national as well as EU citizens. This ideology can be easily questioned, not just on ethical grounds, but also through the analysis of the economic dynamics uniting the two continents.

Moreover, it is argued here and elsewhere [15] that this is also a strategy that aims at strengthening the identity of a Europe otherwise in crisis when dealing with the rest of the world: the ability to extend its market but not its horizon of solidarity beyond Europe (and increasingly not even beyond the national borders of the member countries) is the most obvious sign of the inadequate response of Europe to a globalized world that is moving at a very different speed.

* Marco Zoppi is a PhD fellow in Histories and Dynamics of Globalization at Roskilde University, Denmark. He is currently researching on the Somali diaspora in Scandinavia. He holds a MA in African Studies pursued at the University of Copenhagen. His personal interests include Geopolitics, history of Africa and colonialism. Feel free to contact him at: [email protected]


[1] As reported, among others, by The Guardian. Article available online at the following link:
[2] See the government’s official note at the following link:
[3] The 2007 Dakar speech delivered by Nicolas Sarkozy has been in particular the object of criticism in reason of his reference to several stereotypes as well as sentences that have been considered highly offensive.
[5] In Nicolas Sarkozy (2007), Testimony: France, Europe, and the World in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Harper Perennial), p. 196
[6] As reported by The Telegraph; article available online at the following link:
[7] Guy Martin (1982), “Africa and the Ideology of Eurafrica: Neo-colonialism or Pan-Africanism?”, in The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 20(2), p. 221
[8] See Mueni Wa Muiu e Guy Martin (2009), A New Paradigm of the African State: Fundi wa Afrika (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), p. 89
[9] Guy Martin (1982), p. 222
[10] Peo Hansen (2011), “Building Eurafrica: reviving colonialism through European Integration, 1920-1960”, Paper Presented at the EUSA Twelfth Biennial International Conference Boston, March 3–5, 2011
[11] Quoted in Peo Hansen (2011), p. 28
[12] See the interesting article by Africa Renewal, published by the United Nations, available online at the following link:
[13] Extracted from the “Green Paper on an EU approach to managing economic migration” (11 January 2005). Available online at the following link:
[14] Council Directive “2009/50/EC of 25 May 2009 on the conditions of entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purposes of highly qualified employment”. Available online at the following link:
[15] See for example the argument of the historian Bo Stråth (2002) in: “A European Identity: to the Historical Limits of a Concept”, in European Journal of Social Theory (5)4: 387-401

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