23rd Sep 2023


Decolonising minds is crucial as the EU journeys to diplomacy's new frontiers

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Preparing the EU's journey to the bold "new frontiers of diplomacy" is a serious and important task.

As Captain Kirk learned when he ventured where no one has gone before, such voyages are full of unsuspected pitfalls.

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Down here on earth, an unsettling and unsettled messy multipolar world has been rendered even more difficult by Russia's brutal war in Ukraine.

Climate change as well as food, energy and security crises continue to challenge almost all nations, although the Global South is of course much more seriously impacted. The EU has the added worry of grappling with a rapidly rising far-right.

Additionally, many countries in the Global South — those once disparagingly described as Europe's "backyard" — are now busy romancing others in faraway lands.

Such transformations clearly require new skills, new ideas and a new style of diplomacy.

How refreshing then to hear EU foreign and security policy chief Josep Borrell recently instruct his envoys across the world to show more empathy in engaging with host nations.

The EU also needed new narratives and new communication skills, he added.

So far, so good.

Only a day later, however, Borrell had broken his own rules.

Venture outside the tidy little European "garden" and go forth into the high growth "jungle" outside, Borrell advised young would-be European diplomats at a newly set up EU training academy.

Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us, by different ways and means, he warned.

Not surprisingly, the not-so-diplomatic speech has been met with accusations of European racism and neocolonialism.

Predictably, Borrell has voiced regret at having been misunderstood and misinterpreted.

So, all sorted? Clear the decks so we can move on?

Yes, but not so fast.

The outrage sparked by Borrell's comments may or may not blow over. The EU foreign policy chief and his fellow senior policymakers should therefore reflect on important albeit uncomfortable lessons from this unfortunate episode.

It's a harsh fact: Europe's history of empire and colonialism remains an important obstacle in forging a truly influential geopolitical Europe.

True, the EU is more than the sum of its parts, all that nasty colonial stuff and traffic in enslaved people happened decades ago, not all EU countries were involved, and misrule by local elites since then has aggravated the lives of many in the Global South.

Still, the shaky state of EU-Africa relations and anti-Western outbursts in many parts of Asia are potent proof that the EU must acknowledge colonialism's dark legacy and discard discredited notions of Europe's "civilisational" mission.

To avoid further missteps, EU leaders, ministers, policymakers and parliamentarians must practice what they preach on inclusion, equity and diversity.

Within the EU, someone with a broader worldview and experience could have spotted that references to gardens and jungles would cause offence across the non-Western world.

Instead as US political commentator Walter Lippman mused all those years ago: when all think alike, no one thinks very much.

So it really is time to end #BrusselsSoWhite, both in terms of representation of Europeans of colour in EU institutions and by starting the painful process of dismantling eurocentric policies.

Crucially, it also means decolonising outdated mindsets.

Making this more difficult is the fact that (as illustrated just recently by Britain's Suella Braverman) being black or brown does not automatically mean being anti-colonial and anti-racist.

Still, if the EU is truly committed to enhancing its geopolitical influence and reputation, ensuring inclusive diversity is a must.

One simple reason: Building a new alliance with Africa requires interacting with the continent's leaders and people as equal partners in deeds, not just in words.

In practical terms this means it is time for a long-overdue EU decision on giving the African Union full membership of the G 20 and agreeing to a permanent African seat at the UN Security Council.

Borrell's comments are of course mana from heaven for Russia, China and others engaged in what the EU foreign policy chief has called the "battlefield of narratives".

Better then to stop providing more ammunition to the detractors.

Decolonising minds also means dialing down the simple, one-dimensional and self-soothing story of Europe as a perfect paradise.

EU diplomats would probably find it easier to win friends and influence people if they referenced shared challenges rather than amplifying divisive "us and them" tropes.

Treating dependencies as a one-way street is a mistake.

Countries in the Global South certainly need EU aid, trade and investments as well as European technology.

But Europe's prosperity was largely built on access to resources in the colonies. The EU's future also hinges on its access to much-needed markets, natural resources and rare materials in the Global South.

This is no time for magical thinking.

Fine if some want to pour resources into building a flashy new think tank with geopolitical swagger and/or create a new European Political Community to impress others.

What the EU needs most of all, however, is an honest conversation on the role it wants to play in a transformed world.

Captain Kirk was at the head of a diverse team and was ready and willing to engage with both friend and foe.

Similarly, the EU's journey to new frontiers of diplomacy requires a prior decolonising of out-dated mindsets.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She is also the editor of the EUobserver magazine.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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