Wednesday

7th Dec 2022

Column

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

Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

Disclaimer

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

Column

EU should admonish less, and listen more, to the Global South

Whether on Russia, or gas, or climate change, or food security, the EU's constant finger-wagging and moralising is becoming unbearably repetitive and self-defeating. Most countries in the Global South view it as eurocentric and neo-colonial.

Column

Global hunger crisis requires more than just the Odessa deal

International donors are playing hide and seek. Instead of stepping up their assistance programmes, richer nations are cutting overseas aid, or reallocating funds from other parts of the world towards the Ukraine crisis.

Column

'War on Women' needs forceful response, not glib statements

Some modest headway in recognising the unrelenting tide of discrimination and violence facing women worldwide was made at last week's largely self-congratulatory and mostly irrelevant G7 talk-fest. But no one mentioned abortion, just days after the Roe vs Wade decision.

Column

Autocrats make us all less secure

How should democratic states co-operate with authoritarian governments in the future? My organisation, Democracy Reporting International, has studied the security strategies of 13 democratic governments to understand how they see this relationship.

Column

Autocrats make us all less secure

How should democratic states co-operate with authoritarian governments in the future? My organisation, Democracy Reporting International, has studied the security strategies of 13 democratic governments to understand how they see this relationship.

Serbia now has no choice but to join EU sanctions on Russia

Vladimir Putin himself is somewhat suspicious of Serbia's leader, as are most who deal with the opaque Aleksandar Vucic. The Russian president has preferred to keep his Serbian counterpart compliant, via a tight rein of annually-reviewed gas pricing.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLarge Nordic youth delegation at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  4. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  5. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  6. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe

Latest News

  1. EU delays Hungary funds decision, as Budapest vetoes Ukraine aid
  2. Borrell gets pension from MEP fund set for taxpayer bailout
  3. Autocrats make us all less secure
  4. Big Agri's lies: green EU farming not to blame for food insecurity
  5. German top court declares €800bn EU recovery fund 'legal'
  6. EU countries struggle to crack Hungary's vetos
  7. Frontex expanding migrant route-busting mission in Balkans
  8. EU ministers in fresh battle on joint debt, after Biden subsidies

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  2. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  3. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  5. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us