Everything old is new again: The Emergence of the European Coal and Steel Community as an Imperial Project

The recent electoral successes of exclusionary nationalist and xenophobic politicians and parties in the European Union (EU) have been characterized in part by the re-emergence of a discourse in which the “West,” “Europe,” and/or “Christianity” must be protected or defended against immigrants and refugees from the global south. From United States President Donald Trump’s denunciation of immigrants from Mexico and refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa and promotion of an “America first” policy to a plan to save “Western civilization” offered by the nationalist Prime Minister of Hungary, Victor Orban, it seems that Samuel Huntington’s (1991) essentialist narrative of a “clash of civilizations” has once again become popular (Noack 2015; Tharoor 2016a; Tharoor 2016b; Beauchamp 2017). Nor is this a phenomenon restricted to the United States or to the Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia).

Xenophobia, exclusionary nationalism and “populism” have now been embraced by political groups and politicians throughout the EU. Right-wing and nationalist parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) in France, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AFD), and Italy’s La Lega have garnered significant electoral support in their respective nations in recent elections.[1]

These outcomes have often been construed in both the popular media and by the politicians as de facto referenda on their respective nation-states’ memberships in the European Union (EU) (Marsili 2018; Wildeman 2017; Beauchamp 2017). The party that propelled the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the EU—“Brexit”—the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by English nationalist politicians such as Nigel Farage, also utilized toxic xenophobic and racialized rhetoric in their effort. Their claims for Brexit were suffused with a mythological narrative of a United Kingdom standing alone against “waves” of immigrants and refugees who, while once subjugated by western European empires, now threatened to overrun the UK and western Europe. UKIP leaders also contended that a supposed undemocratic technocratic rule by EU bureaucrats in Brussels threatened the UK’s sovereignty (Bhambra 2017; Cf., O’Toole 2016; Bickerton 2016).

In response to the rising popularity of the above exclusionary and racialized narrative, popular media, academics and EU politicians have offered a different narrative that asserts that the EU was founded as a peace project against the extreme nationalism and racism that led to two horrific world wars and the Holocaust (The Economist 2004). In order to ensure this peace, the Schuman Declaration (1950) established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) as a technocratic and economic political entity that would manage a key cause of historical conflict between Germany and France by regulating their coal and steel production under a supranational authority. Thus, while the ECSC was founded on the basis of an economic rationale, that impulse was accompanied by a clear political telos: the creation of a “European sensibility” through market coordination (Parker 2013: p. 56). The goal of this essay is to complicate this redemptive narrative of peace and reconciliation. Although this essay does not debate the merits and/or weaknesses of the various theories that emphasize either the supranational or the nation-state as engines of European amalgamation, the point is that orthodox theories of such integration continue to repeat a narrative of European redemption. While the persuasive power of this account of the EU has weakened of late due to the Eurozone economic crisis, this “noble narrative of peace and reconciliation” has nonetheless maintained its sway over mainstream histories and analyses of the EU (Manners and Murry 2016, p. 188).[2]

While some scholars have suggested in the aftermath of Brexit that this story amounts to a form of “blackmail”— either support the EU or face renewed nationalism, violence and war—I want to outline a number of instances in which the integration of western Europe was supported by intellectuals and politicians who, faced with the decline of the region’s imperial power, advocated for a union that would nonetheless remain enmeshed in imperial concerns. That is, the intellectual origin of the ECSC and the later European Community (EC) was not simply an abrupt departure from a previous situation of warring imperial nation-states, but also included other imperial notions of European integration. While I do not want to argue that there is a direct casual connection between the current rise in xenophobia and exclusionary nationalism and the intellectual ideas offered by some intellectuals and politicians during the 1950’s, I do argue that greater reflexivity is needed address the issues currently confronting the EU.

The European Coal and Steel Community: Embedded within empire?

            At first glance, the establishment of the ECSC with the Schuman Declaration in 1950 and the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1975 by representatives of the six original member states—Belgium, the Netherlands, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Luxembourg and Italy—appears to have little to do with western European empires. The conventional narrative suggests that the 20th century represented a sharp break between the nation-state and empires. In this historical argument, the nation “is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (Anderson 2006, p.7) whereas empires were, generally, hierarchical and unequal political entities (Burbank and Cooper 2010: p. 8). Yet, as recent scholarship has pointed out, the strict separation between these two political forms has been overdrawn (Go 2017; Kumar 2017; Branch 2010). As Benedict Anderson has argued in his discussion on the construction of nationalism, “Out of the American welter came these imagined realities: nation-states, republican institutions, common citizenship, popular sovereignty, national flags, anthems, etc.” (2006, p. 81). In other words, the construction of the nation, as well as the nation-state, were entwined with empires. Or, in the words of Stoler and Cooper, “Europe was made by its imperial projects, as much as colonial encounters were shaped by conflicts within Europe itself” (1997, p.2). While recent historical research has successfully demonstrated the imbrication of imperialism and colonialism and the nation-state, there has been less work done on the imperial connections between the EU and its predecessors and the former West European empires.

Recent critical literature has examined the legacy of European imperialism in current EU development and security policies, especially vis-à-vis the developing world (Gegout 2017), as well as the failure of both the Union and its member states to understand its colonial past (Bhambra 2015). Indeed, as Hansen and Jonsson (2015) and Garavini (2012) have argued, the geopolitical concept of “EurAfrica became central to the debates on integration of western Europe between the 1920’s and the 1950’s. The colonial territories of the initial ECSC member states, especially those of France, became a “common European project of colonialism” (Bhambra and Holmwood 2018, p.10). What these authors have demonstrated is how deeply the EU and its predecessors were entangled with its members’ colonies and territories both economically and politically, within and beyond the European continent.

In the Shadow of Empire

While significant progress has occurred in excavating the colonial and imperial connections of the EU and its predecessors, work remains to be done. Critical scholarship has successfully shown that utilizing empire and imperialism to study the EU and its member states raises critical questions about the Union’s interventions in the developing world, the EU secretariat’s and its member states’ reactions to the refugee crisis, and Brexit (Bhambra 2017; Shilliam 2012). In addition to this research, I want to argue that there is a connection between conceptualizations of imperial political forms both within and beyond the European continent and the intellectual formation of the EU.

EU scholarship generally regards the political and economic arrangement as the telos of European integration and thus portrays earlier Europeanists as “founders, “fathers” or “pioneers.” Yet, as Nordblad has observed, this teleological narrative excludes “Europeanists ideas with dubious ideological overtones … on the basis of the values of the current European political project” (2014, p. 712). For instance, as Odijie has contended, the economic and military development of Japan and China led to anxieties in western Europe that were expressed as a racial narrative termed the “yellow peril.” These fears proved to be a significant factor in the emergence of the European federalist movement between the 1900s and the 1930s (2017). Despite the close association between the ECSC/EC and empire constructs, EU scholarship has generally downplayed or ignored it. Concomitantly, current EU politicians and the popular media generally reject the overt xenophobia and nationalism of Hungary’s Orban or Le Pen as “non-European.” Yet, as Bhambra has noted, “Europe’s posited others have always been very much a part of Europe’s broader imperial histories and its neo-imperial present” (2015). The challenge is to connect those ideas that are rejected by mainstream narratives and historiography of the EU and critically analyze them in order to focus more accurately and thoughtfully on the forces underpinning the Union’s present challenges.



[1] It is true that the establishment of the AFD was initially founded on economic concerns. The initial members, primarily made up of economists, argued that the Euro divided the EU instead of uniting it. They also heavily criticized Germany’s role in bailing out Greece. Yet, in the meantime, the AFD has seemingly aligned itself with nativist and xenophobic right-wing political parties France and the United Kingdom following Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies in 2015. See Mounk 2017 and Wildeman, 2017.

2 For an example of the continuity of this narrative, see Le Gloannec, “Two world wars and a doomed interwar era of weak states and terrifying hubris destroyed the very culture and civilizational values to which the continent aspired…,” (2017, p.2).



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Johannes Grow is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) program. He received his Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs (MPIA) and a B.A in International Studies from Virginia Tech. His research interests include: Contemporary Social and Political Theory, Empire, International Relations, European Studies, Postcolonial Theory and Critical Geopolitics. Johannes currently teaches International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech.





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