On the Colonial Problem in the EU’s ‘Sustainable’ Trade Agreements

by Camille Nessel

This contribution is part of a blog series seeking to explore how postdevelopment approaches can inform, infuse and potentially transform the study of EU (development) policies and relationships with the Global South.

European colonialism describes a complex period of economic exploitation, racial ideologies and cultural domination. In the last stages of colonialism towards the 1880’s, ideas of a philanthropic civilizing mission were institutionalized. During this civilizing mission, EU member countries like France began to systematically civilize indigenous people through Western “superior” values. This logic shows surprising parallels with sustainable development ideas in the EU’s trade agreements, as I will argue.

Nowadays, many former colonies are still suffering from comparatively high numbers of absolute poverty, lacking means to provide for the most necessary needs. Sustainable development goals are supposed to fight this situation and bring what I will call “a good life” to the “poor”. The EU also includes so-called sustainable development (SD) chapters in their trade agreements with partner countries. The narrative of these agreements suggests that free trade brings about economic development, enabling countries to upgrade their economic status, while ensuring  “that economic development goes hand in hand with: social justice; respect for human rights; high labour standards, and; high environmental standards.”

The disputable idea of a civilizing mission aimed to promote a fruitful contact between East and West as well as North and South, allowing the civilization and modernization of colonized people. Among others, the civilizing mission embodied values of the 1789 French declaration of the Rights of Man, and hence, a complex of liberal norms with universal applicability. These norms were formulated as international natural rights of human beings. And colonialism was paradoxically viewed as ensuring that economic and social “progress and development” was achieved in the colonies. Colonialism was supposed to bring economic development, just like EU trade agreements today. Even more, international human rights, including labour rights, as promoted in EU trade agreements, can be viewed as an offspring of the declaration from 1789. The parallel lines of thinking between EU trade policy today and colonial policies of the past are apparent

This leads me to two difficult questions: Can these norms be exported to another region if they are a result of a historical development in a certain region of the world? Can these norms be exported without following a neo-cultural imperialist logic?

As the offspring of a convinced European humanist, I learned three things at home: that the declaration of human rights is sacred and universal; that when you are in a different culture, you need to integrate; and finally, that education leads to economic development and democracy. Equipped with this enlightened trinity, I was on the path to developing a serious Messiah-complex. And so it happened: as soon as I finished high school, I left as a young idealist for Indonesia to volunteer on social projects for a year.

I was 19 years old; an outspoken, unmarried young woman with short hair and often a cigarette in hand. This image did not necessarily correspond to the ideal woman of my age in Indonesia. I was aware that gender roles were different in Indonesia, yet I also remained convinced that the Charter of Human Rights was a universal truth. Hence, certain things, so I was sure, would not have to be argued, such as women’s self-determination. I believed that Indonesian women would generally also strive for gender equality. All they needed, so I thought, was support in finding their voices. The fact that my understanding of gender equality would not be echoed did not cross my mind.

In Indonesia, I learned about a very different ‘modernity’, with different priorities and desired developments, where the happiness and liberty of the individual did not seem to be highest good. When I later read more about metaphysical questions on our Western modernity, several of the struggles became even clearer to me.

Development is ambiguous. When we use it, it almost necessarily implies social change according to a European model. This is for the very simple reason that there can be no universal scale of development. In this European model, progress and humanism are central. With its origins in 14th century Italian Renaissance, humanism describes a movement that led to a shift in worldviews. The epoque is described as the awakening from sacral medieval ages, characterized by darkness, (social) barbarism, Thomas Aquinas and reaching the beginning of our modern times. The shift entailed a more profane world view. It placed the meaning of existence and of a ‘good life’ in the here and now.

By the 18th century, this shift had attained its peak. In Germany, it led a small group of thinkers to define a ‘good life’ in abstract, theoretical terms. This German enlightenment gang featured  G. W. F. Hegel and his highly problematic view on history, which was then picked up by the (in my view) even more problematic  Karl Marx. Human history became a dialectical movement towards progress, where repeated historical contradictions and upheavals advanced humanity towards perfection. In other words, this worldview suggested that the best is still to come through continual progress and development. In fact, this view suggested that (almost) everything that came before us was inferior and barbaric. The enlightment world view placed the sovereignty within the people, declared equality and freedom of individuals. These ideas implied that the pursuit of individual happiness comes before everything else. The community came second.

In the 21st century, this discourse corresponds with what I learned at home and also seems to depict what is happening in EU institutions and EU discourse. Nowadays, we praise how peaceful and civilized the human race has become, now that it seems that we Europeans have enough to eat and individual happiness. The terms economic growth and scientific progress became key to this success. Development is measured in economic progress and simple binaries between the rich North and the poor South dominate our thinking. Identities are secondary, and different modernities, with different goals, are almost impossible. Sustainable development becomes a vague concept for the whole world. It is an attempt to harmonize environmental, social and economic policies. EU trade agreements follow this logic in the SD chapters, which combine all these elements and bring about the magic formula of economic growth and sustainable development.

In my view, EU sustainable development chapters should be questioned because they promote a Western modernity upon formerly colonized regions. If re-engaging with alternative imaginations of modernity is one of the main goals of post-development thinking, this means for us European scholars nothing less ambitious than to overcome our own world views and subconscious learnings, which give a central place to the normatively disputed term of ‘development’ and to what it means to ‘live a good life’.

Camille Nessel is a doctoral fellow, funded by the Belgian National Research Fund F.R.S-FNRS. She is affiliated to the Université Libre de Bruxelles Centre d’Etude de la Vie Politique (CEVIPOL) and the Institute for European Studies (IEE), and Ghent University’s Center for EU Studies (CEUS). Taking a post-colonial perspective, her research focuses on sustainability in trade relations between the EU and the Global South, with focus on Asia.

The aim of this blog series is to stimulate thinking about different imaginaries of ‘another Europe’ and alternative role(s) the EU could/should play, inspired by insights from postdevelopment thinkers. The series results from various exchanges and discussions between the contributors since early 2019.