The major emotion driving the direction of politics today must be guilt. As moral codes have changed over the centuries, many have come to view Europe’s colonial past as a terrible mistake, and shame over now-reviled practices seems to motivate the worldview of millions of people across the West. In 2019, the topic of reparations for slavery has been propelled back into the mainstream discussion; several Democrat 2020 presidential contenders have indicated support for the idea, and students at Georgetown University recently voted to contribute every semester to a fund for the descendents of slaves sold by the institution in the 1800s.
The policy appears to be gaining traction across the Atlantic too, and the European Union parliament has passed a resolution that promotes equality for people of African descent facing “structural racism” in Europe, while hinting at future reparations. But for all this posturing, is the E.U. a force for good in today’s Africa? Or, like so many proposals today, does it just make politicians feel good about themselves and their immediate surroundings, while ignoring the ongoing suffering their policies continue to cause only a short distance away?
Reparations for Colonial Europe
The resolution, though non-binding, “calls on the Member States and the EU institutions to recognise that people of African descent are subjected to racism, discrimination and xenophobia in particular, and to the unequal enjoyment of human and fundamental rights in general, amounting to structural racism.” It provides a historical framework based on the colonial empire-building and “encourages the EU institutions and the Member States to officially acknowledge and mark the histories of people of African descent in Europe, including of past and ongoing injustices and crimes against humanity, such as slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, or those committed under European colonialism.”
It posits that the atrocities committed during this period of history “remain largely unrecognised and unaccounted for at an institutional level in the Member States” and that current-day cultures continue to perpetuate Afrophobic ideas. In addition to various suggested solutions that aim to promote racial equality, the document “calls on the Member States to declassify their colonial archives” and proposes that making amends “may include some form of reparations such as offering public apologies and the restitution of stolen artefacts to their countries of origin.”
Although a pity for European museum-goers, repatriation of historical artifacts is a reasonable and oft-suggested form of “reparations,” but why limit this to Africa? The European empires spread far beyond Africa to the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific, yet these regions are not mentioned.
The man behind the resolution is British Member of European Parliament (MEP) Claude Moraes, who claims he was inspired by the experiences of MEP Cécile Kyenge, who says she experienced racist abuse upon her appointment as Italy’s first black minister. But while the majority of MEPs supported this resolution, they seem to have a few objections to the E.U.’s economic policies, which continue to drive current-day Africans into poverty. What is the point of reparations for past wrongs, if exploitation continues to this very day?
EU Crushes African Farmers
In 2017, Ghanaian and former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan seemed to imply that E.U. agricultural subsidies were unfair and that African farmers were struggling to compete. “Here I am in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, which provides more subsidies to its farmers than any other region, except perhaps America,” he said. “And I come from a continent where these poor farmers with limited resources are trying to compete.” It is certainly within the E.U.’s rights to subsidize its own farmers, but why pretend that African wellbeing is of any concern?
Sam Akaki, Director at the Democratic Institutions for Poverty Reduction in Africa, called the E.U. an “ongoing disaster for Africa” due to trade practices that force African farmers to sell their crops at a loss, or which drive them out of the market and make it “impossible for Africa to trade itself out of poverty.” He wrote in The Guardian: “Despite their rhetoric about supporting Africa, no other continental bloc administers a more comprehensive trade protection against Africa than the European Union.”
The BBC reports that the E.U. gives poor African nations breaks on tariffs, but those goods that remain subject to tariffs are usually farm produce. However, according to advocates for African agriculture, the reality is that large, government-run industries get all the benefits of E.U. free trade while the real workers and small business owners receive none. The tariff rate is also seasonal in some cases. For example, when oranges produced in Europe are in season, the tariff rate raises for African oranges, so that during the high time for producing oranges (which is the same in both continents), African growers lose the most.
Protectionist tariffs are imposed mostly on raw produce and materials and not on processed goods, meaning that multi-national organizations with bases in Africa can sell their finished products cheaply into the European Union. “Germany made more money from coffee exports in 2014 than all African nations combined despite the fact it did not grow a single bean. That is because eurocrats slap high tariffs on 7.5 to 9 per cent on roasted coffee beans but allow growers to export raw ones for free, propping up Berlin’s highly processing industry,” reported The Express newspaper.
One pro-Brexit researcher claims these “unscrupulous” trade practices are “stunting the development of poorer countries,” with European companies capitalizing on unfair deals. Joseph Hackett, research executive at Get Britain Out, accused the bloc of hiding behind a veneer of virtue and charity. “The truth is much uglier,” he told The Express.
“Eurosceptics have long known of the EU’s practice of dumping subsidized agricultural products on developing countries, especially Africa. Small wonder hundreds of thousands of Africans are embarking on long and often dangerous journeys every year in an attempt to make it to Europe. All the while, the EU salves its conscience with foreign aid spending, attempting to fool the world into thinking it genuinely cares about the growth of poorer countries.”
European nations have also been accused of illegally plundering African fishing waters. According to a 2017 report by Oceana, an environmental group that seeks to protect and restore the world’s oceans, Mediterranean nations had unlawfully authorized their own vessels to fish in West African waters for over 30,000 hours, under private agreements, putting local fishing industries at risk. In addition to environmental devastation, a report by Frontiers in Marine Science indicates that the area loses over $2 billion per year in illegal fishing by European, Asian, and other African boats.
All Show, No Substance
The elite of Europe may indeed feel remorse over slavery and the other wrongdoings committed by their ancestors, and they may even be right that the echoing legacy of those crimes can still be felt today. But it is easy to pay lip-service to African equality in Europe, but difficult to give up the economic benefits of today’s exploitation.
Guilt is not a constructive emotion on a personal level – it prevents us from letting go of the past and moving on with life. Could this be true on a societal level, too? The phenomena of virtue-signaling – fooling ourselves and others into thinking we are making a positive difference with ostentatious displays of do-gooding – is a common way of temporarily allaying this social guilt without requiring the sacrifice or work of genuinely creating change in the world. Thus, we remain stuck in a downward-spiral of self-loathing, while simultaneously failing to correct the ongoing injustices we see around us.