Are we seeing the death of European empires in the 21st Century?

By ISHRAQ SUBHAN


In September, Barbados announced that it would remove Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and become a republic. This came as a huge surprise to many in Britain, especially as some have envisaged a post-Brexit Britain that would have closer ties to the Commonwealth. Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, has been clear that this move has been a message of leaving behind the nation’s colonial legacy. But The Times has reported that China may be pressuring Caribbean nations to distance themselves from Britain through “debt diplomacy” and infrastructure investment. While it is difficult to discover the true intentions of Barbados’ decision, I have no doubt that the legacy of the British Empire has played a role in this decision.  


These developments are not unique to the Commonwealth either. The French overseas territory of New Caledonia, southwest of the Pacific Ocean, had a referendum on independence from France for the second time. While the archipelago rejected independence, there was a 3% increase in the number of voters supporting independence than the last referendum. This was largely driven by a voting drive in the indigenous population, that now make up 40% of the population. 

Are these two separate but similar events happening at the same time merely a coincidence or a sign of a new era of decolonisation? 2020, has been turbulent for many reasons, but the most significant for this story is the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, with similar movements of solidarity in Western Europe. Issues of racial inequality and the legacies of colonisation and slavery have been brought back to the forefront of political debate. It only seems logical that many of the remaining overseas territories of European empires and the Commonwealth are starting to reconsider their relationship with the “motherland”. 


However, I would be deeply sceptical about putting too much focus on culture wars when assessing state policies. Most of these territories are small island nations, developing nations or both. This means they are economically dependent on financial assistance and military defence from the European powers. New Caledonia, for example, receives €1.5bn in subsidies from France every year, equivalent to over 15% of its GDP. Caribbean economies, including Barbados, are heavily dependent on imports and exports from nations like Britain. With such a reliance on the former imperial powers, it was viewed as incredibly unlikely that any of the remaining territories would choose independence. While the Commonwealth is more of a symbolic political community with no legal obligations, many of its member states view it as a means of keeping close ties to Britain for political and economic gains. 


But the fact remains that Western nations have been slowly decreasing their financial support for developing nations. While Britain has one of the highest foreign aid budgets in the world and France continues to provide political assistance to its former colonies such as Lebanon, it has reduced investment into infrastructure and business, which are core aspects for all developing states. In other words, European powers are losing the only incentive they had over its former colonies to retain close ties.


This leads back to China and its foreign policy. It’s no secret that China aims to become a hegemon that rivals the United States, and hegemon needs a sphere of influence. As the West has withdrawn from supporting developing nations, China has stepped in with low-interest loans and grants for massive infrastructure projects, also known as foreign direct investment (FDI). Most significantly, these loans have no conditions surrounding human rights that Western loans tend to place, which is especially attractive to the many autocratic governments or flawed democracies in the former colonies. China has heavily invested in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, Egypt, Sudan, Ghana and Zimbabwe, to name a few. All these states were former British colonies, and that isn’t a coincidence. 


I’m not going to make a moral judgement as to whether it is right or wrong for the former European empires to continue to have an influence on its former colonies. What I will say is that if states like Britain and France wish to continue to have a close relationship with these nations, it needs to step up FDI and other forms of assistance to combat China’s influence. Supporting these nations is also beneficial for a range of other European interests. The faster developing countries prosper, the more trade can flow between states; they can make strong allies to counter Russian and Chinese influence and will help speed up the reduction of carbon emissions emitted by these states that contribute to climate change.  


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