The EU Referendum: Brexit’s Imperial Delusions

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.


haastrupOur next guest contributor is Toni Haastrup. Toni is Lecturer in International Security and a Deputy Director of the Global Europe Centre at the University of Kent. Her current research focuses on: the gendered dynamics of institutional transformation within regional security institutions especially in Europe and Africa; feminist approaches to IR; and the politics of knowledge production about the subaltern. She is author of Charting Transformation through Security: Contemporary EU-Africa Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and coeditor, with Yong-Soo Eun, of Regionalizing Global Crises (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).


One key aspect of the EU referendum debate has been the rise of competing narratives about Britain’s role in the world inside and outside of the EU. On the Brexit side, campaigners argue that escaping the EU would revive Britain’s standing, allowing it to reconfigure relations with Europe, strengthen existing non-European partnerships, and forge new ones. These claims rest on a series of self-delusions about Britain’s capacity to unilaterally set the terms of its international partnerships. Brexiteers willfully ignore those prospective partners who say that a post-Brexit UK would be a less attractive partner. Their narrative seems to rest more on imperial delusions than solid ground – and it is hardly a narrative appropriate for a truly democratic, internationalist country.

A Part of Europe, Apart from the EU: What is Possible?

Pro-Brexit campaigners often suggest that if the UK were to leave the EU, it could fashion a new kind of relationship with Europe similar to the one Norway enjoys. Norway is viewed as a country that has maintained its sovereignty while remaining a close partner of the EU.

But of course, Norway is different. It is a thriving smaller country that is dependent on oil reserves that are much larger than the UK’s. Further, Norway negotiated a very specific entry into the European Economic Association (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). If the UK was to depart, a relationship with the rest of western Europe especially in the context of EFTA is possible, but it is not automatic. Further, a relationship between the UK and other countries that currently exists only in the context of a regional EU relationship will have to be renegotiated, with no guarantee that the UK will indeed be better off outside the EU.

Those in favour of staying within the EU, or Bremain, thus rightly question this narrative as one that is based on uncertainty and the UK’s self-imagining, rather than the realities of the international environment. The idea that Britain would regain its sovereignty way from the EU is a myth whose consequence even the Norwegians warn against.

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The EU Referendum: A Disorders Forum

In exactly one month, Britain will hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union, its first since 1975. So far, the debate on ‘Brexit’ has been risible, reflecting both the narrowness and myopia of contemporary politics, and the fact that the debate is being ‘led’ on both sides by conservatives lacking any positive vision of the future. Project Fear reigns supreme. Will your shopping be £4.32 more expensive or £3.16 cheaper if we leave? Will leaving the EU make it more or less likely that your granny will be killed by a criminal immigrant? Will leaving the EU send Britain’s ‘booming’ (!) economy into recession, or plunge Europe back into war and chaos?

This is particularly lamentable because the referendum is the most significant political decision that most British citizens will face in their lifetimes. Given the EU’s enormous influence, the referendum’s consequences will vastly outweigh that of any recent general election.

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 This Disorder of Things forum tries to raise the tone, offering a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of Brexit and ‘Bremain’. Importantly, on the ‘Brexit’ side, you will not find the usual patriotic bluster of spitfire nationalism, but rather a progressive case for leaving the EU. Indeed, all of our contributors engage with the truly significant political principles at stake: democracy, sovereignty, accountability, peace, security, and freedom.

Our posts will be published daily over the coming week. Links will be added when the posts go live.

Chris Bickerton kicks off the forum by arguing that today’s EU is not a powerful, supranational body but a network of states that have been transformed from ‘nation states’, deriving their authority domestically, into ‘member states’, deriving their authority from transnational, inter-elite relationships. He argues for Brexit to intensify Britain’s ‘crisis of authority’, forcing a change of political direction.

Building on Chris’s work, my own two cents follow. I suggest analysing the EU through the lens of the politics of scale and state transformation. The EU, I suggest, emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control. Restoring that control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in an internationalist direction.

Next, Toni Haastrup tackles the Brexiteers from a postcolonial perspective. Taking aim at the spitfire nationalism of the Brexit campaign, she argues their suggestion that UK power and influence would be revivsed by Brexit is based on wilful ignorance and delusions of imperial grandeur.

Next, Ana Juncos and Gilberto Algar-Faria argue that the UK’s security interests are best served by staying inside the EU. Brexit would only weaken the EU’s capacity to deal with the very problems that Britain is trying to escape, like irregular migration and the instability created by the Eurozone crisis.

This view is disputed by Philip Cunliffe. He offers a trenchant critique of the claim that the EU has created peace in Europe and weakening the EU will revive conflict. Nationalism and war have been elite-manufactured problems, he maintains, not the result of popular will. ‘Vote remain or return to war’ is simply blackmail from an elite that, even today, just loves warmongering.

Finally, Catherine Goetze responds to the pro-Brexit posts by warning of the dangers of restoring national democracy through a campaign led by right-wing forces. Drawing on historical parallels, she warns that Brexit might strengthen nationalism across Europe, with very negative consequences.

More Groundings

The final piece, and rejoinder, in The Disorder Of Things forum on The Black Pacific.


I have to say, I really didn’t know what to expect from my interlocutors. Perhaps that’s because I have little idea what kind of response to expect from the book and who its readership might be. In any case, these varied and passionate responses are a joy to engage with.

Heloise, you not only provide a lucid introduction to some of the key themes and provocations of my book; you also usefully connect its arguments to broader intellectual and political currents in the world of development, especially regarding indigenous struggles in and over the Americas. Olivia, you provide a striking engagement with the politics of intellectual investment, one that in many ways exceeds the strictures of my book to become a general mediation upon ethics and method. Ajay, you poetically and critically reflect on solidarity building across/besides territory and culture, and in so doing you begin to ask pertinent questions about “groundings” with reference to Turtle Island. Krishna, yours unfolds as a forceful defence of the urgency to focus intellectually upon the materiality of dispossession.

I’m going to engage with your response, Krishna, at some length. But firstly, I want to call attention to and amplify some of the questions that Olivia and Ajay ask.

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Comforting Discomfort of Rebel Music: Some Diaspora Legba/Pākehā Reflections on Robbie Shilliam’s ‘The Black Pacific’

author pic RutazibwaOur fourth commentary on The Black Pacific. Olivia U. Rutazibwa is Lecturer in European and International Development Studies at the University of Portsmouth, UK. Currently she is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Käte Hamburg Kolleg/ Centre for Global Cooperation Research, Duisburg in Germany where she looks into ways to decolonise the scholarship on sovereignty and self-determination, drawing from philosophies and practices of autonomous recovery in Somaliland, Agaciro in Rwanda and Black Power in the US. She is the former Africa desk editor and journalist at the Brussels based quarterly MO* Magazine and continues to write monthly op-eds for them.


When I first started reading Robbie Shilliam’s The Black Pacific last April, I was only a couple of pages in when I shot him the following email: “Sitting on a sunny terras [sic] by the waterfront in Antwerp and reading your book. It is not often that I feel deeply comforted, healing, cared for and utterly inspired reading an academic text… At some point I’ll hopefully have more eloquent ways to share my thoughts with you on your book, for now it’s just feelings…J

Today, more than half a year later, the point of ‘more eloquence’ has supposedly arrived, but I doubt that I will ever truly reach it when it comes to this remarkable book.

In what follows I will share some preliminary thoughts on The Black Pacific, rather than venture into a full on book review. The book challenges our traditional (read: colonial) ways of doing research so convincingly and profoundly, that a conventional review would not do it justice. Too many of our research ways continue to be concerned with the generalizable and the linear. Divisive categorisations still play an important role and we end up with consumable knowledge at the service of the (oppressive) control of reality and peoples. Too often then, academic conversations, ideally conceived as open spaces for dialogue, exchange and creation, ossify into zones of judgementality, oxygenised by a misguided belief that there are indeed some absolute truths out there. The Black Pacific speaks a radically different language.

To me, it sang like Rebel Music at the heart of the (IR) academy and as such, it was a source of comforting discomfort. More on that later.

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‘We Nah Want No Devil Philosophy’: A Note on the Decolonial Science of ‘The Black Pacific’

The third commentary in our forum on Robbie’s The Black Pacific, this time from Ajay Parasram. Ajay is a lecturer and Doctoral Candidate at Carleton University in Ottawa, unceded Algonquin Territory. His dissertation considers the gradual de-politicization of the colonial norm of “total territorial rule” emerging out of the collision of local and European ontologies of territory in mid-19th century Ceylon (Sri Lanka). One or two more posts to come before Robbie’s rejoinder.


I read The Black Pacific while walking through Coast Salish territories on Turtle Island, known in colonial vernacular as Washington State, USA, and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada. Attesting to the wide reaching applicability of the ideas advanced within this book, I engage it by drawing examples from Turtle Island, where I live.

The Black Pacific asks readers to reconnect with our shared humanity through cultivating a decolonial science of “deep relation.” This starkly contrasts with the prevailing “colonial science” of categorical separation and developmental hierarchy that is essential to ‘uni-versal’ modernity. To understand the distinction between “deep relation” and “categorical separation,” Shilliam says “We must start by acknowledging that the manifest world is a broadly (post)colonial one, structured through imperial hierarchies that encourage the one-way transmission of political authority, social relations and knowledge from the centres outwards” (20). Colonial science depends on the rigid separation of manifest and spiritual domains, as well as the separation of people into categories such as “enslaved, indentured, native, free, poor and masters. None can relate sideways to each other. They are fixated by the gaze of Britannica, the master” (23).

The Black Pacific is a nuanced, multifaceted call to abandon the science of separation that renders “profane” the myriad knowledges that people cultivate globally. The distinction offered between knowledge production/consumption vs. knowledge cultivation makes a valuable methodological contribution to decolonial research by treating the past (as opposed to History) as something in need of oxygenation:

Unlike knowledge production/consumption (a subaltern under-taking), knowledge cultivation turns matter around and folds it back on itself so as to rebind and encourage growth. This circulatory process of oxygenation necessarily interacts with a wider biotope, enfolding matter from diverse cultivations. (128-129)

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Of Uncolonized, Spiritual Hinterlands

The second commentary in our forum on Robbie Shilliam’s The Black Pacific. Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa and can be reached at this email. He would like to thank Jairus Grove, Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller and Akta Kaushal for their comments; the usual disclaimers apply.


Robbie Shilliam’s The Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections is an unusual work in many ways. Not too many, if any at all, in the field of international relations have a sentence like this one as their impetus: “Let the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, the sick nourished, the ancients protected and the infants cared for” (p. 185). Shilliam centers colonialism – the legacy of Columbus and Cook- as the event that broke the world. In a sentence of startling brevity and insight, he demolishes the self-contained history of European rise to dominance as he notes, “The whakapapa (a Maori word which can be glossed here as ‘genealogy’- SK) of global capital starts with colonialism – a plantation on expropriated land next to a provision ground – and not in a factory next to an enclosure” (p. 185). The making of the west, of industrialization, capitalism, modernity, science and rationality, is coeval with – or more accurately, is preceded and produced by- the unmaking of the rest of the world through colonial conquest: Africa and Oceania, Natives and Negroes, Shem and Ham, Maui (a god within Hawaiian and Oceanic mythic history) and Legba (from West African Fon cosmologies).

This fractured and alienated world of ours is produced and reproduced through what Shilliam describes as a ‘colonial science’ that cuts, divides, opposes and exploits. It’s a world in which the modal being is one who runs for cover when it begins to rain without sparing a thought for others who may be getting drenched. To this epistemology of colonial science, Shilliam posits an alternative, ‘decolonial science’ that emerges from the deep solidarities that always have and continue to bind together those who were colonized, and the many victims of the rapacious drive of global capital.

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Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections

The first commentary in our forum on Robbie’s The Black Pacific. Heloise Weber is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Development Studies at the University of Queensland. Her main research interests are in the Global Politics of Development/Critical Development Studies and Global/International Political Economy (GPE/IPE), and relations of inequality. Heloise is the author most recently of Rethinking the Third World: International Development and World Politics, with Mark T. Berger (Palgrave, 2014) and ‘Reproducing Inequalities through Development: The MDGs and the Politics of Method’ in Globalizations.


The prophet therefore channels the binding skills of Tāne/Māui and Legba so that colonized History can give way to decolonial pasts. And key among these skills is the use of voice. (p. 135)

Robbie Shilliam presents more than a beautiful and inspiring account of how through ‘grounding’ with the world we can cultivate deep relations that heal colonial wounds and further a ‘project of restitutive justice’. The Black Pacific is itself a whakapapa (a groundation of deep relation) for mana motuhake (self-determination) with the project of restitutive justice at its core.

As the sub-title suggests The Black Pacific is about rendering anticolonial struggles and/through oceanic connections. In this sense, it is a decolonial project that

seeks to bind the manifest colonized world back to uncolonized spiritual hinterlands, the colonized present back to decolonial pasts, (post) colonized peoples to other (post)colonized peoples, and the children of Legba to the children of Tāne/Māui. (p. 30)

More specifically, it is about how through deep relations – spiritual and material– indigenous peoples of Aotearoa NZ have been connecting – with ‘more multiple and diverse peoples than European Settlers’ (p.31).  Shilliam retrieves

the deep relation between the descendants of Africa  and Oceania as part of the broader politics and narrative of the pan-Maori anti-colonial struggle for mana motuhake, a struggle that must involve tātou tātou– I and I. (p. 31)

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