Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Prof. Dr. Philipp Dann

European Public Law after Empires

Concept note for book project and preparatory international conference in Berlin (3-5 May 2023)


The end of European empires is one of the most significant geopolitical transformations of the twentieth century. With the decline and eventual collapse of the European empires, a new geopolitical order came into existence where Europe no longer was the centre of gravity. Instead, this new world order was structured by the superpowers of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the rise of the Global South. But while the transformation of the global order with the end of European empires has received considerable attention within public international law, International Relations and postcolonial studies, the transformation of Europe after empires remains underexplored; this both applies to the emergence of the project of European integration as well as the transformation of domestic public law.


Our project aims to start filling this gap. It starts from the observation that the project of European integration was founded by three rapidly declining maritime empires – France, the Netherlands, and Belgium – and two failed fascist empires – Germany and Italy. They would soon be joined by the UK as well as Spain and Portugal at a point in time when the latter’s colonial histories came to an end. On a related yet distinct trajectory, Central and Eastern European states started to join the EU in the 1990s, having recently left the Soviet empire behind. Nevertheless, the academic discussion in EU law for the most part proceeds as if empire(s) never existed. Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘constitutionalization’ of EU law starting in the 1960s is coeval with the rise of the Global South, these two events are rarely connected in the literature. This is largely also the case within domestic public law, where the history of empire is rarely taken into account. Given that central concepts of both EU law, such as the free movement of people or external trade, and of public law, such as citizenship or sovereignty, underwent significant transformation with the end of European empires, the silence in public law scholarship on the legacy of empire is puzzling. Why is the colonial and imperial past not reflected in EU and public law scholarship?


Our book project and the conference seek to bring together lawyers, but also post-colonial scholars, international political economists, and global historians to inquire into the transformation of European public law, including the emergence of the EU legal order, in light of the end of European empires. The conference will focus on legal discourse and scholarship, in conjunction with a broader discussion of the legacy of empires for Europe by including perspectives from post-colonial studies, international political economy and global history on the legacy of empire for Europe.


The conference will explore the transformation of Europe after empires through three thematic panels:


Part I: General perspectives


In Part I, the conference aims to bring together scholars from global history, post-colonial studies and international political economy and global trade law to address the broader context of the legacy of empire for European public law and the project of European integration:


  1. Global/transnational historians
  2.  International relations
  3. International political economy.
  4. The context of the international law framework
  5. Memory and law/silences
  6. Political sociology of European legal scholarship
  7. Europe’s others


Part II: Legacies of empires in EU law and policy areas   


In Part II, the conference will examine the legacy of empire for core principle in EU law as well as core EU policy areas:


  1. Citizenship
  2. EU trade law
  3. Development policy
  4. Workers and labour
  5. Borders and migration
  6. European neighbourhood policy
  7. Fisheries and agriculture
  8. Energy security


Part III: Variety of national experiences – and the aftermath of empire in domestic public law discourse 


The final part of our project, Part III, will examine in which ways the legacy of empire has shaped the domestic public law orders, as well as the different strategies employed in the domestic context to deal with the transition from empire to European integration.

We distinguish between three different experiences of empire and colonialism: 


  1. The founding Member States with a colonial past
  2. Later entrants with distinct imperial traditions and legacies
  3. Post-communist states in Eastern Europe and Ireland – view from periphery of empire