Entrenching Inequality: The European Dependency School’s Underdeveloped Europe

Despite the relevance of dependency theories to European problems, they have made little headway in our universities. There are other reasons, apart from our parochialism and linguistic weaknesses. First, an explicitly interdisciplinary school does not fit readily into the typical unidisciplinary syllabi and research programmes… An economist who picks up a book by a dependency theorist is likely to notice the lack of algebra. It would be very convenient if only social problems could be reduced to algebraic functions: the solutions would then be straightforward. Many of the propositions of dependency theory cannot easily be cast in mathematical terms, still less are they readily quantifiable. The theory is in large part about hierarchies, institutions, and attitudes.

Dudley Seers, 19811Dudley Seers, Dependency Theory: a Critical Reassessment (Pinter Publishers, 1981), 15.

The Eurozone, Refugee, and Brexit crises left many liberal commentators scratching their heads. The creation myth of the European Union (EU) holds that the institution helped create a continent of peace and prosperity from the ruins of the Second World War. Furthermore, the EU as a political and intellectual project was meant to have created a ‘cosmopolitan Europe’ whereby diverse countries would rally around a common cause and common interests. The EU, according to its official website  holds values such as human dignity, democracy, equality, and human rights while freedom, justice, sustainable development, and combatting discrimination are stated goals. Why then would a state decide to leave? Why would member states fall into economic turmoil and why would an institution that proclaims it supports human rights allow refugees and migrants to die at sea? 

To begin, there are implicitly insular definitions of ‘peace’, ‘prosperity’, ‘diversity’ and ‘interests’ within the EU’s intellectual and political project. Globally, the European Union does not bring peace and prosperity. One need only look at the sanctions it imposes against countries such as Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Libya, Belarus, the DPRK and Iran amongst others. A full account of the European Union’s exploitative relationship with regards to external actors is beyond the scope of this article, however, it is equally important to understand the contradictions within the European Union itself.2See my article on European Imperialism for more information on the topic. The EU does not bring prosperity equally to all member states; those nations and regions that were poor 40 years ago are still poor today. This leads us to ask important questions: in whose interests does the EU work? Was the EU institutionally designed this way or has it veered from its supposedly lofty ideals? To answer these questions, I find myself looking backwards in time and finding explanations for the foundations of today’s crises in Underdeveloped Europe: Studies in Core-Periphery Relations.

This book, published in 1979 and edited by Dudley Seers, Bernard Schaffer and Marja-Liisa Kiljunen synthesises the arguments of a group of academics that became loosely known as the European Dependency School (EDS).3Rudy Weissenbacher, The Core-Periphery Divide in the European Union: A Dependency Perspective (Springer Nature, 2020), 5. In 1975, the European Association of Development Institutes was created, with Seers being elected as President of the group. Their work was markedly different from the orthodox view prevalent in most European institutes where theory and practice were dominated by modernisation and liberal economic theory in its neo-classical and Keynesian variants. Seers argued in Underdeveloped Europe that these theories were “developed in the interest of dominant countries and for dominant countries, taking for granted their structural characteristics and interest in free trade”.4Dudley Seers, Bernard Schaffer, and Marja-Liisa Kiljunen, eds. Underdeveloped Europe: studies in core-periphery relations. No. 1. (Harvester Press, 1979), 25. What made the EDS different is that they broke away from a western exceptionalism so ingrained in academia. 

Underdeveloped Europe marked “a new departure by inquiring whether one can apply in Europe some of the theoretical insights obtained from work in the field conventionally called ‘development studies’”;5Dudley Seers, Bernard Schaffer, and Marja-Liisa Kiljunen, eds. Underdeveloped Europe: studies in core-periphery relations. No. 1. (Harvester Press, 1979:), xiii. a school of thought derived from experiences in Latin America and typified by the work of scholars such as Raúl Prebisch, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy and Andre Gunder Frank. At the heart of development studies and the work of the EDS was an analysis of the relationship between a dominant ‘core’ of countries and a dependent ‘periphery’. It is this dialectic that is central to understanding the world economy, and Underdeveloped Europe was the first book to use such an analysis within Europe. 

Beforehand, “the influence of core countries, governments, and companies … largely remained absent from discussions as if there was a periphery without a core”6Rudy Weissenbacher, The Core-Periphery Divide in the European Union: A Dependency Perspective. (Springer Nature, 2020), 3. yet, one must be peripheral to something and one is peripheral due to something. For the first time, the core and periphery in Europe were not analysed independently of one another, there was an understanding that it was the relationship between such regions that was important. As Underdeveloped Europe states, “the economics taught in Western Europe, even in its periphery, ignores hierarchical relationships between countries, or within them. Further, the experience of the ‘Third World’ could well be relevant in some respects to some problems of the European periphery – for example in dealing with governments and corporations of the core – if we are prepared to study them”.7Dudley Seers, Bernard Schaffer, and Marja-Liisa Kiljunen, eds. Underdeveloped Europe: studies in core-periphery relations. No. 1. (Harvester Press, 1979:), xix. This qualitatively different way of thinking was the starting point from which Seers and his peers analysed the European Union (or the European Communities as it was then known).

The Integration of Unequal Partners

This book shared fundamental insights into the structure of the European Union that are still pertinent to us today. Seers – and members of the European Dependency School generally – were sceptical of future integration prospects. At the time of writing in 1979, the European Communities had grown from an organisation of six members (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany) to nine members, with the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Denmark joining. Others were to follow soon with Greece joining in 1981 and Spain and Portugal following in 1986. The structure of the institution was therefore changing from a ‘rich club’ with one peripheral region (the Mezzogiorno or Southern Italy) to one of unequal partners, with Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Portugal clearly peripheral to the core.8Peripheral countries/regions share some characteristics which make them structurally dependent on the core. These include: the primacy of exporting raw materials, the importation of value-added products, new products, technologies and innovations, the lack of local oversight in decision-making process, specifically around what and where to invest, this is due to both Foreign Direct Investment and needing core markets to buy their products, and migration flows whereby people move from the periphery to the core for work while retirees and holiday makers flow from the core to the periphery. 

Seers argued that “if there are no major reforms in the Community, there will be, after the enlargement, serious dualism, indeed a sort of colonial system. In the poorer group which already suffers whenever a government of the core adopts financially restrictive policies, the effects could be more severe if they give up the possibility of adopting measures to protect their national economy”.9Dudley Seers, Bernard Schaffer, and Marja-Liisa Kiljunen, eds. Underdeveloped Europe: studies in core-periphery relations. No. 1. (Harvester Press, 1979:), 27. These major reforms were never forthcoming, nor were they ever truly part of the Community’s aims. A laissez-faire economic approach was considered the “appropriate doctrine” by the Community, which “would make it difficult for any really left-wing government of the future to exercise controls and carry out far-reaching social changes”.10Dudley Seers, and Constantine Vaitsos, eds. The Second Enlargement of the EEC: the integration of unequal partners (Springer, 1982), 1-4. This “would ensure that its industrial structures were made more efficient by exposure to competition, and contribute to the re-establishment of international free trade, which was an essential element in this neo-colonial scenario”.11Dudley Seers, and Constantine Vaitsos, eds. The Second Enlargement of the EEC: the integration of unequal partners (Springer, 1982), 4. The policy of competition was enshrined in the Community; its codification in the Treaty of Rome meant that it would be a fundamental ideology of the European project. Fundamentally, the Treaty could therefore be used as an argument against regional or national industrial policy in the periphery which would ‘distort’ competition; the European core’s position of strength qua the periphery became codified. 

This inherently unequal position between partners at the onset of enlargement helped sow the seeds for the Eurozone Crisis in 2008 by deforming the way in which peripheral societies grew. The European Dependency School described this phenomenon in the periphery as ‘growth without development’. Pollis, writing in 1985 stated that integration meant “the strengthening of those very sectors that would preclude the future autonomous industrialisation of Greece. Emphasis is placed on the expansion of the fishing industry … expansion of agriculture by increasing productivity … and last, the expansion of the tourist industry. The question of the development of Greece’s industrial sector was largely ignored, undoubtedly premised on the doctrine of comparative advantage, since it is widely accepted that Community membership is destructive to Greece’s non-competitive industries, albeit potentially beneficial to Europe’s multinationals”.12Adamantia Pollis, International and Domestic Constraints on Socialist Transformation in Greece (Praeger, 1985), 209. 

Greece is an instructive example of how Community membership did not create peripherality but did help to entrench it. However, the dialectical relationship between core and periphery was obscured from view during the Eurozone crisis. “A paradigmatic picture suggested Germany as a role model, personified as the saving Swabian housewife, and proposed mechanisms of private households for national accounts. In that way, everybody could become export champions with a positive trade balance. In reality, somebody has to import these exports, and somebody has to pay for them. In the case of the EU, the Southern periphery very much belonged to both of these somebodies until their debt situation slowed this process”.13Rudy Weissenbacher, The Core-Periphery Divide in the European Union: A Dependency Perspective (Springer Nature, 2020), 60. Although the debt situation in peripheral European countries has slowed their ability to import goods from Germany and France, European ‘progressives’ such as DiEM25 have found a new purpose for these “somebodies”. David Adler, their Policy Coordinator stated that a “Green New Deal [would allow] German pensioners [to] gain from environmental investments in communities that have been hit by austerity in Southern Europe. … We can deliver a healthy return on investments for, let’s say, pensioners in France and Germany and, at the same time, provide meaningful jobs to workers in Greece”. DiEM25’s official position during the Brexit referendum was to ‘remain and reform’, however, their proposed reformation which only amounts to a continued process of value extraction from impoverished states illuminates the political dishonesty of this position and highlights the continued underdevelopment of peripheral countries which the EDS espoused. 

Although Greece is an especially extreme case, it is no exception to the vulnerability of peripheral countries in an EU constructed by and for core countries. Seers, writing in 1980 almost prophetically deduced what would happen to peripheral European countries after enlargement and how this would be further exacerbated in a monetary union:

Those [countries] in deficit … have to adopt deflationary policies. The more complete the degree of integration, the more serious this asymmetry is likely to be. If governments in an economic community have given up trade restrictions, foreign exchange control and even freedom to vary the exchange rate, then the only short-term weapons left to deal with a recession in exports (or rise in import prices) are fiscal and monetary policies that lower the level of employment – and wage controls to reduce costs and purchasing power. The effect is to make the governments of peripheral economies in an integrated system highly dependent on those of its core; if the latter give greater priority to curbing price inflation than to reducing unemployment, there is little the former can do but resign themselves to accepting the priority and shaping their own policies accordingly.14Dudley Seers and Constantine V. Vaitsos, eds. Integration and unequal development: the experience of the EEC (Springer, 1980), 19.

Reasserting the Importance of Space

An equally important contribution made by Underdeveloped Europe was its geographical analysis. The core of Europe was described as an “incomplete egg” with the centre in western Germany. The “yolk” was defined as “Denmark, western Germany, the Benelux countries, Paris, the Lyon area, Switzerland and Lombardy”.15Dudley Seers, Bernard Schaffer, and Marja-Liisa Kiljunen, eds. Underdeveloped Europe: studies in core-periphery relations. No. 1. (Harvester Press, 1979), 19 The core in its entirety stretches as far as England (not including Cornwall) and Edinburgh to the west; the more heavily populated areas of Norway, Sweden, and Finland to the north; northern Italy to the south and Catalunya and the Basque Country to the south-west. The periphery could therefore be described not only as a group of countries but as a geographical space, stretching across frontiers, creating a “periphery in a much more literal sense”.16Dudley Seers, Bernard Schaffer, and Marja-Liisa Kiljunen, eds. Underdeveloped Europe: studies in core-periphery relations. No. 1. (Harvester Press, 1979), xiiv

These findings are relevant to the present day in two ways. Firstly, Edward Soja argued that “the production of space has indeed been socially obfuscated and mystified in the development of capitalism, and this has allowed it to be used against class struggle”.17Edward W. Soja, “The socio-spatial dialectic.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70, no. 2 (1980): 224. This book helps to demystify the importance of space and how it is socially produced, illuminating how the unequal development between regions and nations is the very essence of capitalism, and is, as Mandel suggests, “on the same level as the exploitation of labour by capital”.18Ernest Mandel, “Revolutionary Strategy in Europe-a political interview.” New Left Review 100 (1976): 46. It concurrently explains why those that suffered most during the Eurozone crisis were peripheral and why decisions made in Germany (and to an extent France) were just as important as those taken in Brussels due to the structural foundations of the EU. Underdeveloped Europe breathes life into “the notion that backward regions, such as those in southern Europe, are not formed autonomously, having, as it were, their own independent existence. Neither are they created incidentally, as a kind of accidental, haphazard by- product of growth elsewhere. Rather, they are part and parcel of the growth process in the core, and essential to it”.19R. L. King, “Southern Europe: dependency or development?.” Geography (1982): 224.

Secondly, Underdeveloped Europe’s geographic perspective helps us understand the European Union’s relationship with external nations. It is no coincidence that those countries that are peripheral within Europe are also those countries closest to the continents of Africa and Asia. Their geographical position has a dual role; firstly, the core uses these countries as a buffer against migrants. The Dublin Accord which enshrined in law that the country of arrival is responsible for migrants placed additional pressures on countries of the periphery like Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. Secondly, it helps to explain why these peripheral countries would decide to join the European Union: inclusion in such a club may stop those countries from falling into the global periphery (which is different to the European periphery) though “at the cost of structural dependence”.20Dudley Seers, Bernard Schaffer, and Marja-Liisa Kiljunen, eds. Underdeveloped Europe: studies in core-periphery relations. No. 1. (Harvester Press, 1979), xviii Peripheral European countries can still attract migrants from poorer countries, ensuring there is enough cheap labour, while they themselves lose migrants to the core. Underdeveloped Europe helps us understand the contradictory process whereby there are internal contradictions inside the European Union, though externally the institution works as a unified whole to defend its shared interests.


Dudley Seers unfortunately passed away in 1983 and was therefore unable to develop and expand on his work as it relates to more contemporary conditions. This I think has added to his work being underappreciated today. The second-hand copy of the book used for the purposes of writing this review was withdrawn from Oxford University after not having been issued in over 30 years; a fact that seems on one hand disquieting, yet somehow instructive of why we are in the malaise in which we find ourselves. 

This book has many important insights for us today and helps us truly understand the role of the European Union as an institution, both internally and externally. However, perhaps the most important contribution this book made was its understanding that the answer to many of our problems can be found outside of Europe, exemplified by it taking the theories of Latin American Dependency Theorists as its starting point. This book is truly special because it breaks away from a western and Anglo-centric worldview which is rife in many of our universities, in our politicians and in our society. It is a book that I suggest all those interested in understanding the European system more fully to read.

Samuel Parry is an Associate Editor of Peace, Land, and Bread, a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal of revolutionary theory and practice. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Economy at Cardiff University, where he studies the links between culture, geography and the economy through a Marxist lens to explain the peripherality of some European nations, namely his home of Wales. This work is researching the viability of using dependency and world-systems theory to explain the peripherality of regions at the edge of Europe and the role of the European Union in entrenching these inequalities.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Dudley Seers, Bernard Schaffer, and Marja-Liisa Kiljunen, eds.