The second MEDRESET policy brief was released in September 2017 and echoes a recurring concern among European elites since the 1990s. Indeed, since the constitution of the Union in 1993, EU officials and IR specialists have reflected on its peculiar position among international powers and the specificity of its international influence. From this perspective, studying the strategies of regional and major powers in the Mediterranean region can be understood as a tacit acknowledgment of the geopolitical ambitions of the EU in what is considered to be its natural area of influence. The conclusion of the policy brief – which insists on the strategies that should be adopted respectively with regards to Russia, China and the United States – reinforces this impression.
MEDRESET Work Package 2 focused on eight international powers relevant to the geopolitics of Mediterranean area. These are non-European states that are intervening in the region (the United States, China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey). This list of prominent actors is comprehensive, even if one might want to mention the increased involvement of the United Arab Emirates, notably given their active support for General Haftar in Libya. Moreover, by comparing the representations of these non-European powers to that which is understood to be the European conception of security in the Mediterranean, this policy brief underplays the divergence among European states. Again, Libya provides a good example of the diametrically opposed strategies of two EU members, namely France and Italy.
The goal of the policy brief was to identify these international powers' “geopolitical imaginations” of the region and their geopolitical consequences. This brings to mind the use of the notion of “othering” in the previous policy brief released in May 2017. From this perspective, one should underscore the ways in which this series of studies focuses on the construction of dominant narratives and imagined geographies. Indeed, these policy briefs demonstrate a welcome interest in the teachings of constructivist and critical approaches. On the other hand, one could also view these briefs as a somewhat mundane attempt to understand and assess the rationality of competing political powers, which is a classic reading of international relations.
The policy brief underlines the fact that while security is crucial in how all of these states perceive the Mediterranean region, these powers do not have the same definition of security. In other words, they interpret the current geopolitical situation according to their own worldviews and priorities: Russia acts as a promoter of stability in order to counterbalance the destabilizing effects of the West. China fears that the growth of “radicalism” in the MENA region could undermine its new silk road project. Israel is preoccupied by its own security issues and sees Mediterranean initiatives with suspicion, especially when they may imply interference with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Saudi Arabia's understanding of security is mainly directed at fighting the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, which is diametrically opposed to the strategy pursued by Qatar. The United States focuses on counter-terrorism and migration, at the expense of economic development. Iran promotes an anti-hegemonic discourse that aims at challenging the West in the region. Finally, Turkey has evolved from a pro-European approach based on integration to an increasingly security-driven approach.
While this is certainly a convincing summary of the priorities of these eight powers in the region, it also comes with some of the classic shortcomings of this kind of geopolitical analysis. First of all, the “geopolitical imaginations” of these countries are remarkably predictable. While the United States and Israel are depicted as having a cultural and political affinity with the EU, China appears as a distant selfish power preoccupied only by its own stability and economic growth. This analysis downplays the role -and the legitimacy- of non-interference as a geopolitical doctrine. The shortcomings of the brief are greater when it comes to Russia and Iran, which are described as being obsessed by the West and overly ideological, respectively. It is certainly telling that the accusation of irrationality targets two countries that have demonstrated their ability to prioritize a cold-blooded - and sometimes even cynical - foreign policy over the last decade. There is no person more blind than he who does not wish to see.
This being said, the policy brief underlines the fact that there is no common approach guiding geopolitical interventions in the Mediterranean. This indisputable finding leads the authors to affirm that these states “are all bound to clash.” Indeed, the past six years have proven that this is already the case and the paper conscientiously lists the various sources of conflict among these powers, including those involving the EU.
The authors are especially concerned by the lack of a common framework in which to think about the region. They underline that regional and global powers do not have a comprehensive approach to the Mediterranean. Here, it worth noting that the existence of these differences certainly makes sense, as all of these states have their own geopolitical centers of interest, even when they share a set of top priorities, as is the case for Iran and Russia, as well as for Saudi Arabia and Israel. But what this policy brief tells us is much more interesting: none of these powers seems to share the EU's view of the region. De facto, the tendency to think of the Mediterranean as a single unit is a European feature. The EU remains the only power that framed the region as its “neighborhood,” the only “empire” to claim this area as its “natural zone of influence.”
This being said, the competition between regional and global powers is a source of concern for the authors. This lack of consensus is key to a specific form of European securitization in the Mediterranean: the absence of common interests makes it all but impossible to introduce the type of incremental integration that is inherent in the EU's understanding of peace. If the goal is to unify the market, to simplify the circulation of persons, and to develop inter-state cooperation, the current situation is undoubtedly problematic. Conversely, if one consider the Middle-East – rather than the Mediterranean – as an open field for the competition between established and ascending powers, it seems that we are just witnessing another iteration of Hannah Arendt's “great game.”
The authors suggest that the EU's strategy should draw on a multilateral approach in the frame of the Euro-Med contact group. In other words, the inclusion of key powers in discussions of “limited issues of common concern” could lead to “more cooperative interactions.” These types of expectations are perhaps as virtuous as one can hope for in the field International relations, but they are nevertheless unrealistic. First of all, the authors acknowledge the deep hostility that characterizes the relationship between some of these regional powers (starting with Qatar and Saudi Arabia). Second, the EU does not have the kind of credit necessary to initiate this kind of discussion; it is both militarily insignificant, while a few of its key members have been involved in some of the most destabilizing actions for the region. Lastly, the success of the Russian intervention in Syria is a brutal reminder of the potential efficiency of cynical realism and strength in a situation of diplomatic deadlock. Consequently, multilateral discussions seem unlikely given the regional configuration and the limited leverage at the EU's disposal. By recommending a set of bilateral moves in the conclusion of their paper, the authors tacitly acknowledge the impossibility of a more ambitious multilateral strategy.
In conclusion, MEDRESET Work Package 2 retains the welcome critique of securitization as one of the main shortcomings in the treatment of the region by regional and global powers. At the same time, it also illustrates the contradictory desires at the core of the EU's Mediterranean policy. Indeed, the region has been conceptualized as an area of influence and leadership where the Union promotes an approach based on multilateralism and incremental integration. Yet, the EU's leverage over competing powers in the Mediterranean remains limited, notably because of its inability to assert its international relevance in realist terms.
The European Union’s construction of the Mediterranean, and relationship with it, has undergone three broad phases. The first, commencing in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, was primarily concerned with securing Europe’s economic interests in the Middle East. In view of the context this also had an explicitly political dimension, which was seen most clearly with the 1980 Venice Declaration recognizing the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and the Palestine Liberation Organization as a legitimate partner in the search for peace.
The second phase, which began during the early 1990s, conceived of Europe as a donor promoting development in the southern and eastern Mediterranean, and facilitator of Arab-Israeli normalization in the context of the Middle East peace process. Although more implied than explicit, managing immigration and promoting the establishment of a new security architecture in the region were key motivations during this period. It was also during this time that discussion and debate over eventual Turkish accession to the European Union first became a significant factor in domestic European politics.
The third and present era, which dates from the 11 September 2001 attacks against the United States, and has intensified since the Arab uprisings erupted in 2010-2011, relates to the Mediterranean primarily as a security, demographic, and in some respects also cultural threat to Europe.
The MEDRESET Policy Brief adeptly synthesizes these themes, and identifies both the underlying conceptual problems they reflect as well as their policy consequences. Its finding that “the EU’s approach to the Southern Mediterranean has been mainly about marking the EU’s borders, thus creating a peaceful inside and a dangerous outside”, and pointing out that this is also related to the EU’s own process of enlargement, is right on the mark.
The Policy brief further notes that a consequence of the above is the construction of the Mediterranean region that lies outside the EU as an undifferentiated other – from Morocco to Turkey. One might add that this space too has been significantly enlarged – at least in conceptual terms – to include the Arabian peninsula and Iraq, to some extent the Sahel region and Horn of Africa as well, particularly insofar as these form a source of migrants, refugees, and radicals. Similarly, Malta and Greece are presumed to have more in common with Poland or Finland than their more proximate neighbours that reside outside the European Union.
The proposed policy recommendations are nevertheless problematic. Not because they are erroneous, but rather because their implementation would require a veritable revolution in how the European Union is structured and operates, whether with respect to the Mediterranean or any other question. Secondly, the Mediterranean region itself is, unlike Easter Europe during the Cold War or the EU itself, a highly differentiated region when it comes to political systems and economic structures. It could be that a more gradual and differentiated approach would mark progress towards the recommendations of the Policy Brief. It may also be that the very concept of a Mediterranean space requiring a regional approach needs to be reconsidered.
The MEDRESET is a project funded by the European commission, which analyzes the current state of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. The policy brief released by the Commission in May 2017 offers a striking example of the European Union's use of academic expertise as a way to re-conceptualize and re-legitimate its action via consultation. The sharp criticism of the document underlines some of the flaws often pointed by social scientists working on the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, starting with the EU's lack of understanding of local societies and the limits of its technical take on cooperation.
The first phase of the MEDRESET project, on which this policy brief is based, resulted in a series of working papers written by well-known specialists of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), such as Tobias Schumacher or Münevver Cebeci. The critical constructivism of the authors allowed them to unveil some of the discourses that contribute to the construction of the Mediterranean as a target for policy-making. Three main narratives were singled out:
The Mediterranean as a diverse and therefore divided geopolitical space;
The Mediterranean as a space of danger calling for security measures;
The Mediterranean as a crucial space for European interests.
Together, these narratives feed a process of othering. Related policies (such as border control) also serve to construct a European identity, which opposes an ideal Europe to a disorganized and troubled Mediterranean. This binary representation “hinders a deeper geopolitical analysis of the dynamics of target societies” and explains the persistent inability of the EU to take into account the transformational processes on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Moreover, the lack of interest for local grassroots actors and the portrayal of the region as unstable results in a set of policies that focus on technical cooperation and security, with very “little room for public discussion.” Consequently, it is not surprising that the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, conceived in the 1990s an a comprehensive social and political dialogue, has become increasingly depoliticized and technocratic.
The policy brief echoes the recommendations made in the frame of MEDRESET. The de-securitization of European discourses and approaches should lead to a better understanding of local stakes and dynamics. Similarly, the process of “othering” related to the construction of the Mediterranean should be overcome. With a more realistic approach, European policy-makers should create the conditions for the inclusion of “non-co-opted local actors and less professionalized civil society organizations.” All this would help to alter the anti-political nature of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership and promote better adapted policies.
The critiques echoed in the policy brief are certainly driven by common sense, and echo a rather classical perspective on the limits of the ENP in the Mediterranean. The recommendations made in the frame of the MEDRESET should nonetheless be discussed as they have their own shortcomings.
One line of questioning relates to the focus of the program's first phase on critical discourse analysis. Suggesting a departure from the technocratic and security approaches that characterize the EU's position vis-à-vis the Mediterranean is certainly welcome, but it is also a form of wishful thinking rather than an actual policy recommendation. Indeed, these discourses are above all an expression of practices and logics that have been inherent to the European polity since its inception.
For example, the EU's obsession with security is not characteristic of its relationship with the Mediterranean. From the European Community of Coal and Steal to the network of agencies that currently covers the territory of the Union, European policy-making has always aimed at creating specific forms of securities for specific sectors or spaces -whether that is for the market, consumers, member-states or private companies. Policy-making in the EU is a process of organization and regulation of human freedoms in the pure tradition of European neoliberalism. It is, in essence, a rationality of security.
Similarly, it is highly doubtful that the European Commission, which received and publicized the conclusions of MEDRESET, will seriously question the anti-political nature of its cooperation policies, as it is itself a purely technocratic body which actively participates in the promotion of techno-managerial practices. More generally, the EU has always relied on its own bureaucracy in opposition to politically unstable member-states. This administration has developed a scientific, procedural and juridical rationality, which has evolved over time but has nevertheless remained at the core of the entire institutional structure. In Europe, the politicization of the decision-making process that started at the end of the 1970s, remains in its early stages more than 40 years later.
In other terms, the discourses analyzed by MEDRESET are related to the practices of European public servants and the routine of European procedures. Obsession with security and technocratic rationality are deeply embedded in the fabric of the EU. Moreover, the paternalism and self-declared superiority condemned in this policy brief are also characteristic of the ethos of transnational liberal bureaucracy. From this perspective, changing the discourses seems unlikely to alter the ideological, social and institutional conditions that shaped the current Euro-Mediterranean cooperation.
Moreover, it would be short-sighted to focus exclusively on the EU's responsibility in an analysis of the pervasive anti-political nature of the partnership. Many governments on the Eastern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean are also pushing for this type of bureaucratic and technical cooperation in order to enhance their state's capacity. For them, technical cooperation is not only a way ensure a better management of populations, but also a source of benefits for competing public institutions. In addition, many political actors see foreign interference with much suspicion, for obvious reasons. Testimonies from European actors underline this reluctance. Governments in Tunisia, Egypt or Algeria have also played the security card relentlessly, as it has granted them bargaining chips in their relations with the EU and its member-states. From this perspective, if the MEDRESET project aims at deconstructing Euro-centric conceptions of the Mediterranean, one of its first goals should be to acknowledge the agency of non-European actors and their role in the construction of this geopolitical space.
Finally, one should not idealize the consequences of a greater political commitment from the EU. The fact that this policy brief is based on a set of three working papers studying three periods (1970-1989, 1990-2002, 2003-2011) explains this shortcoming. Indeed, without taking into account the colonial period, one might overlook the fact that, historically, the Mediterranean has also been imagined as a bridge allowing the projection of European power in Africa. While the narrative of fortress Europe and the recent securitization of European foreign policies (especially during the period 1990-2002) tend to reduce the idea of “othering” to an exclusion, one should not forget that this othering also authorizes active subjugation. Indeed, as seductive as the bottom-up grassroots scheme might be, such a politicization of European foreign policy might not result in an empowerment of “civil societies.” Recent direct interventions in the Middle East, in the name of noble political objectives, have proved that sometimes a careful technocratic agenda is less destructive than ideologically misguided interventionism. The Mediterranean is already saturated with foreign actors who often ignore the wishes of local populations when they promote their own political agenda. It is dubious that the EU would act differently.
Thomas Serres has a PhD in political science from the EHESS. He is currently an associated researcher with Développement & Société in Paris and an Adjunct Professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz. His research focuses on the politics of crisis and trans-nationalization in Algeria. Page on Jadaliyya http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/contributors/55808
The Sea of Many Seas: A Review of Policy Brief 1 (“The EU’s Construction of the Mediterranean”) by Elizabeth Saleh
Over last four decades, researchers continue to highlight the importance of examining perceptions of place and space. This analytical turn to focus on spatial practices is clearly not restricted to intellectual debate within the walls of the academy. Indeed, the policy brief “The EU’s Construction of the Mediterranean” is a case in point. By exploring the spatial framing of EU policies implemented since at least the 1970s, the authors draw attention to what they describe as the European politics of “othering” Mediterranean states and communities.
Huber and Paciello identify three discourses used in the EU’s construction of the Mediterranean: (1) “the Mediterranean as a diverse geopolitical space” (2) the Mediterranean as a dangerous space” and (3) “the Mediterranean as space crucial for EU interests”. The authors suggest that EU policy between 1970 and 1980 often assumed the Mediterranean as a region made up of distinctive “geographical components” that were more disparate than cohesive in their features. Whereas as Middle Eastern countries were situated outside of the spatial framing of “Mediterranean politics” and within the domain of U.S. diplomacy, countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece were perceived within the EU context of “enlargement” policies.
Perceptions of the Mediterranean shifted towards contradictory policies of engagement and security from 1990 until 2003. On the one hand, in their bid for region building and further influence within international affairs the EU pursued the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. While on the other hand, as a result of the collapse of the Middle East Peace Process and 9/11 attacks, the Mediterranean was simultaneously perceived as a dangerous space. The region consequently witnessed further securitization process during the 1990s and early 2000s –– and especially within policies for migration. From 2003 until the 2017, the EU Neighbourhood Policy has further pursued EU securitization processes. In the security interests of the EU, borders have been further tightened along the Southern Mediterranean and migration is even more managed and restricted.
The authors argue that within all three spatial framings, policies of (dis)engagement are represented as depoliticized and/or technocratic. The authors do not however elaborate on what is meant by either depoliticized or technocratic. And yet they call on the EU to abandon depoliticized and technocratic approaches to the Mediterranean. The authors might discover further insights into these strategies of “othering” by moving beyond document analysis of solely EU policies to incorporate non-EU documents as well as other methods such as interviewing and focus groups.
Overall, the policy brief provides important contributions to the on-going discussion concerned with the restructuring of space that has occurred over the last forty years. In particular, the authors shed important light onto the politics behind the construction of space and place within policy. These observations are of particular relevance for researchers and policy-makers focusing on space and place-making at smaller scales, such as the diminishing spaces available for civil society. By focusing on the Mediterranean, authors continue an endeavour that arguably began with the eminent French historian, Fernand Braudel; to demonstrate that the Mediterranean is connecting force between nation-states, communities and ultimately, people.
Elizabeth Saleh is a researcher at the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at American University of Beirut.
This paper provides a frank overview of the political fallout that occurs through the European institutional othering of the Mediterranean, which couches predatory interests within the rhetoric of security and paternalistic, humanitarian concerns for engaging with the Mediterranean. Though it is intended to instigate a shuffle in (particularly) the European Union’s strategic approach to the Mediterranean, it could also provide a comprehensive comparison to the U.S.’ issues regarding the region as well, with a few notable divergences that account for different geopolitical concerns between the two.
Both the US and Europe, having been guided by the same Enlightenment principles that to this day demand the objectification, othering, and domination of any adjunct rivals, have nearly the same position in regard to the Middle East and North Africa especially. One, that it is somehow homogenous, despite having a vast religious, ethnic, historical, cultural, and social heterogeneity (Israel excepted, of course). Second, that it is uniquely and pervasively dangerous – the only friends are those that can be bought, such as Saudi Arabia (again, with Israel falling outside of the Middle East for all categorical intents and purposes). Third, that it is a source of great wealth and is of pivotal economic importance, and for that, many human right issues can be passed over for the right price. Fourth, and related to said monetary interests, that conflicts that cannot be contained must be crushed, for the actors cannot be trusted to be solve the issues internally, and thus may become a threat to wealth accumulation efforts by the West. For both Europe and the U.S., the mostly “depoliticized” status of these assumptions (in that, regardless of party affiliation or political persuasion, people generally and automatically take these as true statement) have led to the same result: Western, “enlightened” countries that are suspicious of Muslims or any brown person, who have not been integrated equally or given the same opportunities as their white counterparts even if they are citizens of the country they dwell in, and when they become a subject of concern, they either become threats or subjects of a paternal narrative that denigrates them.
This mindset, however, has played out drastically differently between the heavily-institutionalized Europe and the institution-leery U.S. As described in the final paragraph of this article, the E.U. strategy employs overly complicated, technocratic language that intends to obscure its purpose in the Mediterranean project, and thus produces an ineffective internal coalition which cannot trust nor ascribe to a deliberately confusing strategy. This bares an opposite problem to the U.S.’ approach to the Mediterranean. Instead of overly obfuscating the interests and efforts of the U.S. in the Mediterranean, the message is usually laughably simple: to stop terrorism, and protect the U.S. As a designation, “terrorist” denotes no particular locale except the nebulous Middle East, no particular belief other than a simplified Islam, and no motivation other than irrational, stupid hatred. It is no where, and no one in specific, because they could actually be from anywhere (except from U.S. allies) and anyone. Thus it has become clear that dehumanizing the other under the euphemistic concern for security is an issue that crosses every national, communal, ethnic, or religious border, and it is those who hold power that determine how the euphemism is used to carve out the world that best suits them.
This paper’s claim that the security-laden context of othering has produced important political ramifications is evident to the most minute levels of politicking: every politician stakes his or her claim on a voting bloc not on the basis of their shared identity to the bloc or their familiarity – after all, even in the U.S., what does a factory worker have in common with a gubernatorial politician? Rather, these politicians form a deliberate bond of cohesiveness with the bloc by othering an enemy, whether that enemy is a politician of a rival party, or a Muslim who lives half a world away. As the paper also notes, if these nations and institutions truly aim to “make a difference in the Mediterranean” (pg. 4) – which applies jointly to both Europe and the U.S. – they cannot become mired in producing narratives that solely focus on the securitizing elements of any strategy. Not only does that ignore the voices and participation of potential local partners, and has in the past frequently reproduced their conflicts and misfortune of the sake of Western economies, but it also instills in the minds of Western citizens the correctness of fearing Mediterranean peoples, the truth of their inferiority, the necessity of foreign intervention, and ultimately, their inescapable unfamiliarity. Both the technocratic approach of the E.U. and the simplifying strategy of the U.S., though radically different in rhetoric, approach the Mediterranean from the same worldview: above. By the same poststructuralist approach taken by this paper, this will always do more in favor of European and U.S. hegemony by way of the construction of the self vis a vis the other, than it will ever do for the Mediterranean subjected to it.
Kylie Broderick is Managing Editor of Tadween Publishing and holds an M.A. in Middle East and Islamic Studies at George Mason University.
MEDRESET seeks to reset our definition and understanding of the Mediterranean region through the development of alternative visions for a new partnership.
MEDRESET is implemented by a consortium of research and academic institutions, and is funded primarily by the EU’s Horizon 2020 Programme for Research and Innovation. The project is led by the Institute for International Affairs (IAI, Italy) in partnership with the American University of Beirut (AUB, Lebanon), the Arab Studies Institute – Research and Education Methodologies (ASI-REM, Lebanon), the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB, Spain), Cairo University Faculty of Economics and Political Science (Egypt), the Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM, Turkey), College of Europe (Belgium and Poland), Durham University (United Kingdom), the International and European Forum for Migration Research (FIERI, Italy), IPAG Business School (France), University of Moulay Ismail (Morocco), and the University of Tunis El Manar Faculty of Law and Political Science (Tunisia).
The primary purpose of this blog is to share the research and other documents produced by the MEDRESET project, as well as to provide additional information about the project and its progress. This blog has been devised as an open forum, and members of the public are encouraged to participate and provide their views on entries to this blog.