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.