Commentary: Medreset Policy Brief 3 – (EU Policies on Agriculture and Rural Development in the MENA ) - by Thomas Serres
Medreset continues its critical assessment of the European Neighborhoud Policy in the South and East of the Mediterranean. Focusing on Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco and Egypt, policy brief n°3 proposes a welcome critique of the technocratic, depoliticized and securitized orientation of the policies on agriculture and rural development implemented by the European Union in the region.
Beyond the redundant denunciation of European obsessions with growth and migration (which, at this point, is almost a given), the brief demonstrates a welcome attempt to underline the organizational and epistemological limits of these policies. Complex and fragmented structures, technocratic names, multiple and competing stakeholders, Kafkaian contractual procedures, all contribute to making Euro-Mediterranean programs illegible, contradictory, and rigid. In addition to this bureaucratic complexity, the EU produces an amazing amount of knowledge (exemplified by these policy briefs) without giving the impression of actually processing it.
As the policy brief states: “It seems that the studies conducted over the years have barely been used as the EU does not build on these studies nor does it get involved in [the] implementation of projects corresponding to the needs highlighted in them.” From this perspective, one cannot help but thinking that the antipolitical structure serves to hide the resolutely political, and very unbalanced nature of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. Thus, this epistemological gap, the inability to process the knowledge accumulated and to transform it into a genuine reform of the ENP, testifies to a political configuration: European member-states -rather than the Commission or the Parliament- lack the political will and the political capital to conceive of the Mediterranean as anything other than a wall and a market. Confronted with national political imperatives in Northern capitals, the subtle realities of agriculture in the South simply dissolve, regardless of the amount of knowledge that has been collected.
This policy brief nevertheless remind us that rural actors in the Southern countries are aware of their own interests and agency, and refuse to be limited to a position of dependent partners taking what the EU wants to give them. Their critique focuses on the non-tariff barriers implemented by the EU, on the multiple forms of regulations and quotas associated with the protection of European consumers and producers, which prevent local farmers from accessing the common market. Limited by its lack of political will and geopolitical irrelevance, the European Union is mainly perceived as an economic entity that defends European interests at the expense of MENA producers. With this economic entity, the rules of engagement seem to merely respond to the law of competition and regulation.
The policy brief attempts to propose a set of concrete and valuable alternatives to reform EU Policies on Agriculture and Rural Development in the South and East of the Mediterranean. Among many other recommendations, the brief rightfully emphasizes the need to prioritize sustainability and to develop subsistence crops in order to address the endemic dependency of the region. Indeed, while the South of the Mediterranean suffers from many of the evils resulting from rapid urbanization, it has also been confronted with an ongoing food crisis that fuels migration and political instability. Surely, one of the major failures of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership is its inability to create an integrated framework supporting sustainable agriculture and food self-sufficiency in the South (Ferragina & Quagliarotti, 2012). While prioritizing the market and European interests, the ENP has proved unable to overcome the environmental, social and economic challenges inherent to rural development in the MENA region.
In addition, the call for a decentralization of the programs and a reorganization of the ENP in a bottom-up fashion certainly responds to the expectations of actors in the South. Yet, beyond the hope of promoting a more horizontal and democratic approach to rural development, one wonders what would be the interest of North African and Middle-Eastern governments in losing their position of privileged interlocutors. Indeed, if cooperation and development programs draw on traditional institutions, it is also because this is the condition to secure the good-will of local governments. Moreover, the EU legal framework imposes a distribution of financing responsibilities with governments in targeted countries, making a vertical structure almost inevitable (this is the funding principle of subsidiarityessential for example in the implementation of the European Common Agricultural Policy). Despite these limits, the need do include non-state local actors remains essential and one can only agree with the policy briefs recommendation to improve the outreach effort and better respond to the needs of local actors (for example by helping them to develop alternative fertilizing techniques that meet European standards).
Finally, no issue is more telling of the enormous difficulties and shortcomings linked to rural development than the question of gender equality. The policy brief emphasizes the failure of the current European framework to solve the problem of rural women's poverty and dependence, despite its ambitions. Indeed, while the commitment of the EU can hardly be questioned given its ongoing practice of gender mainstreaming, it has also failed to adopt a holistic approach that would not only focus on women, but also on the broader social and economic context (and therefore also include men in the equation) (Debusscher, 2012).
The document struggles with the contradictions inherent in this situation: in order to fight the paternalistic structures that limit direct participation of women farmers, it underlines the need to work directly with women cooperatives and associations. The risk is that this focus on women’s autonomy might fail to take into account the place of these farmers in a more integrated framework. Even issues as essential as access to land and gender equality in inheritance carry with them a variety of socio-economic issues. As the geographer Habib Ayeb recently pointed out, one cannot think about the institution of gender equality in inheritance in Tunisia without taking in consideration its impact on the fragmentation of rural property and the potential impoverishment of small farmers that could follow. Indeed, the conceptualization and implementation of policies on agriculture and rural development in the South of the Mediterranean calls for a close and subtle understanding of local dynamics. Short of this, the programs implemented or supported by the EU could cause more harm than good.