The policy brief n°6 released by Medreset in December 2018 presents a survey investigating the representations of elites in North African and Middle Eastern countries. By interviewing “decision makers, bureaucrats, business people, leading academics, and media professionals,” the authors provide us with a critical assessment of the role of the EU in the Mediterranean.
The interviews draw a rather consensual picture of the EU as a fragmented entity, mostly relevant for matters of economic cooperation, but largely undermined by the contradictory strategies pursued by its individual member states. The Mediterranean region itself has played a key role in the growing crisis that has been slowly eroding center-right leadership in Europe to the benefit of xenophobic far-right governments. The EU has proven to be unable to cope with the aftermath of the Syrian civil war. It has also failed to counter catastrophic public discourses on migrations promoted in national arenas. Moreover, it has been unable to improve its regulations regarding migration in order to foster solidarity and lessen the pressure felt by first-entry countries (Langford, 2013; Selanec, 2015).
Following, it seems logical that interviewees from Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, denounce the securitizing and technocratic approaches inherent to EU policies in the Mediterranean. These features are especially obvious in the field of migration and asylum (see commentary 5). They are eminently linked to the lack of political capital enjoyed by European authorities in Brussels and respond to the pressure coming from far-right movements and governments. At the same time, one wonders how the EU could do anything else, as Brussels is not a place where audacious political alternatives come to life, especially when most member states fail to display any forms of solidarity or humanitarian commitment.
Interviewees also depict the geopolitical weakness of the European Union and its marginal status in comparison to other major powers, starting with the USA. It is certainly normal for actors situated in more distant countries, such as Iran, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, to view the EU as a secondary player in regional struggles, especially since these conflicts are often militarized. The decrease of European leverage in Turkey is less anecdotal; it demonstrates the inability of the EU to effectively deliver on its liberal cosmopolitan promises. Instead of a progressive integration, the EU-Turkey relationship now revolves mostly around questions of security.
These geopolitical shortcomings are a consequence of political upheavals and strategic choices at the member states level. As the Brexit has deprived the EU of one of its major military powers, it has also undermined its already limited strategic autonomy and made even more urgent the need for a genuine Common Security and Defense Policy. In the meantime, the EU remains the “military worm” once mocked by former Belgian minister of Foreign Affairs Mark Eyskens. This military weakness is complemented by a diplomatic fragmentation, demonstrated spectacularly by the actions of Italy and France in Libya, where both countries have been competing and backing rival actors.
The EU's inability to exist as a military and diplomatic power in the Mediterranean -or anywhere else- translates into an inability to solve some of the region's geopolitical challenges identified by the actors interviewed for the survey (conflicts, migrations, economic and social imbalances). The interviewees recognize the mitigating actions of the EU, for example when it facilitated the Iran nuclear deal or when it funds humanitarian actions in Palestine. At the same time, both of these issues illustrate the limits of European influence, especially when it is not aligned with the interests of the US government and its regional clients (Saudi Arabia, Israel). The Syrian tragedy reveals the extent to which European geopolitical weakness results in an inability to solve crisis, even when they impact the EU more than any other international power. Unable to play any leadership role, the EU ended up covering a huge part of the humanitarian costs out of sheer security concerns (Dandashly, 2016; Turkmani & Haid, 2016). In doing so, it failed to prevent violence in Syria or display any kind of solidarity in Europe or in the Mediterranean and fueled the criticism of Middle Eastern and North African elites echoed by this survey.
Given the diplomatic fragmentation underlined in elites discourses, it seems unlikely that the EU will be able to overcome its divisions and propose a comprehensive approach “aiming to improve intra-regional relations in the EU’s expanded southern neighbourhood and to resolve political disputes throughout the region.” Interviewees also point toward more down-to-earth priorities, starting with youth unemployment, social polarization or regional disparities. This is probably where the EU has the most to offer. While its geopolitical irrelevance can only be addressed by a profound aggiornamento starting at the level of the member-states, the EU is still a major economic power. As such, it has the means and the expertise to promote social justice.