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