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.
MEDRESET is a consortium of research and academic institutions focusing on different disciplines from the Mediterranean region to develop alternative visions for a new Mediterranean partnership and corresponding EU policies. It aims at designing an inclusive, flexible, and responsive future role for the EU in the region based on the multiple perspectives of local and bottom-up actors.