Journal Essay

EU Action in the Mediterranean: Structural Impediments Post-2011

Sally Khalifa Isaac

Winter 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 4

Dr. Isaac is an associate professor of international relations and director of the Euro-Mediterranean Studies Programme at Cairo University. This paper was first discussed in an author workshop, organized by the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University and the Center for Contemporary Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark — in the framework of the DJUCO-initiative, funded by the Danish Arab Partnership Programme, Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In analyzing European policies and instruments towards the southern Mediterranean area, previous academic and policy-oriented writings have mostly highlighted the security-democracy dilemma in European Union (EU) foreign policy. These writings have mainly emphasized how the short-term need to safeguard political stability and security considerations has often pushed the EU away from the promotion of democracy, good-governance and human rights.1 The European pursuit of security and stability objectives during the past two decades, in many cases at the expense of democratization, has therefore dominated the narrative of EU approaches to the Mediterranean.

However, the experience of Euro-Mediterranean relations in general, in the post-2011 period in particular, suggests that some structural factors influence the capacity and efficiency of the EU in the southern Mediterranean area. This paper attempts to focus on three structural factors that have represented over the past two decades illusive European assumptions about the Mediterranean. These are, first, the early assumptions on "region building," which stressed a workable European project to construct the Euro-Mediterranean area as a "region." Such an assumption omits the multiple de facto structural features that separate the two shores of the Mediterranean into distinctive regions. Second, there is the assumption that the southern Mediterranean area constitutes primarily the EU's "Southern Neighborhood," implicitly omitting (or marginalizing) the roles of regional and international powers. These powers include the United States, some Arab Gulf monarchies, Russia and China, whose policies and actions, especially post-2011, were highly visible and influential in the wider MENA region. Third, there is an implicit assumption that "Europe" or "the EU" enjoys a high level of unity in both policy formulation and implementation. This assumption seems to ignore the obvious structural impediment of European incoherence.


The EU explicitly referred to the existence of a "Mediterranean Region" at the launch of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the Barcelona Process) in 1995. Several references were made in its launching document to stress the promotion of "regional security and stability," the "economic development of the Mediterranean Region," the "reduction in the development gap in the EuroMediterranean region," the "encouragement of regional cooperation and integration," the emphasis on a "regional approach to environmental issues," and the promotion of understanding and cultural dialogue among the peoples of "the Mediterranean Region." In fact, reference to a Mediterranean region and to a "Euro-Mediterranean Region" appeared six times in the Barcelona Declaration, while reference to a "Region," a word used throughout the document to refer to the Euro-Med region, appeared 11 times.2 In addition, despite the introduction of the "European Neighborhood Policy" in 2004 and the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) in 2008, there was still a clear reference to the existence of a region. The UfM, as a pragmatic and operational framework for economic cooperation between the two shores of the Mediterranean, did not refrain from describing the UfM initiative as one involving "new regional and subregional projects with relevance for those living in the region."3

These bold and optimistic statements clearly indicate that, in the EU's early attempts to develop its relationship with the southern Mediterranean area, there were clear assumptions that the Mediterranean could be constructed as a "region," that the EU is the region builder, and that such a region has political, security, economic, social and cultural dimensions.

However, after more than two decades, it is clear that European assumptions on the possibility of region building were misguided. Structurally, the Mediterranean area has never been homogenous. Rather, in contemporary international relations, it has merely constituted the unstable near-abroad to the European continent. The multifaceted security threats and intense economic transactions between some European countries and some North African countries have instead developed some sort of security interdependence, which progressively took on a "regional form." These structural facts were actually acknowledged by the EU in its November 2015 revision of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). This latest review of the ENP totally abandons any explicit mention of region building or any similar reference to a Euro-Mediterranean region. Instead, it is remarkable how the EU uses the word "region" in this document to refer solely to the southern Mediterranean area. Further, the EU puts itself on the defensive by expressing that Europe's own interdependence with its southern neighbors has been placed in sharp focus, affirming that "the new ENP will take stabilisation as its main political priority in this mandate."4

Entrenched disparities separate the two shores of the Mediterranean. One is the obvious heterogeneity in identity, culture, norms, and historical and social processes of communities' development. In specific moments in history, one could also talk about cultural and civilizational antagonism rather than mere heterogeneity.5 Two is the question of memory and the colonial heritage in political and economic terms. Indeed, memory has never ceased to fuel Arab mistrust of European policies and positions in Arab politics, especially in times of confrontation. The "West," a significant part of which is logically Europe, has always had the image of an "outsider" in the Arab "world." These disparities have not been helping the dissemination of the European-promoted "we-feeling" in a hypothetically "Mediterranean Region." Rather, they have worked to portray European initiatives as attempts to disseminate Western values, norms and institutions to the Arab region. Three is the obvious divergence in types of political institutions and the profound gap in economic development.

This essay is only available in the print edition of Middle East Policy.

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