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Borderlands: Europe and the Mediterranean Middle East

September 23, 2021

Speakers: Raffaella A. Del Sarto, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe
Kalypso Nicolaïdis, European University Institute; University of Oxford
Simone Tholens, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe; Cardiff University
Chair: Michael Leigh, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe, Bologna, Italy

Over the last twenty years, and especially after the creation of its European Neighborhood Policy in 2004 and the so-called refugee crisis of 2015, the European Union and its single member states have sought to work closely with its "southern neighborhood" in the maintenance of stability in the region. However, is this relationship providing necessary political and economic collaboration or is it just a repackaged form of colonialism? On September 23rd following the release of her new book Borderlands: Europe and the Mediterranean Middle East, Prof. Raffaella A. Del Sarto spoke with the SAIS community to frame Europe's role in what she calls "the Mediterranean Middle East" not as a bringer of peace but as an exporter of stability, whatever the cost.

Del Sarto's concept of borderlands describes the interconnectivity between Europe—defined here as the EU and its members—and the states in the Mediterranean Middle East. This interconnected relationship is a result of the exportation of EU rules, regulations, and practices into these states on the one hand, and Europe's co-opting of MENA state governments and their elites in the management of the borderlands on the other. She argues that this exportation of a Eurocentric order, rather than larger values like the respect for human rights and justice, has turned the EU and its members into a sort of "normative empire," and the region into Europe's "borderlands."

With the prioritization of stability at all costs, Prof. Nicolaïdis asserts that Europe creates a vicious cycle within Europe-MENA relations. This cycle begins with the EU and single member states co-opting MENA elites to carry out unwanted and unsavory tasks, such as border and migration management. Now able to leverage the successful implementation of these responsibilities, the MENA states gain power over Europe, forcing it to acquiesce to authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement. Nicolaïdis finds that these conditions result in further instability, perpetuating the power imbalance between the two sides of the Mediterranean and the larger cycle itself. Del Sarto agrees that this is a counterproductive strategy that in fact contributes to the strength of the region's authoritarian regimes.

MENA states react to Europe's influence in two main ways, Prof. Tholens explains. Some will choose the path of thick contestation, challenging the legitimacy of the EU and its members to set the rules. In some cases they even succeed in imposing their own rules on Europe. However, far more MENA states in Europe's periphery sphere decide to adapt European rules and practices and adjust implementation to meet their given needs, also known as thin contestation.

With this importation of European rules and practices into the region, Prof. Del Sarto argues that, whether intentional or not, historical trends of European action in the Mediterranean Middle East frame it as an imperialist power. To get away from this imperialist relationship and break out of the vicious cycle, Del Sarto contends that the Europeans must take several steps: agreeing to fairer terms of trade in the region, prioritizing norms such as human rights and democracy, addressing the abuse of these norms in the region, and revising its migration policy and approach to newly arrived migrants and refugees.