Francesco Cavatorta and Paola Rivetti, “EU–MENA Relations from the Barcelona Process to the Arab Uprisings: A New Research Agenda.” Journal of European Integration 36.6 (2014).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Francesco Cavatorta and Paola Rivetti (FC & PR): The process of rethinking “Arab politics” after the uprisings led us to look at how the European Union and its policies had influenced, if at all, the politics of the region. The EU has been engaged formally with countries of the southern bank of the Mediterranean for over two decades, and we wanted to see how the policy instruments employed affected the relations between the EU and the MENA and the domestic politics of MENA states as well. We were contacted by the editors of the forthcoming Sage Handbook of EU Foreign Policy, who asked us to author the chapter on EU-MENA relations. We felt that it was the perfect opportunity to reflect on the scholarship that had been produced so far and to suggest new potential directions for future research, which might also influence EU policy-makers.
We decided therefore to write two different texts: a detailed book chapter, and a shorter review article to be published in a journal dedicated to European Union studies. The article examines how the uprisings impacted on the EU’s traditional attitude towards the region. We also highlighted the contribution that the scholarship on EU-MENA relations has given to the broader study of the European Union. In fact, we think that scholars of the Middle East and North Africa have provided considerable insights into the understanding and analysis of the workings of the EU. We wanted to highlight how scholars of the Middle East have exposed the often normatively biased way in which the EU has related to its southern neighbours.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
FC & PR: We wanted to address two literatures, namely North African and Middle Eastern Studies and European Studies. The article indeed reflects on the state of the art of the scholarship on EU foreign policy towards the MENA to highlight the contribution that it has made, or failed to make, to the broader field of European foreign policy. In order to do so, we first discussed the scholarship on EU-MENA relations, identifying its main characteristics. We noted that the development of this scholarship has inextricably been intertwined with the development and strengthening of political and diplomatic relations between the two banks of the Mediterranean. As a consequence, the scholarship has been very preoccupied with assessing the success of EU policies and instruments towards MENA countries in a number of fields, from security to democracy promotion. This has detracted from a more thorough understanding of how MENA societies changed over time and what the consequences might be for broader EU-MENA relations.
Secondly, we discussed the contribution of EU–MENA studies to broader EU studies. We think that the former contributed significantly to the advancement of our understanding of how the EU works. Issues such as the nature of the EU power, the so-called transatlantic rift, conditionality, “actorness,” and multilateralism have been the focus of much of the EU-MENA scholarship, and it is thanks to those studies that today we have a more refined and complex picture of the functioning of the EU when it comes to those issues—possibly also a more realistic one.
The MENA region is continuously throwing up challenges that impact on what we thought to be valid, thus making a continuous revision of previous certainties obligatory for both policy-makers and scholars. This is why we call for better communication between them. In fact, while it is true that the policy-making community has traditionally failed to take on board critical voices and scholarly findings, we argue that this seems to be changing in the post-uprisings era. This is, for instance, the case when it comes to EU engagement with some Islamist parties, a move that many academics have been advocating for a long time.
However, the success of EU-MENA scholarship does not conceal the existing shortcomings, which in turn point to future directions for research. First, the theoretical debate about the true nature of the EU still informs too many studies; the reality of EU-MENA relations is too complex to be captured by the simplistic dichotomy of the EU as a “nice” liberal-democratic actor or an absolutely power-hungry realist one. What is encouraging is that, increasingly, studies examine how the EU deals with individual countries or with a specific policy area, a trend that should be further developed, because it can highlight the pragmatism of the EU rather than pointing to its supposedly true nature.
Second, we argue that EU-GCC relations should be explored more thoroughly. We think that the small number of such examinations is due to the prevalence of two misplaced assumptions about Gulf politics. The first is that there is no room for EU norms and rules to “penetrate” Gulf states and that realism dominates the European agenda—so why bother if EU conditional power has no chance? The second is the tendency to look at the Gulf as a coherent whole rather than a distinct set of countries with differences and rivalries—another EU in the making. Should the scholarship engage more seriously with EU-GCC relations, a number of preconceptions could be challenged.
Finally, the Arab uprisings questioned the received wisdom about Arab politics and societies and about the supposedly inherent connection between neoliberalism and democracy. Especially in the case of marginal political and social groups, contentious politics emerged precisely because of the failure of neoliberalism. This has been a paradoxical outcome, as many studies and EU policies are based on the assumption that market reforms generate democracy.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
FC: It was an opportunity for me to reconnect with a literature that I had engaged with in the past and that I had somewhat left behind. I decided to go back to the EU-MENA relations literature to point to its strengths and weaknesses and to examine how the uprisings impacted on them.
PR: Although I am rather new to EU-MENA relations, I have worked on and researched the politics of democracy promotion, a relevant aspect of the EU’s agenda in the region. In addition, I am particularly interested in the role that the EU is playing when it comes to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, a topic very close to my heart, since Iranian politics is my first research interest. We focus on this matter in the article when we discuss the issue of actorness in the EU and the so-called transatlantic rift. In fact, the interplay between the role the EU as a whole is playing in the negotiation and the role single member states have in it is fascinating and reveals a lot not only in terms of actorness, but also when it comes to the huge untapped potential the EU has in dealing with Iran. This also links to my involvement in the Lund University-based European Iran Research Group, a group of experts and academics whose goal is to enhance the relationship between Brussels and Tehran.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
FC & PR: We hope that both scholars of Middle Eastern and European studies will read our article. We would like to have an impact when it comes to the new directions for research we identified, since we think that the uprisings have significantly changed the political dynamics on the ground and consequently the attitude the EU should adopt. This is particularly relevant to scholars of the EU, because there is much that should be considered while examining EU foreign policy. We tried to make some suggestions as to what might be relevant for us as a community of scholars and why we should care. In addition, we also hope to have some influence on the policy-making community as to why EU policies in the past have been problematic, thus offering some suggestions on how they might be changed in the future.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
FC & PR: We have a number of individual projects we are working on and one collaborative project on the relationship between natural resources and civil society activism, with a specific focus on Algeria.
PR: I have recently co-edited a special issue of the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies on the changes and continuities in North Africa before and after the uprisings. The special issue will be out in January 2015. At the moment, I am drafting a book proposal for Edinburgh University Press on the transformations of political Islam in five MENA countries. Finally, I am continuing field research in Turkey and other European countries for an article on transnational activism within the Iranian diaspora.
FC: I just completed a textbook on Middle East politics with my colleague Vincent Durac. The book will be out next year with Palgrave. At the moment, I am finalising a co-edited volume with Fabio Merone on the rise of Salafism after the Arab uprisings. Finally, and with Fabio again, I am working on two articles on Islamist resurgence in Tunisia.
J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this article?
FC & PR: The article is a review article and thus we based our analysis on the extant literature, identifying its characteristics and gaps.
Excerpt from “EU–MENA Relations from the Barcelona Process to the Arab Uprisings: A New Research Agenda”
After the Arab Uprisings, a more careful analysis of what the scholarship provided could have contributed to modify in part EU’s policies and approaches to the region. Policy-makers community has failed traditionally to take on board critical voices and scholarly findings (Teti 2012), but criticism from academia influenced EU policies after the Uprisings. This is the case, for instance, for the Union’s engagement with the Islamists, a move advocated by academics. Furthermore, policy-makers also recognize that economic liberalisation has not delivered the desired results, as neo-liberal reforms in authoritarian contexts are responsible for the rise in social conflicts across Arab countries (Hollis 2012). In addition, there is the realization that liberal-democracy, so central to the EU model, no longer has the appeal it used to have because of the political and economic failures of recent years. All this contributed to make the debate about EU assistance to the region after the Uprisings more realistic about the possibilities for the promotion of stability. Actual practice might not have yet changed (Tömmel 2013), but the discourse at least has.
These powerful scholarly theoretical and empirical accomplishments should not obscure the weaknesses. Three significant shortcomings can be identified, and can be a useful starting point for a future research agenda. First, the theoretical debate about the true nature of the EU still informs too many studies on EU–MENA relations. While the debate contributed to wider discussions about EU foreign policy, it has become sterile. The Uprisings across the MENA have highlighted that it is no longer sufficient to question whether the EU is a normative, idealist or realist actor, as policy actions are far more complex and individual countries in the region differ in relation to geo-strategic importance, regimes, socio-economic institutions and resources. What is encouraging is that, increasingly, studies deal with individual countries rather than the region as a whole, or with a specific policy area. This development should be encouraged because it provides better empirical information and theoretical nuance.
The second shortcoming is the paucity of studies dealing with EU–GCC relations. Although some scholars attempted to engage with this (Nonneman 2006), it appears that there is a reluctance to study EU–GCC relations for a number of reasons. First, there is the issue of the perceived impenetrability of European ‘norms and values’ in the Gulf. Thus, why focus on countries where it is clear that EU normativity does not play any role? Conversely, why concentrate on the Gulf States when it is clear that realism dominates the EU agenda? While this might indeed be true, it represents a throwback to what the Arab Uprisings should have taught the EU, as there might be unintended reactions to specific challenges. Second, there is a tendency to look at the Gulf as a coherent whole rather than a number of distinct countries that have differences and rivalries. Thus, studies often ask whether and how the GCC might develop in some sort of EU rather than examining EU engagement with individual countries. Thirdly, the “energy resources” aspect seems to prevent scholars from looking at factors and actors that have nothing to do with it. The Gulf is increasingly relevant to the power balance in the post-Uprisings MENA. Such growing influence is also relevant for the wider region, considering the increasing in the Iran-GCC competition along with existing religious divisions.
Finally, the Arab Uprisings challenged a number of preconceptions about Arab politics and societies that experts of EU external relations should consider. What has found confirmation in Middle Eastern Studies is that the neo-liberal economic reforms have been rejected by the new social movements and political actors in the region, with implications for the EU and the relationship between neo-liberalism and democracy in the wider region (Rivetti 2013). Especially in the case of marginal political and social groups, contentious politics emerged precisely because of the failure of neoliberalism. This has been a paradoxical outcome, as many studies are based on the assumption that market reforms would generate democracy. They have been proven ironically right for the wrong reason: demands for political pluralism have emerged where economic liberalism has spectacularly failed. Another significant factor highlighted by the Uprisings is the relevance of Islamist actors. Although scholars of the MENA had already advocated EU engagement with them, studies need to go beyond mainstream Islamist parties and violent groups to understand other forms of religiously oriented activism, including political and quietist Salafist groups. From a policy-making point of view, there is an acceptance that Islamists have to be part of the solution for regional stability and this is a positive outcome (Behr 2013). Finally, EU engagement for democracy and human rights needs to be re-framed in a new discourse free from Orientalist biases and needs to be followed up by actions.
[Excerpted from Francesco Cavatorta and Paola Rivetti, “EU–MENA Relations from the Barcelona Process to the Arab Uprisings: A New Research Agenda,” Journal of European Integration 36.6 (2014), by permission of the authors. © 2014 Taylor & Francis. For more information, or to purchase this full issue, click here.]