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BIPR | Borderlands. Europe and the Mediterranean Middle East
Borderlands. Europe and the Mediterranean Middle East

September 23, 2021 - 18:30

Raffaella A. Del Sarto - Michael Leigh - Kalypso Nicolaïdis - Simone Tholens

Event Recap

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.

Full Audio:

Borderlands. Europe and the Mediterranean Middle East
The Middle East 10 Years after the Uprisings Series

hosted by Professor Raffaella A. Del Sarto

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


Raffaella A. Del Sarto is Academic Director of the Master of Arts in International Affairs and Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, SAIS Europe campus. Her areas of expertise are: the international relations of the Middle East and North Africa—particularly in relation to Europe, the domestic-foreign policy nexus, questions of borders, power and interdependence, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before joining SAIS Europe, she was a part-time professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where she directed the BORDERLANDS research project, funded by the European Research Council (ERC). Prior to this she was a Pears Fellow at Oxford University's St Antony's College, and preceding this, a Marie Curie Fellow and a Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute. She received her PhD (summa cum laude) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and her MA from the Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany. In the late 1990s, during the Oslo process, she worked as a project manager with the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Jerusalem, managing a German government fund in support of peacemaking. Del Sarto's articles have appeared in International Affairs, The Middle East Journal, Journal of Common Market Studies, Democratization, Mediterranean Politics and others.


Kalypso Nicolaidis is professorial Chair of Global Affairs at the European University Institute School of Transnational Governance in Florence, where she convenes the EUI Democracy Forum. She is currently on leave from the University of Oxford where she has been Professor of International Relations and a governing body fellow at St Antony's College at the European Studies Centre since 1999. Previously professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and at ENA, she worked with numerous EU institutions, including as a member of the European Council's reflection group on the future of Europe chaired by Felipe González (2008-10). Her research interests revolve around internal and external aspects of European integration as well as global affairs, theaters of recognition, democratic theory, transnational legal empathy and social solidarity, global governance and international trade, sustainable integration, post-colonialism, myth and politics and the import of new technologies in international relations. Her last books are: A Citizen's Guide to the Rule of Law – Why We Need to Fight for the Most Precious Human Inventions of All Time (with Adis Merdzanovic, 2021) and Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit (2019).


Simone Tholens is Adjunct Professor of International Relations at SAIS Europe, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, School of Law and Politics, at Cardiff University and co-director of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Societies. She is currently on a Leverhulme Trust International Academic Fellowship and a Visiting Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre/European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, Italy (AY 21/22). Tholens' main research interest within International Relations are postliberal interventions, security assistance, bordering processes, and materiality of global war practices, as well as theories of contestation and practice. She has been working on these themes in the context of the Euro-Mediterranean area, in particular on EU border management, energy integration, and defence capacity building. She has published in internationally esteemed journals such as International Affairs, International Studies Persepctives, Journal of International Relations and Development, and Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. She has also co-edited (w/Raffaella A. Del Sarto, 2020, University of Michigan Press,) Resisting Europe: Practices of Contestation in the Mediterranean Middle East. She holds a PhD from the European University Institute, an MA from University of Amsterdam, and a BA from University of Oslo. For a recent curriculum vitae including a full list of publication.
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