Europe is preoccupied with itself and leaves human rights activists in North Africa, the Middle East or Afghanistan to their fate. What approaches are needed to readjust European foreign cultural policy in the Mediterranean?
Twenty years on from 9/11, an assessment of Europe’s efforts to promote democratic structures and actors in the countries of the global South is – with some exceptions – sobering. There are many reasons for the problems involved in this attempt to export democratic values, and they vary widely from country to country.
The general shift in the global system since the attacks of 11 September 2001, and the changes to the regional order in the aftermath of the Iraq War, the failed Arab Spring, the Syria War, the Libyan conflict and the actions of the Trump administration, have all hampered Europe’s attempts to promote democracy. But, alongside these factors, the crisis, the fading, the ambiguity of Europe’s ambitions is also due to internal problems.
Europe is once again preoccupied with itself, while brave human rights and democracy activists in North Africa, the Middle East and now Afghanistan are mostly being left to their own devices, and to their fate. Europe’s internal crisis and disintegration ranges from Brexit, anti-European governments in Hungary and Poland, and the rise of Eurosceptic far-right and far-left movements and discourses to its inability to find common European responses to the COVID pandemic, the ongoing migration problem and climate change.
Europe, the EU, its Member States and their societies often remain entrenched in old patterns of thinking, including European hubris and arrogance and a certain opportunism. It is rarely noticed how Europe has thrown away its credibility as an exporter of democracy and values. But the conclusion cannot be that it should abandon its role as an advocate of democracy, freedom and human rights. The answer must be to work on improving Europe’s credibility, both at home and abroad.
A foreign policy that does no harm
Europa should deepen integration and cooperation between EU Member States and European societies, photo: Daniel Öberg via unsplash
In this context, the ‘do no harm’ approach paves the way to alternative solutions. This means developing a foreign policy that does no harm but uses appropriate conflict-sensitive methods and instruments. It means thinking through the positive and negative effects more self-critically and with greater awareness than in the past. Perhaps less is more in these times, in the sense of focusing on successful, high-quality collaborations instead of yet more new programmes, measures and activities.
Europe is once again preoccupied with itself, while brave human rights and democracy activists in North Africa, the Middle East and now Afghanistan are mostly being left to their own devices.
The mood on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean is also diffuse, disillusioned and disappointed. From Lebanon to Morocco, large swathes of society had pinned their hopes on the change triggered by the Arab Spring in 2011. However, the window of opportunity was quickly slammed shut in most countries of the MENA region (Middle East & North Africa). Today, ten years later, the situation in some of these countries is more authoritarian, disastrous or disparate than before, for example in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Despite all this, the processes of transformation and cooperation efforts are moving forward, slowly and steadily, mostly quietly, sometimes almost invisibly – but, unfortunately, without a common goal, without a shared vision, either internally in Europe or between Europe and its partners in North Africa and the Middle East. Europe has been struggling with its own internal problems, and not just since Brexit in January 2020:
Disintegration tendencies, populist and extremist movements, anti-European and conspiracy theory discourses are all calling the European project into question. Against this background, it is becoming increasingly difficult to present a credible common policy, both internally and externally. This makes it all the more important to reboot the process of European integration, to deepen integration and cooperation between EU Member States and European societies.
If Europe and the EU seek to provide the international community with a liberal alternative model for politics and society, then these values must also be reflected in their actions.
This requires an ongoing, critical analysis of our own, supposedly ‘European’ values, meaning universal values such as freedom, the rule of law, respect for human rights, social justice, freedom of religion and opinion, tolerance, diversity, a sustainable approach to nature and the environment, and climate justice. If Europe and the EU seek to provide the international community with a liberal alternative model for politics and society, then these values must also be reflected in their actions.
How are we supposed to believe in Europe’s liberal project when refugees are being sent back to Syria in the knowledge that they risk imprisonment, torture and death? When those who have supported us for 20 years in Afghanistan are simply abandoned to the terror regime of the Taliban? Or when European companies have no scruples in selling surveillance software to inhuman, authoritarian regimes in the MENA region, thus helping them to grow stronger?
European values must also be reflected in their actions, photo: Jovis Aloor via unsplash
A serious review of basic principles
It is currently very difficult for EU Member States to conduct a serious review of their basic principles and their shared values and intentions (see the political situation in Poland and Hungary). Nonetheless, there is really no alternative to proactively standing up for these very values when faced with the global advance of authoritarian, populist, extremist and violent actors.
It would also be appropriate for Europe to tone down its demands in view of its own shortcomings and to look back at its own actions and at the historical anchoring and genesis of the European Union. But this does not mean a retreat to the European island of peace, a retreat into the private sphere, into the European comfort zone, or a Eurocentric expansion of European sovereignty.
What is meant here is that the demands made on others with regard to good governance should always be placed within the context of one’s own behaviour and its impact. Of course, Europe, the EU, can and does represent a liberal alternative model to China and other authoritarian regimes. There can never be enough appreciation for this fact. But many different population groups and milieus were left behind in the European integration process and do not (or no longer) perceive the value of the EU or have never really comprehended it.
What is meant here is that the demands made on others with regard to good governance should always be placed within the context of one’s own behaviour and its impact.
Right now, Europe could emerge as a pioneer in terms of how it preserves resources, promotes free thinking and open societies, and as an undogmatic but constitutional and socially just actor, both internally and externally (even if, as categories, the internal and external are becoming increasingly blurred). The EU and the foreign ministries of the EU Member States still tend to think and act in nation-state categories, and national governments continue to be the main political interlocutors for the EU.
This is somewhat in the nature of things. Over the years, multilateral cooperation in the Mediterranean region between the EU, EU Member States, and the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries has gradually faded into the background. What remains are intensified bilateral relations between the EU and individual states in North Africa and the Middle East.
Where is the spirit of multilateralism?
Today, multilateralism sounds like a term from another era. One reason for this is certainly Donald Trump’s polemics. But even in Europe, very few clearly dissenting voices have been raised. For example, the Paris Peace Forum (Forum de la Paix), established in 2018 on the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron, was an attempt to reignite the spirit of multilateralism at international level. But France’s efforts to revive multilateral cooperation in the Mediterranean, such as with the 2019 Somm deux rives (Summit of the Two Shores), led to little action, little support from EU Member States, and little interest from the countries of the southern and eastern Mediterranean. The ‘every man for himself ’ trend continues. The Union for the Mediterranean has been bobbing along since 2008.
We need new approaches to multilaterism, photo: Gustavo Torres via unsplash
In view of the fairly limited successes of multilateral cooperation in the Mediterranean region over the past ten to twenty years, we have to ask how it is possible to break through the restrictive ways of thinking and acting, how to overcome the obstacles and limitations to cooperation. Perhaps more horizontal, transcultural, thematically oriented approaches would make it possible to break free of traditional patterns based on the polarities of North and South and even out the current structural imbalance of power. At the end of the day, the United Nations set out all the important goals and issues relating to global cooperation in 2015 with its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which are to be achieved via the 2030 Agenda. In this framework, protecting and safeguarding culture is both a goal in itself (see target 11.4) and an integral part of several SDGs.
The role of intercultural collaborations
In this way, culture can make an important contribution to achieving the Goals worldwide, including in Europe and in the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries (such as Goal 16: Peace, Justice, a Strong Institutions; Goal 4: Quality Education; Goal 8, which includes ensuring the cultural and creative sectors contribute to jobs and growth; Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, the sustainable use of natural resources to help achieve Goals 12-15). Sustainable, environmentally friendly resource management should actually be in the interests of all Mediterranean countries. Intercultural and transcultural collaboration, including scientific collaboration, can strengthen and empower civil society organisations and actors in almost all of these areas.
Horizontal cooperation on issues of general concern (such as climate change, migration, and youth culture) can create a new cultural closeness, which has, to some extent, been lost in Euro-Mediterranean civil society circles over recent years, partly due to Europe’s approach to the migration issue. What is meant is inter- and transcultural cooperation that puts people and their social, cultural and economic rights first, while being open, inclusive and sustainable.
What is meant is inter- and transcultural cooperation that puts people and their social, cultural and economic rights first, while being open, inclusive and sustainable.
The involvement of exiles and diasporas in Europe can also be expanded in this context. Many of these approaches are already being applied by cultural and civil society intermediary organisations, but at state level and even among those intermediary organisations that are close to governments, a change in internal attitude (from a purely representative foreign cultural policy to a cultural cooperation of equals) has not always taken hold, and in some countries in the MENA region, certain programmes cannot be implemented as freely as expected.
Many civil society actors have lost their powers of resilience.
Regardless of the degree of cultural and intellectual freedom, across much of the MENA region people’s lives are characterised by serious deprivation, social problems and difficult conditions. For example, Lebanon, long one of the region’s cultural centres, has been in the throes of a social and economic crisis since the explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020. The political system has been in crisis for some time, but now corruption and incompetence have cost many people their lives. Some creatives had to watch as their studios and life’s work were reduced to rubble before their eyes. Many creatives in Lebanon and other countries in the region have lost hope of any improvement and, where possible, are living in exile in Europe. Many civil society actors have lost their powers of resilience.
Postcolonial dialogue between societies
The colonial legacy, but also the consequences of the two world wars and the Cold War in the MENA region, continue to have an impact today. However, a joint, postcolonial reappraisal of the common history is still in its infancy and indeed it is not even wanted by many politicians of all hues and on all sides of the Mediterranean. In parallel, many people are looking to the past to find the main causes for the difficult living conditions in the MENA region, including poverty, social and economic inequality, and political or religious extremism. However, a joint postcolonial reappraisal of central chapters of the common history in the Mediterranean region is indispensable if the aim is to take relations between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East to the next level.
Cultural projects make it possible to promote deeper knowledge between societies, create spaces of exchange and coexistence, to establish connections, produce shared experiences, recognise cultural and social differences, build bridges and discover commonalities.
However, it is not only the colonial and war generations, but also the generation currently in charge that have left North Africa and the Middle East in a state of such destruction and misfortune, whether through military intervention (Libya) or non-intervention (Syria), through opportunism, lack of agency, or ignorance. This makes reconstruction and cultural exchange programmes all the more important – not to make up for it, but to create other, better basic conditions for international (cultural) cooperation. Cultural projects make it possible to promote deeper knowledge between societies, create spaces of exchange and coexistence, to establish connections, produce shared experiences, recognise cultural and social differences, build bridges and discover commonalities.
Negotiating common values
It is not about values for us (Europeans) and values for others (the Global South). It is not about ‘exporting values’ but should be about shared values. Of course, identities and values are not fixed, not absolute, but the result of unending processes of negotiation. Perhaps it is time to design different negotiation processes that are more participatory more inclusive, more integrative.
Should it not be the goal of foreign cultural policy to create opportunities, spaces and mutual trust that repeatedly make it possible to question, reinterpret and comprehend the different historical narratives, including those of German and European colonial policy? Shouldn’t the goal be to raise awareness in this Mediterranean context of the construction, deconstruction, transformation, and evolution of norms, identities and values?
Cultural projects are important tools to build bridges and discover commonalities, photo: Haupes via unsplash
Culture and art can also have a liberating and integrative effect. They can enable individuals to live and express multiple identities simultaneously rather than having to choose or be reduced to just one. It is also about bringing the fates and talents of individuals to the fore without falling back into exoticism and orientalism. This includes increasing the recognition and visibility of artists from the Global South in Europe.
Over the 120 years of the Nobel Prize’s history (the first awards were given in 1901), the (almost) annual Nobel Prize for Literature has only once been awarded to an Arab writer, the Egyptian writer Nagib Mahfus in 1988. There is room for improvement. But prizes are, of course, merely a snapshot of recognition that quickly fades. It is even more important to enable and actively promote access to art and culture – as a ‘space of freedom and knowledge’ – for every section of society, on every shore of the Mediterranean, in line with the SDG principle of Leave No One Behind. Perhaps this also involves developing the right instincts – a sense of empathy mixed with a respectful yet critical distance.
About the Author
Political scientist, specialist author, consultant and lecturer
Isabel Schäfer is a political scientist, specialist author, consultant and lecturer. Her research focuses on European Mediterranean and Middle East policy, Euro-Mediterranean partnership and the cultural dimension of international relations, especially the relations between Europe and the Arab world.
Political Revolt and Youth Unemployment in Tunisia. Exploring the Education-Employment Mismatch. Palgrave Macmillan, London 2018
Culture Report Progress Europe
Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.