Veit Bachmann: African-European relations, Perceptions, Images, Identity

Introducing Veit Bachmann

Veit BachmannVeit Bachmann studied International Relations and Economics at the Universit├Ąt Trier and Geography at Texas A&M University.

He is currently Associate Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the University of Plymouth. The working title of Mr Bachmann’s dissertation is “Regulating Geopolitical space: EU interaction with East Africa”.

In this interview, Mr Bachmann elaborates on recent fieldwork in East Africa. Why did he choose his research questions, geopolitical concepts and methodologies? What were his main achievements? Which research topics would be interesting for future research?

Interview

What were the main research questions of your recent fieldwork in Africa?

My research project in East Africa had a three-dimensional approach:

Firstly, I am interested in questions dealing with how the EU is constructing a geopolitical identity of itself as a collective global actor.

This part of my research included historical analysis of Europe’s collective geopolitical leitmotifs that lead to the development of a specific kind of European ‘space’. This is understood as Europe’s identity, presence and power and operates within a geopolitical system characterised by structures, processes and flows.

Europe’s identity thereby derives from the European integration process and the system of political-economic organisation manifested within the European Union. Its presence refers to the roles and functions Europe collectively exercises within the structures of the international system; power describes the ability to influence those structures, processes and flows.

On a most general level European space is thereby defined as regulated spaces of interaction characterised by a commitment to the rule of law, multilateralism, institution-building, democracy and universal values.

Secondly, my research explored the projection of this particular kind of European space to East Africa.

This part of my research aimed to find out what political instruments are used by European actors to project its geopolitical vision in a development context, how development cooperation is organised and how Europe positions itself in the international development industry. The empirical foci were on interactions and development cooperation between the European Union and the Republic of Kenya, the East African Community (EAC) and the African Union (AU).

Thirdly, I examined perceptions of this particular kind of European space with key individuals involved in those interactions.

This part of the research aimed predominantly, albeit not exclusively, at political elites in Kenya, at the EAC and at the AU; however, it also included interviews with Europeans (Commission and member states’ representatives) and with other development actors locally present. The goal was to highlight the differences in perceptions of Europe’s role in the development industry between African officials, European officials and other donor organisations.

Which geopolitical concepts played a key role in your research?

The key conceptual contribution of my work has been to a discourse on Europe’s collective role in the world associated with the term ‘civilian power’. The discourse originated in the 1970s and has been serving as a key reference point for elaborations on Europe’s collective global role since. Other associated narratives, however, such as ‘normative power’, ‘soft power’, ‘cosmopolitan realism, etc., have also informed my work conceptually.

In addition, I have been drawing on the critical geopolitics school for conceptualising the structure of the international system and geopolitical spaces. Key writings of critical geopolitics have thereby contributed to contextualise my understandings of European spaces and geopolitical space in a fluid, socially-constructed sense, as opposed to an exclusive focus on territorial demarcations.

To a lesser extent, however also importantly, my work has been informed by European integration and Europeanisation theory, as well as by post-colonial and critical development thinking. The former plays a significant role in understanding processes leading to adaptations in foreign policy making by individual European actors attributed to internal processes of European integration. The latter is crucial to contextualise relations between Europe and developing countries, in particular former colonies.

Which methodology did you use for your research?

After an initial period of critical discourse and document analysis, my empirical research was primarily based on ethnographic research methods, focussing on political elites. I used a combined methodology of semi-structured interviews and participant observation. The interviews were conducted with key stakeholders – Africans, Europeans and other donors – involved in European interaction or development cooperation in the research sites.

Participant observation was additionally used as a key methodology through the inclusion in an international development network. During fieldwork I was affiliated as a research associate with a European development agency which facilitated access to informants and provided key insights in the structures, processes and flows of a (heavily European funded) regional integration project of the East African Community. It thus allowed me to gain insights on European development cooperation from within whilst maintaining an outsider’s viewpoint.

What were the (preliminary) results of your research?

Constructions, projections and perceptions of European space vary significantly. Constructions are based on an array of debates, ambitions and strategies to construct a European space as a model for political-economic organization of an international system.

Even though there is (relative) coherence in those articulations between different European players, certain nuances are interpreted differently. The variations regarding the other two dimensions of my research, projection and perception, however, are much larger. European foreign and development policies are highly fragmented and diverse. Individual countries have individual and differing interests; therefore maintain their sovereignty and operate differently from each other and from the Commission.

Perceptions vary in a similar way. On the one hand there are strong perceptions of the EU as an economic power, however, largely negative and associated with (neo-)imperialistic practices. On the other hand, there are positive perceptions of the EU as a model for political-economic organisation, however, those are much weaker. Europe’s role as a promoter of this model cannot match its global influence in economic policy and is also partly seen suspicious because of Europe’s past (and present) imperial practices.

What issues would be interesting subjects for future research?

Firstly, historical antecedents of elaborations about Europe’s role in the world and the geopolitical system. Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Paneuropa-movement, its political influence and relevance to the post-war process of (Western) European reconstruction are fundamentally underresearched. Also the influence of interwar geopolitical thinking (Mackinder, Haushofer, Schmitt) on Coudenhove-Kalergi requires substantially more research.

Secondly, a more systematic comparative analysis of differences between official strategies and local perceptions of the EU and its geopolitical role between various countries in sub-Saharan Africa and between various regions in the world is needed. This should also investigate differences in the ways the EU exercises structural power in various regions and with various instruments, for example through development policy or the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP).

In addition, it should focus on external perceptions of the EU and its role in the world. Europe’s collective geopolitical role, and in particular how this is externally perceived, is still heavily underresearched. We need to know more about how to position ourselves on the global stage and certainly need to improve our understanding on how others think about us. External circumstances and perceptions are a crucial part when defining relations with third countries and attempting to regulate the spaces of interaction!

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