Luiza Bialasiewicz: European Union – Geographical imaginations

Introducing Luiza Bialasiewicz

Dr. Luiza Bialasiewicz is Senior Lecturer in Political Geography at Royal Holloway (University of London, UK).Luiza BialasiewiczDr. Luiza Bialasiewicz is Senior Lecturer in Political Geography at Royal Holloway (University of London, UK).

In this interview, dr Bialasiewicz interprets self images of the European Union. What explains the ambiguity within the EU regarding its global position? Why do the US and Russian play a role in the self representation of the EU? And which challenges does the EU expect for the future?

The other part of this interview is Luiza Bialasiewicz: European Union – Geopolitical visions.

Interview

How do you define “geographical imaginations”?

Following the understanding elaborated by critical geopolitics scholars, as a distinct “geographical way of knowing” that assigns meaning to the world and its various spaces (and the relations between these); a way of knowing the world that has powerful political – and geopolitical – effects.

Why do recent geographical imaginations often reflect a weak global position?

This has to do in part with the EU’s own quite ambiguous self-representation but also – and often in large part – with other global actors’ understanding of what is Europe’s role and purpose in the international arena.

Regarding the internal ambiguity – to some extent, this is due to the EU’s long-standing vision of itself as a civilian or “civil” power that now increasingly finds itself called upon to exercise “hard” power – whether in international peace-keeping operations or the policing of its own borders (I will say something more about this later).

Also, for a variety of historical – but also political (and geo-political) reasons, the EU has been quite reticent (until the very last few years) to fully claim a “global role”; to fully state its place in the international arena. There is also the question of internal dissent and disagreement regarding the EU’s purpose and also the directions its international action should take – different member states feel quite differently in this regard, privileging particular arenas of action rather than others.

What are the geopolitical consequences of these rather negative geographical imaginations?

I believe there are two – first, the ways in which the Union’s own citizens perceive the EU’s actions (or inaction). Secondly, and more importantly still, the ways in which other global actors – the United States, Russia, China – perceive the EU and its role. The common lament of EU politicians is that the Union is “not taken seriously”.

But this is also evident in the EU’s interaction with the states in its immediate neighbourhood – Europe’s “partner” states (both those that are formally part of the ENP and those that are not) that very ably exploit the EU’s hesitation and inconsistencies.

In what directions could the global position of the European Union evolve in the 21st century?

Two concerns will certainly become paramount in the years to come. First, a growing attention to the Global South – the EU is already deeply involved as the largest provider of development aid, and is the principal trade and investment partner for the southern shore of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa. This role will only increase.

Also because – and this is the second key concern – relations with the South are becoming increasingly seen as part of a broader geopolitics of security. Such relations are, more and more, seen not only in terms of trade or “European solidarity” with the developing world but also – if not especially – in terms of security concerns: the threat of uncontained migration, political radicalisation at Europe’s southern borders but also the spectre of resource wars.

A high profile report presented last year by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner called quite explicitly for a new role for the ENP as well as the EU-Africa Strategy and the Union’s Middle East and Black Sea Strategies in “preventative security” and, in particular, in countering “climate change based security risks”. These include the challenges posed by climate change induced migration (‘eco-migration’), threats to energy security, but also the possibility of “major changes in landmass leading to territorial disputes and political radicalisation at Europe’s borders”.

In the face of such uncertain and de-territorialised threats, they argued, the EU “must develop new regional security scenarios” and, accordingly, new security tools: border management will be key in this regard.

Why are the United States and Russia two key ‘geopolitical others’ of the European Union in this respect?

As I have argued in a couple of my recent articles, we cannot understand the EU’s global role without taking into account the broader geopolitical context within which it attempts to exercise its influence. The role of the United States and Russia remains crucial to understanding the political geographies of European power, for as much as the EU may define its geopolitical “difference” and its role in the world in opposition to its two key “geopolitical others”, these latter in many ways still determine what I would term the conditions of possibility for EU action. The events in Kosovo and, subsequently, Georgia made this patently clear, but we can cite other, more recent examples.

The first is the long-standing dispute between Croatia and Slovenia over the delimitation of one part of their maritime boundary – a dispute that has been stalled for months now, resulting in a complete block to Croatia’s EU accession negotiations (an EU mission earlier this year led by Olli Rehn failed to put an end to the dispute). And then, in early August, much to everyone’s surprise, at a meeting in Trakoscan Castle the Croatian and Slovenian heads of state declared to great fanfare that an agreement in principle had been reached. What happened?

The comments on both Slovenian and Croatian papers were revealing: the United States decided it was time to intervene to unblock the process. Writing of a ‘pax adriatica americana’, one Croatian commentator highlighted recent public declarations by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and James Foley, the American ambassador to Croatia, regarding the need to resolve the dispute and, especially, the need to de-couple the border dispute from Croatia’s accession negotiations in order to “assure stability in the region”. And so it was…

The other example that we can briefly cite is the question of the infamous “missile shield”. From the very outset, there was no “EU policy” in this regard but simply the reactions of individual member states: that is, bilateral negotiations between the United States and the Czech Republic and Poland. Although the most recent declarations of the Obama administration seem to indicate that the project may be scrapped altogether (with the radar stations and missile bases to be apparently repositioned elsewhere “south”), the way in which the whole question has played out over the past few years is indicative: throughout, it was a question of individual Polish and Czech relations with the US (and Russia).

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