Luiza Bialasiewicz: European Union – Geopolitical visions

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 explains the meaning of geopolitical visions and applies this concept to the European Union. Why does the EU lack one geopolitical vision? Has the identity of the EU recently changed? And what has been the impact of the end of the ‘Cold War’ on Europe’s borders?

The other part of this interview is Luiza Bialasiewicz: European Union – Geographical imaginations.

Interview

How do you define “geopolitical visions”?

To use Gearoid O’Tuathail’s definition, we can describe them as distinct “congealments of geographical knowledge and strategy”, particular (strategic) ways of thinking – and ordering – the world that “arrange different actors, elements and locations on a global chessboard”, that assign particular roles to certain actors and certain spaces.

Which geopolitical visions of the European Union exist among its member states (and what are they based on)?

As I have noted above, one of the EU’s biggest problems/challenges is the lack of a single and coherent geopolitical vision. This is partly due to different political understandings of the EU’s role and “purpose” (that cut across the member states), but also important national differences in foreign policy orientations. It is curious how national political cultures and national histories still strongly influence member states’ geopolitical visions of and for Europe. These are often shaped by histories of strife but also by (ex)colonial ties: for instance, France sees the Mediterranean as Europe’s key space of intervention, while Germany has traditionally looked East and South East. The Eastern European member states’ attitudes towards EU relations with Russia are, likewise, strongly conditioned by past legacies – the question of the missile shield was indicative in this regard, as were recent disputes over energy security.

To what extent could these different geopolitical visions converge in the long-run?

Although it may be difficult to envision convergence looking at some of the recent disputes, the EU is, after all, a political creature that relies entirely on consensus and convergence. EU politics is all about the negotiation and production of consensus. And there is a very powerful process of “learning” EU politics – and (geo)politics – at work, that progressively draws in and socialises new members into “the EU understanding”. Having said that, national preoccupations remain important – also for the “Old” member states.

Identity and borders of the European Union

What recent changes in the identity of the European Union (i.e. its dynamics and nature) do you consider the most important?

I think the most important recent change came with the explicit recognition of the Union’s international role – at the institutional level, but also within the popular recognition that the EU can be a “force for good” (to use Romano Prodi’s expression). A key moment in this sense was the Europe-wide mobilisation against the war in Iraq: Jurgen Habermas called it the first crystallisation of a European public opinion, of a European “public sphere”.

What was novel was that the European reaction against the war was not only a strong stand against the US role in the Middle East but also a call for an alternative vision and geopolitical positioning for Europe. How this “alternative” geopolitical vision for the EU has been articulated in practice since is a contested question, but what is undisputable is the fact that over the past 5-6 years, the question of the EU’s role in the world has come to the forefront of the Union’s preoccupations.

What is more, as numerous scholars have argued, the identification of the EU’s “core values” – and the definition of an international role for the EU – are increasingly becoming part of the same identity-building process. The EU’s “external” conduct – its geopolitical role – is increasingly becoming key also to sustaining a particular “internal” political identity.

What explains the increased importance given to Europe’s borders since the end of the ‘Cold War’?

The Cold War division into Europes “East” and “West” was, in many ways, a taken-for-granted one. Europe, in the Cold War geographical imaginary, corresponded largely to “Western Europe”. The revolutions of 1989 threw open the question of where Europe’s final borders lay – and, in a sense, this issue has yet to be resolved.

The past twenty years have witnessed a “stretching” (I would hesitate to call it an “opening”) of Europe’s borders to accommodate new EU member states, but also the creation of new “neighbourhood” spaces, associated in various ways with Europe but not “fully European”. At the same time, however, the past decade has been marked by an increasing preoccupation with the control and policing of the EU’s borders against a series of new “threats” – whether illegal migration or the traffic of unwanted goods.

Dealing with this question will be, I believe, the EU’s greatest challenge for the years to come. How can the Union reconcile its self-representation as a unique space of social and human solidarity, as a unique space of “freedom, security and justice”, with the need to delimit – and defend – the borders of that space; with the need to decide who can – and who cannot – share in the “European Dream”?

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