Book Review: L’Unione Europea “potenza divisa” nel Mediterraneo

Stefania Panebianco, L’Unione Europea “potenza divisa” nel Mediterraneo (Milan, Italy: Egea, 2012). 122 pp., €14,40 (paper), €9,90 (ebook), ISBN: 9788823843486.

Over the last 25 years, a series of significant events have transformed the Mediterranean region into a hotspot of politological analysis. In the Anglophone and Francophone academic sphere, the attention paid to this region’s political processes has long-standing roots that date back to the Second World War; however, this is a recent phenomenon for Italy. Research into Mediterranean politics has long been considered at the crossroads between international relations and European Union studies. The recognized centrality of this geographical area has restored dignity and legitimacy to the study of Mediterranean politics, demonstrating the complex interrelationship between political events and historical-cultural legacies.

With these considerations in mind coupled with years of experience teaching Mediterranean politics, Stefania Panebianco published the first book dedicated to this field of analysis in Italy, leading the way, after years of waiting, to a scientific recognition of this academic discipline within the framework of Italian political science. Accordingly, the volume, as noted by the author in the preface, is addressed not only to students but also to “scholars with a specific academic interest or to curious readers who want to better understand the complex dynamics of relations between the European Union and its neighbors of the southern shores of the Mediterranean” (p. 9). The result is a thorough and painstakingly written book, divided into four chapters wherein the author reflects upon the evolution of a field of studies that, at least in Italy, lacks systematization; moreover, she examines the theories of regionalism and discusses how they can be used to describe the complex relationships between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

The first chapter offers a reflection of the international role of the European Union whose “actorness” was often crushed by internal dimensions, yet increasingly stretched, especially in the late 1980s, by external dimensions. This continual tension between internal and external dimensions characterized, at least at first, the European Union’s activities beyond its borders; external needs often became subordinate to internal ones. To undertake an effective analysis of this “actorness,” the author begins with a basic assumption, which runs through the entirety of her work, namely to “consider equally relevant for the international action of the European Union both the external context (namely, the international political system) and the internal one, which consists of the European Union’s institutions, socio-economic actors, and member states” (p. 15). This integrated reading is the lens through which Panebianco surveys the evolution of the European Union’s Mediterranean policy, namely, a complex and layered set of strategies and activities that have guided Europe’s actions towards the southern Mediterranean area, experiencing unparalleled development since the start of the Barcelona Process in 1995.

The reflection on the “actorness” of the European Union urges Panebianco to address the debate about the nature of the institution. In this regard, she offers an overview of the theoretical approaches that have sought to define this nature from a comparative perspective. On the one hand, the focus is on those explanations that have regarded the European Union as a political system, similar in every respect to other existing political systems; on the other hand, it is upon those who have considered the European Union as a political system “sui generis,” that is, complex and fragmented. At the same time, Panebianco questions the methods of cementing the external relations of the European Union, that is, how an articulated political system edifies its outward action, which strategies are adopted, and which principles are adhered to. However, at this stage, matters start to become complicated as the European Union’s foreign policy appears neither to follow linear processes as dictated by the Treaties nor the suggestions made by member states. From this moment on, the European Union (especially the European Commission) becomes an important policy entrepreneur, and according to its new vocation, the European Union launched innovative measures pertaining to the Mediterranean region.

The author devotes the second chapter of the book to this matter. Here, attention is focused on the European Union’s Mediterranean policy, how this policy was created, and how it evolved as a “result of a complex set of political, security, economic, and commercial agreements, as well as the result of a series of measures aimed at the promotion of democracy and human rights” (p. 37). This evolution is addressed in an in-depth analysis on regionalism (and neo-regionalism) and its role in relation to the conceptualization (and construction) of the European Union’s Mediterranean policy. This regionalism focuses on sharing common paths and attempts to solve common problems, rather than as a holistic effort that, relying on the pattern of European integration, would tend to “impose” or reproduce this model in very different geographic areas. Panebianco proposes an operational definition of regionalism in the Mediterranean that looks at the concept in its multi-dimensionality, taking into account the political and security aspects as well as its economic and socio-cultural identity; “Each of these three dimensions could be imagined as a continuum that ranges from the highest level of interaction to a minimum level (or even absence) in each sector” (p. 43). This operational lens is the most effective way to observe the evolution of the Mediterranean policy over the last thirty years. The author dedicates the last part of the chapter to this evolution, highlighting, on the one hand, the progress made as well as the impasse caused by difficult relations at the political, economic, and social levels, and on the other hand, focusing on the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, which was undoubtedly the most concrete and comprehensive attempt at reaching a process of regional construction that would indicate a new model of regionalism.

The institutional complexity of the European Union, but above all the continual tension between the wishes (often in opposition to one another) of the member states and the international vocation, make the European Union, according to Panebianco, a “divided power” regarding its policy towards the Mediterranean region (chapter four); this power is characterized by a multiplicity of interests and foreign policies rather than a “regional power” stricto sensu. This conclusion is substantiated not only by the space that the author dedicates to a discussion on how the European Union’s foreign policy is weakening as a result of the Treaty of Lisbon, but also regarding the impact of the Arab uprisings (chapters three and four); this has exacerbated the diverse positions of the member states, as well as highlighted the limitations of the policies implemented by the European Union to promote democracy and human rights, especially in the Mediterranean region.

Panebianco’s book fills a gap in Italian publishing regarding an increasingly crucial issue (considering current developments in the Mediterranean area as well as other political crises at Europe’s borders). In addition, it also offers a theoretical systematization of some of the most fruitful debates on international relations and European studies over the last thirty years.

Rosita Di Peri, University of Turin

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