Paradoxes and Contradictions in EU Democracy Promotion Efforts

Paradoxes and Contradictions in EU Democracy Promotion Efforts

PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Roskilde University’s Professor Michelle Pace, to discuss her work on Paradoxes and Contradictions in EU Democracy Promotion Efforts, a project funded by the ESRC and accredited as a global uncertainties project.

Kate McNeil: How did you end up working in this research area?

Professor Michelle Pace: When I started my Master’s at Warwick University, I was curious about developing a more nuanced insight into the EU’s policies on the Middle East and North Africa, and this interest grew over the course of my doctoral studies. It probably comes from my identity as a Maltese – always in between Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. I was intrigued about how Europe constructed the Middle East and North Africa, and how the peoples of these regions perceived such constructions, as (I later found out) there were clear disconnected perceptions from the two sides.

When I started working as a research fellow at Birmingham University, it was a period where I worked intensely on a project that looked at border-conflict transformations, including Israel, Palestine, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. It is through that experience that I started reflecting on how I could gain funding for a serious research exercise that looked at the historical development of EU policies towards the Middle East, and I was given this opportunity through the ESRC. Then, I realized I needed to see both sides of the equation, and I therefore also applied for and was awarded funding from the British Academy for a parallel project. So, while my ESRC project explored the EU’s construction of and democracy promotion efforts towards the Middle East, my British Academy project focused on how Islamist actors conceived of democracy in a Middle Eastern context and what they made of the EU’s efforts in this policy area, including of its specific liberal form of democracy that it wants others to emulate.

Can you walk me through each of the two projects? What were your key aims, and what were some of your findings?

With the ESRC project, I started by questioning some of the core assumptions held within the EU’s policy trajectory, beginning with a discursive analysis of EU documents ranging from Commission recommendations, to Council conclusions to European Parliament reports. That’s when I discovered that there were some embedded notions in the EU – the assumption in particular that the Arab world is an exceptional space were its people were not interested in liberal democracy, and that their illiberal representatives and the people of these nation states were not ripe for democracy as we know it in the EU’s context. EU policymakers also had a hard time understanding how Islamist actors could form part of legitimate governance structures in a democratizing region.

Meanwhile, my British Academy project – which predicted the Arab uprisings – showed that if there was to be political reform in the region, it was not going to come from external actors, but rather from activists and protestors from within the region.

I was very lucky to have these projects act as a double mirror, and to be able to challenge constructions of the EU as a normative actor, which too often do not give due attention to Europe’s colonial past in the Middle East and entrenched forms of authoritarianism.

What were some of your key takeaways from the projects? Was there anything that surprised you?

I think what really struck me when interviewing EU officials was that individual officials had a keen appreciation of the need for EU policy to be more nuanced and to take more of a listening mode as opposed to a prescriptive mode in its interactions with the Middle East, but that understanding becomes very diluted when it came to the level of EU official policy. Things at the European Council level often end up with the lowest common denominator despite the best intentions of well-meaning people.

Meanwhile, from my British Academy project which allowed me to conduct critical ethnographic research and specifically interviews with key Islamist actors from the main political parties in Palestine and Egypt (Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood), I discovered that while there was a keen attempt by officials from groups such as the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas to make contact with EU officials, they felt they were not being listened to or heeded.

So, there was frustration on both sides, and there is a huge amount of miscommunication between Brussels and the people then empowered to govern in these two cases, and of course that was disappointing because we all know what happened. Now, in Egypt for example, authoritarianism is even more deeply entrenched than before.  When I was interviewing young people in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, they expressed deep frustrations with external actors’ interventions in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, with the EU posing as a ‘normative’ actor / a force for good in their society, which they saw as causing more harm than those actors had probably intended to. So, we need to work more at trying to develop encounters grounded in dialogue where all sides listen to each other.

Would you mind telling me a bit more about some of the impact generated by this work?

As part of this work, I was involved in an exercise on democracy promotion which emerged from International IDEA in Sweden, and I carried out an intensive report which was quite influential in the recommendations reached by the European Parliament’s 22 October 2009 resolution on democracy building in the EU’s external relations and the European Council’s conclusions on democracy support in the EU’s external relations. I was also asked by a prominent think tank in Brussels to draw conclusions from these projects in simple terms so that the general public could appreciate and understand the issues at hand.

I am also very appreciative of the opportunities I had to work with and be interviewed by journalists, who were keen to work with me on how to report on the Middle East while keeping a critical and constructive distance from what politicians say.

What would your key messages for policymaking audiences be based on this research?

I would like to see policymakers take research of this kind more seriously. Though I worked very closely with the European Parliament and worked hard to pass along messages from people in power in the Middle East to the corridors in Brussels, I often felt that sensational messages took precedence across EU member states. In the end politicians are interested in winning votes at their respective national level. They sought to send messages based on what their publics would react well to, rather than sending concrete messages grounded in facts and research which is embedded within MENA societies. We need policymakers, academics, researchers, think tankers, and civil society representatives from Europe and the Middle East to seriously engage with one another about the major concerns and challenges of our times. Polarisation and binaries do not make for conducive policy making. Dialogic encounters do.

These projects of mine started in 2007/8 so well before the Arab uprisings, and I was all along hearing in the Middle East that people were frustrated, they wanted government accountability, dignity as citizens, and civil, social, economic, and political rights. At the bottom line, they wanted human security. But the EU is often not interested in human security at that level, when it talks about security, it is thinking about the security questions related to the so-called migration crisis for instance. So, it is like these actors are talking past each other, rather than to each other. That needs to change.

Just before we finish, would you mind telling me a bit more about some of the things you have been working on since?

Following the research projects we have just been discussing, I came to Roskilde University in Denmark to specifically work on European-Middle Eastern relations. It was 2014 when I first came to Denmark – the year of the start of the so-called refugee crisis. Around September 2014, at Copenhagen train station, I was struck by the number of refugees arriving, and how Danes responded – bringing blankets and water, opening their homes, giving families transportation, giving children toys to comfort them. It said a lot about the historical trajectory of volunteering in Denmark. I got involved in a project funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called FACE (fund for academic cooperation and exchange between Denmark and the Middle East) that focused on the situation of unaccompanied refugee children arriving in Denmark, and have also been the Danish lead partner on a Horizon 2020 project – SIRIUS – on labour market integration of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (MRAs) in Europe.

Is there anything from your experiences that you would want other researchers, or the next generation of researchers, to be thinking about?

Working with unaccompanied refugee children and on labour market integration for MRAs has been a very satisfying experience, but also one that has been emotionally overwhelming at times. I took my ethical obligations seriously in regard to my interviewees, because too often I heard from refugees that they were so exhausted of being treated as research subjects rather than as co-producers of knowledge.

Academia is an increasingly competitive environment, but I think it’s important for researchers at all stages of their careers to remember that when we are dealing with vulnerable groups or people in precarious situations, and when we are dealing with other humans in general really, we simply cannot forget their humanity. We simply cannot “use” others as research subjects. Because yes, we need others to advance our academic career, but we also need to sustain a humane approach. Moreover, academics cannot be taken seriously unless they are immersed in the societies where they are embedded, and equally, those who are unfortunate enough to experience wars or who have had to flee from their homes because of persecution need someone like an academic researcher with strong ethical values to give them a platform from which they can tell their story.