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At the heyday of its power, the Roman Empire controlled all Mediterranean shores. Centuries later Byzantium was centred on what is now called Istanbul and encompassed most of the Southern Mediterranean. In contrast, the European Union as their modern successor originally emerged as a Western entity centred on Berlin, Brussels and Paris. Although the Eastern enlargements in 2004 and 2007 can be seen as a reunification of the European continent, the historical and cultural cradles of Europe remain peripheral and largely without membership perspectives. The recent events in the Arab world might be a good occasion to reconsider the modern perception of Europe's boundaries. Indeed, they could constitute the beginning of a second reunification of Europe.

The misunderstood Origin of Europeanness

Spices_on_a_souk_in_Amman_Jordan_main
Photo: Anett Heinicke
Looking for real souvenir from Europe? What about spices from Amman, Jordan?

Most definitions of European geography use the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea with its outlets to demarcate the continent. Looking back at Europe's history and at its cultural origins makes these borders and an exclusion of countries such as Turkey look rather arbitrary. The territories and power centres of the European Union's predecessors were largely located in the Mediterranean region. The same applies to Europe's cultural origins: in fact, the very name of Europe is derived from a princess from what is now called Syria/Lebanon/Israeli, who was kidnapped by a Greek god; the European religions originated in Palestine and initially only spread to the Middle East and South Eastern Europe; the oldest Christian country is Armenia and the oldest still existing monastery is St. Katharine on the Mount Sinai in Egypt.

At the same time, European science and philosophy have their origins in ancient Greece and Rome and were complemented by Muslim scholars during the Islamic Golden Age. Thus, the cradles of 'Europeaness' are Greece, Rome and the Middle East rather than Germany and France. In fact, Berlin, Brussels and Paris are quite far away from where it all began, much further than Turkey, the Southern Mediterranean and the Caucasus. Iceland, which is likely to become a EU member soon, is as far away from Europe's origins as Nigeria or Afghanistan. This strongly challenges the modern conception of Europe's borders and makes the question of enlargement beyond these a very relevant one.

Iceland, which is likely to become a EU member soon, is as far away from Europe's origins as Nigeria or Afghanistan.

Can Arab countries be part of Europe?

The developments in the Arab world have increased the necessity of thinking about the EU's role as a regional actor. In the course of 2011, we witnessed the attempt of various Arab states to shake off their long-lasting dictatorships. Several western commentators drew parallels to the revolutions in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. At that time, the European Community decided to become deeply involved in this region and use its power to transform the political, social and economic structures of the Eastern European countries. Due to the carrot of future membership, these countries were willing to give the EU a strong influence over their domestic policy and allow it to restrict their sovereignty. Is this an option that should also be considered for countries that are not generally seen as European? Can something similar be achieved in the Arab world?

Obviously the Arab world cannot be compared to Eastern Europe, nor should its accession to the EU be expected within a similar timeframe and taken for granted. However, if states in the region adopt systems that adhere to European principles as stated in these criteria, there is no reason not to include them. Perfect compliance with the Copenhagen criteria cannot be expected in the short run. However, giving the transforming states in the Arab world a long-term perspective of accession might raise their incentive for sustainable reform. As in Turkey, membership perspective gives the Union the leverage to establish better governance, democratic principles and human rights in its southern neighbourhood. Considering the fact that the EU's commitment to Turkish accession has always been rather vague, the extent to which it influenced the country’s domestic politics is remarkable. Are similar developments possible in the Southern Mediterranean?

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