top of page

Book Review: Borderlands, Europe and the Mediterranean Middle East

- By Chiara Novelli

- Book: Raffaella A. Del Sarto. Borderlands, Europe and the Mediterranean Middle East. Oxford University Press, 2021 – 208 pp. ISBN 9780198833550.


In a context of profound geopolitical changes in the Mediterranean region, the European Union (EU) remains committed to bringing about prosperity, stability, and security in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Yet over twenty five years since the launch of the Barcelona Process, the EU’s ability to effectively strengthen its relationships with its “southern neighbourhood” – and, in so doing, bring about transformation in the region – has encountered growing scepticism from both academics and policymakers. Notably, the endless stream of debates concerning Euro-Mediterranean relations – as the author notes – revolves around the widely popular and simplistic notions of “Fortress Europe” and normative power Europe. Against this backdrop, Raffaella Del Sarto (Academic Director of the Master of Arts in International Affairs and Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, SAIS Europe campus) proposes an alternative approach to untangle the complex relationship between Europe and the southern Mediterranean. Arguing that the EU may be viewed as an empire with fuzzy borders, the author proposes to use border areas – the areas that create points of contact, but also separation and division – as the conceptual lens of analysis. Looking at relations between Europe and the MENA in the twenty-year period between 1995 and 2015, the author shapes a unique and, in many respects, eye-opening picture of European policies vis-à-vis its southern partners.

To this aim, the book is articulated into an introduction, five chapters, and conclusions. In the first chapter, the author establishes the conceptual and theoretical framework of the book. Here, key concepts for analysis, including “Fortress Europe”, borders, and Europeanization are introduced and discussed in light of Europe’s colonial past. Chapter 2 provides the historical context for understanding contemporary relations between Europe and the MENA. Chapter 3 narrows the focus on the rationale, tools and modalities present in Europe’s attempts to export its norms, rules and values beyond its borders – including the co-optation of political and economic élites of MENA states and outsourcing EU border controls. Chapter 4 critically assesses the impact of European policies on the southern neighbourhood focusing on trade and economic relations on the one hand, and on migration, security and border management on the other. The final chapter delves into questions of structural dependency, power asymmetry, and growing interdependence, highlighting MENA states’ agency and their bargaining power when pressured to adopt European norms. The book concludes by raising question on the future of Euro-Mediterranean relations.

Overall, Borderlands makes a solid case for profoundly rethinking the EU’s rationale and policies towards its southern partners. Its clear structure and its ability to summarise an impressive amount of information in just over 200 pages makes it an accessible read for both experts and students who wish to deepen their knowledge on Euro-Mediterranean relations. At the outset, the author expressly acknowledges the limits and complexities that inevitably arise when scrutinizing a region as diversified as the MENA, as well as quantifying the impact of EU policies in their socio-economic restructuring. This explains, inter alia, the limited presence of Lybia, Syria and Jordan in this book. Nevertheless, the extensive fieldwork conducted by the author within the scope of the research project BORDERLANDS: Boundaries, Governance, and Power in the European Union’s Relations with North Africa and the Middle East (2011-2017) that informs this volume ultimately represents one of the two highlights of Borderlands. The other is the choice, in the final chapter, to reverse the perspective from that of EU attempts of norms-promotion to MENA states’ response. In so doing, Del Sarto draws attention to an often overlooked aspect of EU-MENA relations – that is, the agency of MENA states – in a successful attempt to highlight and question deeply-rooted assumptions about power asymmetry and complex interdependence.

Chiara Novelli

M.A. in International Studies, Roma Tre University, Rome, Italy


bottom of page