Trajectories of Change: New Research Projects on the European Neighbourhood
By Anna Hofmann
The revolutionary moments of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the Ukrainian “Euromaidan” in 2014 called for a remarkable rise of public and academic attention towards regions in the east and south of the European continent. Protests, repressions, regime changes or authoritarian reinforcements were closely followed by international media. They resulted in debates about the changing political, social and economic situation in the region, the resilience of the authoritarian regimes, the prospects for liberalisation and democratisation as well as economic outlooks for countries in turmoil. In these circumstances, novel academic inquiries have also arisen, and new research projects have been developed. They have been increasingly questioning prevailing assumptions about the historically founded inertia and path dependencies in the political and social developments at Europe’s margins, within the so called “European Neighbourhood”.
The concept of the “European Neighbourhood” appeared in the early years 2000, in the context of the European Neighbourhood Policy, which was designed to prevent dividing lines between the European Union enlarged in 2004 to the East and its neighbouring countries. It is differentiated into a southern and an eastern dimension. The first one refers to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership initiated in mid-1990s, the second to the Eastern Partnership launched in 2009 at the Prague Summit. Russia conserves a special status in this political geography of the continent.
Today, the political term of the “European Neighbourhood” describes countries directly adjacent to the European Union and, in a broader understanding, also their neighbouring states. The term encompasses several regions: Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. All those regions have been extensively researched within Area Studies – with an interdisciplinary focus, but also often conserving the traditional Eurocentric background and remaining responsible for “foreign spheres” in the academic world, as underlined by Thomas Maissen in an earlier conversation on this blog. Studying these regions therefore means currently not only inquiring into complex histories, changing borders and dynamic societies, it also involves a continuous reflection on historical and cultural constructs describing the regions and countries in their relationship to Europe and/or to the European Union as well as to each other.
The focus on the “European Neighbourhood” pushed by the official language of the European Commission and introduced into policy research and advice incites academic scholars to re-examine their geographical imaginaries. This exercise follows the critical agenda set in the late 1990s, i.e. by Martin W. Lewis and Kären E. Wigen in The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (1997, University of California Press, Berkeley). It also corresponds to currently popular and widely discussed transregional and global history approaches, concentrating on crossing borders of spatial frameworks usually taken for granted, and – more generally – of container thinking.
The transcending aspect is also at the centre of our “Trajectories of Change” approach: The etymology of the word “trajectory”, originating from its Latin roots “trans” (across) and “jacere” (to throw), exemplifies how “trajectories of change” may depict diverse lines or paths in social development. Assuming progress in a certain direction, the “trajectory” will lead an individual, but also a particular state, society or a social group to a certain goal. At the same time, even a slight modification in this course can bring about huge differences in the outcome. “Trajectories of Change” stand therefore for a plurality of tracks and outcomes, for a variety of transformation processes and for the realities they produce.
The ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, a private foundation based in Hamburg, Germany, initiated its international Ph.D. scholarship programme in 2014, following the impetus of the new interest in the both regions in the east and south of Europe. Programme activities such as conferences, workshops and field trips aimed at fostering the academic exchange between scholars trained within the classical disciplines of social sciences and humanities and those affiliated with research centres focusing on Area Studies. In total, 91 fellows were awarded scholarships and grants; both empirically and theoretically driven research projects were provided with financial support. This group represents a great diversity of research questions and approaches, academic and social backgrounds (35 nationalities), institutional affiliations (58 universities in 15 countries), as well as geographical distribution of case studies (based in 36 countries). In addition, six fellows engaged in projects with comparative and transregional case studies, crossing, in their individual research, traditional boundaries and overcoming practical barriers such as the necessity of extensive language competences, i.e. in Russian and Arabic, and the need for a broad understanding and knowledge about the history of the regions as well as their long-term political, social and economic development.
The stories told under this programmatic framework result from research focusing on overarching themes: the search for new social contracts in times of mass protests challenging non-democratic regimes, the on-going state fragmentation and territorial disintegration, contestation processes, the new shape of the public sphere as well as transnational and regional factors of change. Most of the projects deal with case studies of modern political and social life and aim to overcome several traps: on the one hand essentialist and culturalist assumptions about the countries and regions studied, on the other hand the language of diplomacy frequently stuck into official narratives detached from the local and regional realities. All projects contribute to the confrontation with an “ambiguous East” in the public imagination (Lewis / Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography, p. 56). The neighbourhood remaining a sort of transitional zone between Europe and “the rest of the world” plays in this framework the role of the “constitutive other”. Its ambiguity results from the complicated history of the “East” as a concept: Originally it was referring to an area within Christendom, composed of lands of Byzantine and Russian churches. Later it became synonym for the “Orient” (today: Middle East and North Africa) and finally, in the Cold War discourse, the demarcated zone of communist regimes (today: post-Soviet space).
In February 2020, only a few weeks after his appointment as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell declared the urgent need for realism in the definition of the EU foreign and security policy and also referred to the imagined geography: “We Europeans must adjust our mental maps to deal with the world as it is, not as we hoped it would be” (Project Syndicate, February 8, 2020). In the same article he considered stability in Europe’s neighbourhood as one of the main challenges. According to him, the key priorities of the European Union are therefore to address crises in the East, the Middle East, as well as in the Maghreb and Sahel regions of Africa, and to face interdependences and transnational challenges. In this highly geopolitical and wider strategic context, “Trajectories of Change” can also be considered as an attempt to combine the critical revision of regional and transregional geographies with studies in entangled histories and examination of complex change trajectories. The goal is to foster an intellectual debate going beyond the ambiguity of the culturally constructed “East” and beyond the artificial divide between the eastern and southern European Neighbourhood.
Please find the first contribution by Žilvinas Švedkauskas to this series here.
Anna Hofmann is Head of the Research and Scholarship Department at the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius in Hamburg. Her work concentrates on research funding in Social Sciences and Humanities promoting international exchange, knowledge transfer and capacity building. She is particularly interested in migration, borders, urban and rural developments as well as social and political transformation in Europe and its neighbouring regions. Anna Hofmann holds a master’s degree in Economics und International Relations from the Cracow University of Economics and a Ph.D. in Social Sciences from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
Citation: Anna Hofmann, Trajectories of Change: New Research Projects on the European Neighbourhood, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.12.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26033.