Skip to content


The project


BORDERLANDS: Boundaries, Governance, and Power in the European Union's Relations with North Africa and the Middle East is a research project that was funded by the  European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s  7th Framework Programme. Directed by Raffaella A. Del Sarto, the project ran from October 2011 to March 2017.

The project investigated relations between the European Union and the Mediterranean Middle East and North Africa (MENA) through the concept of ‘borderlands’. This concept emphasizes the disaggregation of the triple function of borders—demarcating state territory, authority, and national identity—inherent in the Westphalian state model. This process is perhaps most visible in Europe, where integration has led to supranational areas of sovereignty, an internal market, a common currency, and a zone of free movement of people, each with a different territorial span. The project explored the complex process by which the EU extends its unbundled functional and legal borders, together with its rules and practices, to its southern periphery, thereby transforming it into ‘borderlands’.

The project developed an innovative approach to the study of EU-MENA relations, supported by rich empirical evidence in the fields of security, trade, migration, and energy. The borderlands approach shows that exporting European rules and practices beyond the border is a cost-efficient way to pursue the security and economic interests of the EU and its member states, for which the stability of the southern periphery is crucial. Thus, the EU has been trading access to the internal market (which goes far beyond trade) for security and stability—without offering any political participation to MENA states. European policies have also aimed to co-opt MENA governments into the EU’s management of migration, counter-terrorism and border controls.

European policies have resulted in an asymmetrical and selective integration of MENA states into the EU’s internal market, in conjunction with rising socio-economic inequalities and the strengthening of authoritarian regimes in the MENA region (unless they are overthrown by popular revolts). However, these processes have also brought about a growing interdependence between the EU and its borderlands. As regards energy, counter-terrorism, and migration control, the EU is not only dependent on, but also vulnerable to, the actions of MENA governments. The recent refugee crisis also demonstrated that the ability to contain migration to the European core determines the composition of the borderlands. Borderlands are therefore not a fixed category; their configuration may change over time.

With regard to the Middle East post-Arab uprisings, the BORDERLANDS project confirmed that the traditional conception of borders is more of a fiction than a reflection of reality. Here, some borders have become more porous, allowing for a greater circulation and trafficking of people and goods. The changing control over many borders in the region and the emergence of new internal borders in some areas have also led to the empowerment of specific domestic groups. These developments have undermined the domestic sovereignty and territoriality of some states.

Finally, while EU-MENA relations have their specificities, some of the dynamics are observable in the EU’s relations with other parts of the world, such as Africa and the EU’s eastern periphery. Some aspects of EU-MENA relations are part of wider global trends, such as globalization and the neo-liberal consensus, which continues to define Western development policies.

In sum, the BORDERLANDS project entailed a profound rethink of the complex relationship between Europe and the Middle East. While proposing a novel approach to the study of these relations, it revisited the motivation of European policies towards the southern periphery, their practices, and the response and bargaining power of MENA states towards Europe. By conceiving of the EU and its member states as an empire of sorts, the project problematized the ‘normative’ aspect of the EU’s export of its rules and practices, focusing on unequal power relations instead. While challenging any black-and-white conceptions of EU-MENA relations, the project underscored the not-so-benevolent European policies towards MENA, the complex patterns of interdependence underwriting EU-MENA relations, as well as the centrality of the concept of borderlands for studying these relations. 





Raffaella A. Del Sarto - Part-time Professor at the Robert Schuman Centre and Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), SAIS Europe in Bologna, Johns Hopkins University.

In the course of the BORDERLANDS project, four part-time research assistants were employed, including three PhD students who completed their PhD while working with the project and one young post-doc. Moreover, three advanced PhD students, five post-docs and two research fellows worked with the project on a full-time or high part-time basis in the course of the project. Most of the full-time research assistants and associates worked for more than two years with the BORDERLANDS project, creating important synergies and lasting networks.

Project team members and collaborators included:

Jean-Pierre Cassarino – Part-time professor and Research Associate at the Robert Schuman Centre; currently researcher at the Research Institute on the Contemporary Maghreb (IRMC), Tunis

Johannes Jüde – Research Assistant; currently PhD candidate at the Department of Political Sciences, European University Institute

Johanne Kübler, Research Associate; obtained her PhD in May 2017

Mohamed Limam – Research Associate; currently Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Jendouba, Tunisia

Dina Mansour-Ille – Research Assistant; currently Research Fellow at the Orient-Institut Beirut, Lebanon

Jessica Northey – Research Assistant; currently Research Associate and Post Graduate Research Tutor at Coventry University, United Kingdom

Asli Selin Okyay – Research Associate; currently Senior Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), Rome

Ylenia Rocchini – Research Associate

Chiara Steindler – Research Fellow; Adjunct Lecturer at James Madison University Florence campus

Simone Tholens – Research Associate; currently Lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University, United Kingdom

Jan Völkel – Research Assistant; currently Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow at the Institute for European Studies, VUB, Belgium

Jonathan Zaragoza – Research Associate; currently project manager with a humanitarian NGO






Data and maps

The Borderlands project collected data on the plethora of cooperation patterns across different issue-areas that characterise relations between the EU and the MENA countries, that is, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Comprising both highly politicised and rather technical issue-areas and involving both territorial and functional or legal borders, the fields under investigation include security, migration, trade and internal market, and transport. In the different sectors, the legal framework and different types of cooperation programmes and activities were considered.


Visit the BORDERLANDS dataset




Page last updated on 16 April 2018

Go back to top of the page