The EU’s Diplomacy for Science in the Southern Neighbourhood: Setting a Research Agenda

Zane Šime |

Original date of publication on the UACES Ideas on Europe platform: 15 October 2019

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


The outlined science diplomacy research project is presented with a full appreciation of Adler-Nissen’s concise observation that ‘over the last 50 years, European states have come to view their nations as anchored so deeply within the institutions of the EU that their diplomats merge the promotion of national interests with those of the Union and states begin to speak with one voice’. ‘Science diplomacy’ is a term coined approximately ten years ago in order to launch a more in-depth discussion on the relations between science and diplomacy in shaping international ties. European Union (EU) is no stranger to science diplomacy. However, the overall pool of scholarly examined case studies remains rather thin. There is room for more insight into how individuals in various professional circles practice science diplomacy. This article provides an outline of how an analysis dedicated to the EU science diplomacy in the Southern Neighbourhood with a particular focus on Morroco (MA) and Tunisia (TN) throughout the time frame of 2014 – 2017 would contribute to the overall examination of science diplomacy, as well as establish ties to other topical theoretical strands of EU studies.


Science Diplomacy as a Component of the EU’s Structural Diplomacy

Since science diplomacy is not a term which would be widely integrated into the EU documents, the practices of this form of diplomacy, including those that are sometimes described as ‘public diplomacy’ or ‘academic exchange’ become the logic subjects for further examination. The implicit science diplomacy is understood as policies and implementation measures which are not called ‘science diplomacy’ but correspond to the basic definition of one of the three taxonomies of science diplomacy. ‘Diplomacy for science’, meaning, diplomacy exerted to establish cooperation agreements either between governments or certain institutions allowing one or several of the parties involved to benefit from ‘foreign science and technology capacity in order to improve the national capacity’ (Šime, 2018, p. 4; Van Langenhove, 2017, p. 8), is worth exploring in the European Southern Neighbourhood Policy context throughout the selected time frame of 2014-2017.

The novelty of such a choice or research project is its endeavour to enrich both the academic and policy expert thinking on the evolving ‘diplomacy for science’ understanding in the EU setting and embed it in a wider theoretical framework of structural diplomacy. In order to acquire a more nuanced understanding how the institutional set-up influences the perspectives of EU-based actors towards cooperation with the peer institutions located in the selected countries the actor-centered institutionalism is chosen as another theoretical building block. It implies analysing activities of certain entities as the causal link between macro-level processes and the governance regulations (Marks, 1996, p. 23).

Structural diplomacy, being an instrument of structural foreign policy, is a process of dialogue and negotiation by which actors in a system seek to influence or shape sustainable structures in the various sectors in a specific geographical area (Keukeleire & Justaert, 2010, p. 3; Keukeleire, Keuleers, & Raube, 2016, p. 200). Structural diplomacy and structural foreign policy are worth employing, firstly, due to a full appreciation of the funding schemes managed by key institutions representing the EU (namely, the sectoral Directorates-General of the European Commission), which ensure practical implementation of its defined external relations, such as the multilateral or bilateral agreements, corresponding funding programmes (Keukeleire, 2003, pp. 31-32, 49-50).

Secondly, the choice of structural foreign policy is motivated also by the acknowledgement that it is implemented with milieu goals (Keukeleire, 2003, p. 46) or endogenous local contexts (Keukeleire & Delreux, 2014, p. 30; Keukeleire & Justaert, 2010, p. 8; Keukeleire et al., 2016, p. 204) in mind, associated with support for evolution of long-term structural changes with permanent results (Keukeleire & Delreux, 2014, p. 28; Keukeleire & Justaert, 2010, p. 3; 2012, p. 2). In the Southern Neighbourhood, as some of the key context-specific traits the efforts directed towards promoting stability (Börzel & Lebanidze, 2017, p. 23) and state-building (Börzel & van Hüllen, 2011, p. 6) should be mentioned.

The research project is not preoccupied with the earlier identified democratisation-stability dilemma (Börzel, Dandashly, & Risse, 2015, p. 7; Börzel & Lebanidze, 2017, p. 23; Börzel & van Hüllen, 2014, p. 1040). Instead it focuses on the stability-enhancing activities stemming from the ‘volatile dynamics of change’ (Bouris & Schumacher, 2017, p. 293), namely, the geopolitical developments which EU’s envisaged ‘ring of well governed countries’ (Barbé & Morillas, 2019, p. 5) or (later on rephrased as) ‘ring of friends’ (Börzel & van Hüllen, 2014, p. 1035) transformed into ‘the ring of fire’ (Blockmans, Kostanyan, Remizov, Slapakova, & Van der Loo, 2017, p. 136; Bouris & Schumacher, 2017, pp. 85-86; Gaub & Popescu, 2015, p. 5), leading to a full awareness about a policy problem and the overall acknowledged urgency to address such instability of the EU neighbourhood via dialogue on certain assistance measures. It is worth adding that the severity of the situation has been commented with even grimmer assessments that the EU’s choice of promoting ‘resilience’ was directed more towards stabilizing ‘itself’ (Barbé & Morillas, 2019, p. 8), thus shifting more towards the internal dimension of the ‘intermestic sphere’ (Bremberg, 2010, p. 170) characterising the Mediterranean space.

Furthermore, due to the continuous instability risks posed by the youth bulges (Gaub, 2019, p. 11), higher education and research sectors are selected from the whole panoply of ‘intermestic affairs’ (Barbé & Morillas, 2019, p. 13) in order to acquire a more nuanced insight into the practical developments supporting the above discussed policy goals.


Mare Nostrum’s Community of Practices

The proposed science diplomacy research project follows the whims of the ‘practice turn’ in EU studies (Adler-Nissen, 2016). It supports the arguments of Adler-Nissen and Didier Bigo (2011, p. 251) about Bourdieu’s relevance in exploring the individuals as ‘liaison agents’ who shape the characteristics of international ties by mediating and refracting elite policies (Adler-Nissen, 2016, p. 11). Thus, the aim is to look beyond the elite diplomatic circles in order to explore how the high-level discourses are echoed in the working-level routines of EU funded higher education and research cooperation.

The theoretical configuration taps into an earlier identified potential of new institutionalism to offer theoretical integration opportunities (Scharpf, 2000, p. 762). Due to the fact that both structural diplomacy and actor-centered institutionalism have several commonalities with most reflections on the future EU ‘diplomacy for science’, stronger ties to both schools of thought would allow accelerating the conceptual honing of this strand of the EU science diplomacy. In addition, adding a practice theory theoretical component to this constellation tallies well with the focus on implicit science diplomacy developments following the actor-centered institutionalism’s approach to ‘interaction-oriented policy research’, where ‘actors and their interacting choices, rather than institutions are assumed to be the proximate causes of policy responses’ (Scharpf, 2000, p. 764). The conscious or unconscious practitioner of science diplomacy is placed in the limelight.

Communities of practice are understood as ‘like-minded groups of practitioners who are informally as well as contextually bound by a shared interest in learning and applying a common practice’ (Bremberg, Sonnsjö, & Mobjörk, 2019, p. 626). Thus, the research project is founded on a theoretical assumption that EU funded project managers share certain common traits in their working habits which are aligned with the requirements defined by the EU funding schemes. The research project seeks to draw some generalisations what such a community of practice delivers vis-à-vis the overarching goals set in the key policy documents.


Scoping the Empirical Field

In Bourdieusian terms, the EU is considered as the transnational field which is characterised by certain permanent institutions (Bigo, 2011, p. 248) – Directorates-General of the European Commission and other services – which through the funding programmes (as the practical implementation means of the EU strategic frameworks) creates certain ad-hoc institutions – projects – aimed at accomplishing specific tasks by a defined set of consortium members within a limited time frame.

In order to render the empirical examination comprehensive, yet not too vague or overstretched, the roles of four EU institutions – European External Action Service (EEAS), Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD), Directorate-General for Education and Culture (DG EAC), Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) – would be put under the magnifying glass in terms of exploring the projects funded by their overseen programmes. Those would be the EU-MA and EU-TN Annual Action Programmes overseen by DG NEAR (as integral parts of the European Neighbourhood Instrument 2014-2017), Erasmus+ of DG EAC and the Framework Programme administered by DG RTD. Projects’ coordinators are the selected community whose practices in terms of perspectives on and experience in cooperation with MA&TN-based institutions are worth exploring in order to get a better understanding what judgements and lessons learnt form certain basis of the EU ties with the EU Southern Neighbourhood in higher education and research sectors.

The outlined EU institutions would be analysed with an awareness of one policy area requiring the engagement of several Directorates-General (Glover & Müller, 2015, p. 33; Šime, 2018, pp. 10-11), which does not necessarily translate into frequent policy innovations and new policy constellations due to the overall policy inertia and a general preference of status quo characterising multi-actor policy systems (Scharpf, 2000, pp. 768-769). Since none of the four EU institutions has been tasked to pursue science diplomacy, let alone diplomacy for science, the chosen conceptual constellation allows elaborating on the EU’s multiple voices (da Conceição-Heldt & Meunier, 2014), namely, what role EU-based research and higher education institutions acting as Lead Partners or Coordinators of EU funded projects play in the overall EU implicit science diplomacy exerted in relations with MA&TN throughout 2014-2017.


Priorities of EU Institutions in Short

The DG NEAR’s European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) 2014-2017 defines three priority sectors, none of which entail clear references to research, science or innovation. The EU puts emphasis on ‘socio-economic reforms for an inclusive growth, competitiveness and integration; strengthening fundamental elements of democracy; sustainable regional and local development’ (European Commission, 2018). The thematic focus of the EEAS on building the societal resilience in the European Southern Neighbourhood and DG NEAR pursued three priority sectors are not treated as the EU dialogue and practical cooperation with MA&TN lacking any component of science, research or innovation.

The leverage to such lack of domain-specific prominence is DG RTD and DG EAC continuous engagement of MA&TN in initiatives funded by the Framework Programmes and Erasmus+. It allows placing the ENI 2014-2017 initiatives and resources allocated to their implementation via EU-MA and EU-TN Annual Action Programmes as the benchmark to test whether research and higher education-related engagements funded by other EU programmes offer more opportunities. Those would be DG RTD’s Framework Programmes’ funded measures, such as BLUEMED and Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, especially in view of the comparative difference between the chosen cases. Namely, TN is an associated country of Horizon 2020 but MA does not enjoy the same status.

In order to enhance the structural dimension of the empirical analysis, the acquired data on the EU funded projects, where MA&TN are involved would also explore their segmentation, whether certain sciences were benefiting more from the EU offered cooperation and learning of good practices than others, thus potentially contributing more to the capacity building in certain sectors of socioeconomic value to both countries.

Moreover, the depth of analysis would not stop only at the examination of the statistical landscape of project engagements. Through the exploration of Coordinators and Lead Partners’ assessments of the engagement of MA&TN institutions in specific projects, a more nuanced understanding would be obtained about MA&TN capacity of learning and strengthening their research and higher education institutions via project engagement. Therefore, the research project aims at exploring not only the scope and science domain-specific coverage of MA&TN engagement in the EU funded measures, but also to analyse whether the experiences obtained through the implemented projects have been judged by the EU-based managers responsible for the project implementation, namely, to bring tangible benefits in the capacity-building of MA&TN-based research and higher education institutions.

This line of enquiry into the perspectives widely shared among the selected community of practice follows the conceptual logic of diffusion, especially its dependence on recipients, which, along the lines of the bounded rationality, are presumed to follow the ‘instrumental rationality or logic of consequences’ (Börzel & Risse, 2012, p. 5), as active shapers of results (Börzel & Risse, 2012b, p. 204). Thereby, strengthening the research potential and building capacities of research and higher education sectors in the Southern Neighbourhood is not just a matter of the EU’s proactiveness, but also depends on the responsiveness of MA&TN institutions to use the whole set of cooperation opportunities and ensuring the sustainability of project results.


Keeping the Focus on the EU

According to the new institutionalist logic of a bounded rational actor (van Lieshout, 2008, pp. 8-9) pursued along with the established social norms and values (Maggi, 2016, p. 22), the research project would explore what role the EU engagement both in the bilateral and multilateral dialogue on science, cooperation with MA&TN in this domain, play in the overall EU’s attempt to enhance resilience in its southern neighbourhood.

In order to keep a healthy level of focus and nuance ‘the target country perspective’ (Keukeleire & Justaert, 2010, p. 19) and three conceptualisations of alignment (Keukeleire et al., 2016, p. 205) – the value brought by an engagement in the EU funded projects of MA&TN researchers and higher education staff as seen from their own perspective – are kept outside of the scope of this specific suggested analysis. Instead, the emphasis is kept on exploring the perspective of EU-based institutions on their ties with the peer institutions in two selected countries of Southern Neighbourhood.



Besides the acquisition of earlier described statistical data on projects implemented throughout 2014-2017 with the financial support of three EU funding schemes, the semi-structured interviews will give a new impetus to the research on the recent rediscovery of the value of Jean Monnet method in Northern Europe in advancing the EU goals (Ekengren, 2018). The selected method of interviews follows, the logic elaborated by Emanuel Adler and Vincent Pouliot: ‘Not only is language the conduit of meaning, which turns practices into the location and engine of social action, but it is itself an enactment of doing in the form of ‘discursive practices’’ (Adler & Pouliot, 2011, p. 6). The interviews serve as a way of exploring how project managers are walking the talk.

Self-censorship and self-legitimation (Adler-Nissen, 2016, p. 15) presented by the interviewed Coordinators and Lead Partners of EU funded projects and their narrated overall contextualisation (Adler-Nissen & Kropp, 2015, p. 164) of MA&TN engagement would be a good source of comparative insight between working-level deliverables and framework goals set in key EU policy documents and promoted among the EU’s high level representatives.


Ready to Look Beyond the ‘Golden Carrot’

To conclude, the outlined science diplomacy research project is crafted to take a fresh look at the earlier findings on the EU Southern Neighbourhood. It avoids the blind following of the assessment of Keukeleire and Justaert (Keukeleire & Justaert, 2012, p. 2), as well as Börzel and her colleagues arguing for the crucial role of the ‘golden carrot’ – EU membership (Börzel & Schimmelfennig, 2017, p. 278; Börzel & Hüllen, 2011, p. 7), namely, that the EU external action has less of an influence vis-à-vis those countries to which it cannot offer EU membership as the ultimate reward. A more nuanced insight into the stabilising efforts exerted via capacity building in higher education and research might offer some new food for thought, whether this assessment is still valid in the contemporary setting.



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