The borders of Europe are often talked about in terms of Turkey’s eligibility for EU membership. And the memberships of the various ‘European’ organisations, on economic, political and security issues, offer us a pretty good sense of where Europe stops and Asia/Africa begins. But what if the wider European region reached southwards into the Sahara and eastwards into Arabia?
There is a glimmer of this prospect in the Desertec proposals for an integrated grid of concentrated solar power plants across North Africa and Arabia as a solution to Europe’s energy needs against a backdrop of the long-term need to reduce fossil fuel-powered energy. The project itself is more than just a dreamy whim, with major energy companies involved and detailed plans being drawn up. In this envisaged ‘EUMENA’ (Europe-Middle East-North Africa) energy region, tapping North Africa/Arabia’s solar potential offers affordable, low-carbon renewable energy as well as increasing diversity and security of supply.
These very practical advantages aside, what is intriguing about the longer-run prospect is what comes politically on top of the concrete benefits relating to energy and economics. Could some form of political integration follow and essentially bring a new region into being, as a consequence to energy interdependence?
For I start to think back to the beginnings of the modern European project, in bringing old adversaries France and Germany together in the European Coal and Steel Community, laying down roots in successive and deeper forms of cooperation out of which grew the European Community, and now the European Union. The ECSC certainly wasn’t intended as the beginnings of widespread continental integration and had more modest intentions, but (successful) cooperation creates its own dynamics.
Momentum builds up, not just because of the economic and material benefits involved, but invariably in a social way too, about the nature of the political relationship between the actors involved – changing conceptions about who ‘we’ and the ‘other’ are, opening the door to other forms of cooperation and integration in areas previously thought of as inconcievable; shared norms and modes of interaction start to accumulate into a complex of behaviour where the actors think of themselves as not just exchanging electrons, but constituting a community.
There’s a reference to this European parallel in the foreword by Prince Hassan of Jordan to the Desertec prospectus, where he writes: “This is an opportunity for the Mediterranean riparian regions of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (EUMENA) to form a community for energy, water and climate security – with some similarities to the Community of Coal and Steel established in Europe some 60 years ago – for a prosperous and peaceful future.”
He doesn’t push further, of course, and would risk ridicule if he did so. The immediate selling point of Desertec has to be in being a solution to energy needs. But if you take the parallel to its logical conclusion, it doesn’t seem completely ludicrous.
Energy isn’t just any tradeable commodity; as the lifeblood of any economy it takes on a special political significance. If, as foreseen, up to 40-50% of Europe’s energy supply comes from the EUMENA grid by 2050, it’d be hard to resist keeping the relationship as one simply between producers and consumers. This is very much long-run stuff. But the energy interdependence of the future may have unintended consequences in store for us.