The Obstacles to European Union Regional Policy in the Northern Ireland Borderlands

By Wilson, Thomas M. | Human Organization, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Obstacles to European Union Regional Policy in the Northern Ireland Borderlands


Wilson, Thomas M., Human Organization


The Europeanization of European Union (EU) member states seeks their economic and political integration, if not eventual federal union, within a common market. EU programs and policies have done much to inject capital into Northern Ireland, but little to weaken the hold of nation and state in local political culture. In fact, in the borderlands of Northern Ireland the boundaries between nations and states are more important than any metaphorical "Europe without frontiers." This essay examines a European policy program, INTERREG, which has enjoyed only partial success at the Northern Ireland border, in order to delineate some of the obstacles to the cross-border cooperation which is its goal. It also relates these obstacles to flaws in national and European policy making and implementation to inform wider research both in the anthropology of the EU and in the anthropology of international borders.

Key words: international borders, public policy, European Union, Northern Ireland

Anthropologists have come late to the study of policy in the European Union (EU). With some exceptions (such as Shore 1997; Shore and Black 1995) anthropologists have eschewed the analysis of EU policy making and implementation in favor of other topics in the evolution of the EU as a political, social, and economic system. In fact, the anthropology of the EU has been gaining considerable momentum since the early 1990s, which is not surprising given the great strides the EU itself has made in widening its membership and deepening its vertical integration within and among its 15 member states.1 Anthropological studies of the EU can be characterized (cf. Wilson 1998) as 1) those done "from above," i.e., from the perspective of its metropolitan centers and bureaucratic cores in Brussels and Strasbourg, and among the leaders and civil servants of the European Commission and the European Parliament (see, for example, Abeles 1992; Bellier 1997; McDonald 1996); 2) and those done "from below," i.e., from the perspective of local communities who experience the impact of EU policies, and who are the recipients of the EU's economic subvention and its attempts to foster a variety of forms of European consciousness and identity (see, for example, LiPuma and Meltzoff 1994; Wilson and Smith 1993; Zabusky 1995). But while some of these anthropological investigations at the local levels of the EU have focused on adaptations to the EU in everyday life, few have related these changes to specific EU policies and programs, and fewer still have addressed these policies' relative success or failure in localities and in the member states more generally.

This amounts to a particularly important missed opportunity in the applied anthropology of the EU, and one which is no longer defensible in an EU whose policies daily affect more than 350 million people. Anthropologists are among those best placed to research what the EU's economic agenda does, and means, in the everyday lives of its citizens and residents. This economic agenda, in turn, may be a force to achieve ever closer political union among the EU's present member states and also presumably among the many other states that subsequently join the EU. But while EU and national leaders, along with most scholars of the EU, concentrate on these twin processes of economic integration and political union at supranational and international levels, they largely overlook the impact of EU-building at local levels of member-state societies. In fact, European integration at any level will involve transformations in national and regional social structures, behaviors, and values if the European project (which is perhaps better conceived as often overlapping and sometimes contradictory European projects) is to succeed.

While it is clear that most public debate about the EU is concerned with its political and economic projects, which are seen to be driven by national and European elites, there is also a growing concern with the EU's role in globalization and its impact on the quotidian life of local and regional institutions and communities.

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