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White Elephants and Cannibals through the Glass Wall of Policymaking in Euroland: Enlargement, Energy, and Infrastructure

0 Comments 🕔16.Sep 2015

This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.

Firat leader image

Danish wind turbines. Photo credit: CGP Grey.


by Bilge Firat

“EU Risks Wasting Billions on Gas Infrastructure ‘White Elephants.’” This was a recent headline in a leading European Union (EU) news portal. The study behind the headline, conducted by an environmental think tank, revealed that the EU’s gigantic funding portfolio for developing energy infrastructures was turning unrealistic as the demand for natural gas has fallen, contrary to the European Commission’s projections that it would soar by 2030. Many energy-hungry member states, like Germany, have begun to take efficiency measures and invest in renewable energy sources. The author of the study report argued that anticipated investment plans in developing European energy transmission lines put an unnecessary burden on limited public funds, as newly built infrastructures would remain heavily underutilized.[1]

This investment portfolio includes long natural gas pipelines, liquefied natural gas terminals, and storage facilities scattered around the wider European region and its peripheries. Plans for (re)developing Europe’s ailing and/or insufficient infrastructures for energy, transport, and telecommunications are projected to require 1 trillion euros. With these infrastructures, EU policymakers envision stitching lands and peoples of the member states together with EU’s ‘partners’ in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus. These include oil and gas-rich Algeria, Qatar, and Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, EU candidate countries like Turkey and Albania, and prospects like Ukraine, are busied blueprinting scenarios of how they can turn their lands and peoples into conduits between markets and resources.[2]

Just a few weeks before this report was published, concerned publics in Europe heard the future plans of the then EC president-elect Juncker with regard to merging several key EU policies under a single administration. Energy and climate action policies are now to be managed by the same directorate general (DG). In addition, a new Commissioner is assigned to manage the EU from the sole perspective of an energy union. This office will also supervise EU transport policy along with the Transport Commissioner. Two commissioners supervising one policy portfolio attests to the growing significance of energy in Europe’s political future, especially in the context of enduring economic crisis. In his changes, Juncker also announced the merger of two other EU policies that concern the Union’s external affairs: enlargement policy and the European neighborhood policy.[3] Unlike the policy merger of energy and climate change, however, the significance of external affairs seems to be low enough to get the job done with a single commissioner.

Enlargement became a separate policy area in the 1990s, when discussions of the EU’s future political shape and responses to the break-up of the Soviet Union jointly busied the talking heads of the Europolity. European neighborhood policy, on the other hand, was recognized as a distinct policy only in 2010. A policy can be narrowly defined as a discursive universe in which its actors and agents come together to negotiate and target selected issues for (usually governmental) intervention, with an apparent concern for common good, and devise the necessary toolkit to that end. From a critical perspective, however, a policy “is first and foremost an attempt to understand and decode a complex reality.”[4] Policymaking is therefore an engagement that requires a critical capacity to abstract and simplify what policy actors deem to be ‘reality out there,’ in order to shape it into real instruments such as laws, regulations, advisory reports, information notes, and so on. Because of this, those who offer interpretations of this ‘reality’ occupy central positions in policymaking processes. But these agents and actors are not necessarily operating from within a clearly demarcated policy universe, whose social boundaries are in fact obscured. Moreover, policymakers resort to ‘common good’ as they bend ‘reality out there’ according to the importance of interest groups with a stake in the process.

Hitherto administered by separate DGs, enlargement is now an added area of responsibility for the DG European Neighborhood while the DG Enlargement is being phased out. We are thus reminded once again that policymaking is a political process. Juncker himself was quoted as saying that the new College of the Commission had already begun its “very political” career. Enlargement is now in the hands of Johannes Hahn, the former Commissioner for Regional Policy and a native of Austria, which is an EU member state known for its ardent opposition to EU enlargements. In his exchange with the Members of the European Parliament at his hearing by the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), Hahn has asserted that “no further enlargement will take place over the next five years.” Even though individual countries may still join the Union in the future, today it is safe to argue that with this shuffling of policy portfolios, enlargement as an EU policy has come to an end. Perhaps, the term ‘policy cannibalism,’ referring to a situation where a set of policy actions eats up the resources and enthusiasm that are vital for another, may better characterize this situation. It seems that the EU’s interests in countries beyond its political borders have led it to revise its external relations and policy instruments, as European neighborhood and energy policies have ‘cannibalized’ the accession prospects of some EU wannabes even while opening up room for others to join the neighborhood, albeit without a ready prospect of political integration in the EU.[5]

These two seemingly unrelated developments – in the super- and infra-structures of the social lives of the EU, its member and non-member states, their peoples, and their right to dispose of their own land and resources in whatever ways they see fit – turn out to be very much entangled with one another. The next Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations alluded to this in this opening speech at his AFET hearing: “States in the Western Balkans must be better connected to each other. The region cannot be allowed to become a blank spot on the map for trains, streets and energy networks.” Evidently, not only are the Western Balkans now targeted for developmentalist intervention by EU policymakers, but so also are countries and regions from North Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East. In becoming a tightly connected region by means of material infrastructures and market laws, EU policymakers such as Hahn and his counterparts responsible for the energy and transport portfolios aspire to move energy commodities, information, money, and services with greater ease, without having to pay for the costs associated with such a flow. More often than not, such energy flows take place unidirectionally – suggesting that ‘extraction’ in the sense of hollowing out may better explain this move, rather than body-less ‘flow.’ Extractive economies around the world often sideline proper consultation with the local people, to whose detriment energy extractions are often planned and who lose their limited resources and precious say in the process.

Power lines stretch across rural Tureky. Photo credit: Yusuf Türker/ World Bank

Power lines stretch across rural Turkey. Photo credit: Yusuf Türker/ World Bank

If policymaking is also a ‘political act,’ then making, changing, or eroding policies (as in the case of the Juncker Commission’s downplaying of enlargement) “can be a vehicle for opening up [or foreclosing] issues, and allowing [or barring] a wider range of players to enter the game.”[6] It thus involves agency and, by implication, accountability, which remain, I would suggest, the most crucial angles through which anthropological studies of policy could instigate their own advocacy. For now, we only have to wait and watch which players are up to entering the competition in post-enlargement Europe. But already we can imagine many old and new diplomat-bureaucrats populating member and non-member states’ EU representations, along with officials from EU institutions and advisory bodies and their middle- and lower-level policy workers, many of whom are young and ambitious and come from all over Europe. They also have peers who come from all over the world in order to impact EU policies by way of exchanging information and interests for further influence.

Reporters mostly follow these exchanges. Along with public and private interest representatives and their followers, numerous others facilitate the policymaking infrastructures by cleaning up the building waste, fixing wires, and answering phones and e-mails. Each of these individuals has a role in the social infrastructure of the EU policymaking universe – of course, class differences among them are never breached. Their relations of power and interest are also quite complex and socially dense. Leading professional lives centered on the Commission, the Council, and the Parliament, they meet in the rooms and hallways of these institutions or share meals in the nearby restaurants in Brussels – intimately human behaviors. Policymaking infrastructures in the EU take both visibly material forms such as buildings, computer wires, and paperwork, and materially invisible, ephemeral, elusive, and transient forms of electronic and bodily communication. Policy actors’ formal and informal exchanges of interest, information, and influence turn the EU’s policy landscape – with its colossal material and social infrastructure – into a gigantic marketplace.

Two decades ago Joan Vincent remarked that “political anthropology has never distinguished itself by researching the corridors of power.”[7] Unlike political scientists, political sociologists, or policy and international relations scholars, political anthropologists still do not differentiate themselves by researching power, but that does not mean that there is no interest or expertise among anthropologists concerning the deeds of the powerful. Today anthropologists and other ethnographers are much more at ease with the corridors of power – albeit with room for improvement. George Marcus’s promotion of mobile (multi-sited) ethnography and his asking us to follow the object, the conflict, or the plot are by now classics of fieldwork – not just for anthropologist but also for other ethnographers.[8] Mobile ethnography can still be locally embedded, or “strategically situated” in Marcus’s terms, as long as the ethnographer aims to unpack the sometimes congested but otherwise piled-up cultural realities wherever they transpire. The policy ethnographer must also attentively observe what does not visibly transpire, for often the absence of a phenomenon is as meaningful as its visible presence. With regard to studying policymaking processes ethnographically, the social and political relationships between formal and informal policy actors and agents; the many means and instruments they use in their communicative exchanges of information and influence; the interests they represent and help shape; their vocal advocacy, manipulative strategies, and silences in policy negotiations; and their material forms provide productive avenues for policy ethnographers. Interests, motives, aspirations, and disinvestments, are surely elusive concepts, but they often take material, if not, ethnographically observable forms. Some of these are expressed discursively, as in policy and political talk, and in textual policy advice; others can be non-discursive, as in bodily behavior indicating consent or discord.

It is often said that bureaucrats and other policy workers are ‘too busy’ to talk to outsiders.[9] ‘Too busy’ is of course shorthand for someone who does not immediately see why they should spend valuable time and energy explaining what they do to outsiders, from whom they rarely receive a return. During my fieldwork on the role of lobbying in Turkey’s Europeanization, I met many policy workers; none of them failed to answer my requests to meet and talk. Some were even enthusiastic about talking to an anthropologist. Perhaps because of many years of criticism about a democratic deficit; or after developing closer encounters with lobbyists and other interest representatives; or because they are simply well compensated, many policy actors in Brussels are now quite open to outside contact, including contact by academics. Many of my interlocutors welcomed me into their offices in EU institutions and elsewhere. In our talks about how, where, and why they do what they do, and what they observe others doing or not doing, it would have been very naïve to assume that they shared with me all the intricate details their jobs revealed to them. With others, I assumed a more militant approach: on several occasions I intercepted the exchange of hands between policy workers and lobbyists and wrung out of them important information about political negotiations that took place behind closed doors. Most commonly, political negotiations of delicate interest are carried out in the private life of politics, which is surely accessible through ethnographic means.[10]

Experience and expertise gained from that research enabled me to focus on the cross-border development of energy transport infrastructures between the EU and fossil-fuel rich countries via Turkey. The now-defunct enlargement policy was really a meta-policy, or a policy of policies, as it brought together all policy portfolios under the Commission’s supervision in one pot, in the interest of expanding the EU’s political borders outward. Because of this, one might think that the end of enlargement as it actually existed in the Europe of the EU signifies the loss of interest in new lands. But this is hardly the case, for the policy directions by decision- and policymakers of the EU, its member states, and non-EU countries indicate a changing but very present interest in energy transport networks between resources and markets. Especially since the EU-Turkey accession negotiations turned into a death spiral, thus eclipsing any hopes for actual political integration, Turkish policymakers are looking at alternative ways to make their people, land, and resources useful to the EU; they are joining arrangements for material integration with the EU by means of integrated energy and transport infrastructures, in order to supply the future energy needs of EU member states.

To be sure, Turkish interests in reducing the country’s severe dependency on imported energy resources is a strong factor in these developments. So are the many tons of crude or poorly refined oil and electricity that are smuggled through Turkey’s eastern and southeastern borders with Iran and with now ISIS-controlled Syrian villages by means of makeshift pipelines, illegal wiring, truck convoys, and other mobile technologies.[11]

But if the predictions of the study with which I began this piece are well founded, then many of the immobile energy infrastructures like oil and gas pipelines, bridges, tunnels, canals, road and rail networks, air and seaports, container terminals, and power plants – currently or soon-to-be under construction in Turkey – are prospective white elephants. A cursory look at the history of Europeanization in the region suggests that material integration precedes political integration. But never before has this been tried in a context where hopes for the latter have drained away. Misinterpreting and misrepresenting real grassroots interests in the EU surely will not cost Turkish politicians and policymakers from the Left to the Right much.[12] They have so far managed to remain immune from debates or demands regarding democratic accountability, as attested by their violent response to mass Gezi protests and more recently to protests about their policies regarding Kobanê. But the cost of nurturing such white elephants in Turkey will unfortunately come out of the pockets of the poor.


Bilge Firat is Assistant Professor at Istanbul Technical University and Visiting Assistant Professor at Binghamton University. Her research focuses on power, politics and policymaking in Europe both at its centers and in its peripheries, primarily in Turkey. She is currently researching infrastructural developmentalism in the areas of energy and transport around Bosphorus. She can be reached at or


This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.


[1], September 23, 2014, <>; for the full report, see <> (accessed October 16, 2014). More recently, the European Court of Auditors reached a similar conclusion with regards to air transport investments, see its special report “EU-funded airport infrastructures: poor value for money” available at <>, accessed on December 16, 2014.

[2] Since late 2005, Turkey has been negotiating accession with the EU. Ukraine signed an association agreement with the EU in March 2014 that caused political and energy crises between them, the EU, and Russia, which supplies one third of European natural gas. In June 2014, the European Council opened membership talks with Albania. For the Commission’s plans for infrastructure development, see Energy Infrastructure Priorities for 2020 and Beyond (available at <>). I talk more about Turkey’s ambitions for connecting Eurasia with Europe by means of large-scale energy transport infrastructures in my article “ ‘The Most Eastern of the West, the Most Western of the East’: Energy Transport Infrastructures and Regional Politics of the Periphery in Turkey,” forthcoming in Economic Anthropology.

[3], September 4, 2014, <> (accessed October 16, 2014).

[4] Claudio M. Radaelli, Technocracy in the European Union (London: Longman, 1999). For some of the points raised here on policymaking, see my “Crisis, Power, and Policymaking in the New Europe” article in Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 23, no. 1 (2014); for a brief history of the EU’s enlargement policy, see my “The Accession Pedagogy: Power and Politics in Turkey’s Bid for EU Membership” in the same issue.

[5] For ‘policy cannibalism’, see Tom Burke’s “Cameron’s Policy Cannibalism: Economic Policy Eating Environment Policy,” available at <>. For Hahn’s statement, see <>. For Juncker’s priorities, see, September 11, 2014, <>.

[6] Hal K. Colebatch, Policy (Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2002), 3.

[7] Joan Vincent, Anthropology and Politics (Tucson: Arizona University Press, 1990), 400.

[8] George E. Marcus, “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24, no. 1 (1995): 95–117. For using mobile ethnography in critical urban geography, see Tim Creswell, “Mobilities II: Still” Progress in Human Geography 36, no. 5 (2012): 645–53.

[9] Catherine Marshall, “Elites, Bureaucrats, Ostriches, and Pussycats: Managing Research in Policy Settings.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 15, no. 3 (1984): 235–51.

[10] I am currently writing an ethnography of off-stage/on-stage policy and political negotiations between the EU and Turkey, entitled Turkey’s Europeanization and the Private Life of Politics in Brussels.

[11] Fehim Tastekin, “Turkish Villages Smuggle IS Oil through Makeshift Pipelines,” Al-Monitor, September 15, 2014, available at <>.

[12] In May 2015, the main opposition party in Turkish politics announced its own version of infrastructural developmentalism as part of its national election campaign, which hardly differed from that of the government. See Hurriyet Daily News, June 13, 2015, available at>.

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