Europe At Sea ★★ review

by Nadia Bee

It’s a conundrum. What type of film is Europe at Sea? Ostensibly, it sets off as a factual documentary, in part observational: over a couple of years, filmmaker Annalisa Piras followed EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini.

The film opens dramatically.  The visuals are reminiscent of the opening of the first Bourne action film, where his inert body floats in dark waters. The music is insistent. A male voice-over states with certainty “In 2017, the world was more volatile than at any time since the second world war…

Europe At Sea; dir.: Annalisa Piras; UK 2017, 62 mins. Our Rating: ★★/5

This is a disconcerting statement for a factual documentary. The most obvious counter-fact to spring to mind is the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. That the state of the world is currently very uncomfortable, and cause for concern, is true.  That the world is currently at its highest volatility point since 1945? That is a big claim. It sets the tone, however, for the film’s stance. Piras’s concern, presented early on, is what she describes as the direct threat to Europe from nearby countries. To the East, and to the South, across the Mediterranean.

The voice-over continues…’The strategic picture has changed dramatically; threats are becoming more complex; the dividing line between war and peace is blurred’. There is a clue here, but one that probably only international relations and war studies specialists would spot.  The idea in this sentence is unattributed, but its source appears later in the film: the influential LSE academic Mary Kaldor. Interviewed, she talks of ‘new wars’ – a theory she is famous for. The blurred line between war and peace, mentioned in the voice-over, is part of the definition of those ‘new wars’ – it’s a technical term. The programme does not explain that, and to a degree, the nuances of what Kaldor alludes to are lost.

A quote by the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman, appears on screen, over the underwater shots. It’s his line about ‘liquid modernity’. In keeping with the watery theme, the filmmaker comments by way of a caption, that in ‘this new world of disorder, the European Union must also become more fluid’.

What Piras means by this, is not immediately clear. Perhaps – and this would be consistent with her narrative line as the film unfolds – she means that EU member states must be less nationalistic, and more cooperative.  This is however a world away from what Zygmunt Bauman was describing, when he coined the term as an alternative to the term ‘post-modernity’: he was describing a rather unenviable human condition, of dislocation, of becoming tourists in our own lives. The remedy for such a condition is unlikely to be increased fluidity.

This highlights an ongoing theme in the film – conceptual slippage. Piras purports to be making a film about Federica Mogherini’s mission, but builds instead a case for something else. As the film progresses, the widening divergence between Mogherini’s philosophy, and that of the filmmaker’s, Piras, becomes glaring.

In 2016, Mogherini launched the EU’s new Global Strategy – an aspirational document which followed on from the EU’s 2003 Strategy set out at that time by Javier Solanas. The earlier strategy, aiming to develop what was termed at the time a ‘Ring of Friends’ around the EU, is now considered a failure. In 2015, Carl Bildt – former Swedish PM – said in a speech that it had turned into a ‘Ring of Fire’.

The new Global Strategy’s key topics are security and defence, resilience, peace-building, regional cooperation, and governance. It takes the long view, inevitably, and covers a wide range of activities. Central to this is Mogherini’s role as a diplomat. The film is not clear enough that she does not have executive powers – early in the film it would be easy to misunderstand her role as having some power over the military, for example – but this is not the case. The remit of the EU seems also unclear in the film – this could even feed more misconceptions about it, as a result.

Piras’s own concern is to address migration, and ‘new wars’ – both issues relevant to Europe’s security; she focuses heavily and dramatically on those. In the film, the two topics seem to blur together – and are blurred further by the recurring use of animated maps – with added, rather menacing sound effects, and which appear rather inflammatory: the maps are reminiscent of those used in old history programmes, showing enemy hordes advancing upon Europe, and in one sequence, animated rings of fire. The literal application of Carl Bildt’s turn of phrase takes on a different significance in Piras’s illustration of it.  Piras’s point seems to imply that Europe is already at war. It is all a matter of nuance, and being clear about what is meant by ‘at war’. This film blurs the lines on this too.

The imagery here is very much the filmmaker’s, and is used to make a point that Mogherini – and Kaldor – just don’t make. Both Mogherini and Kaldor come from a cosmopolitan, democratic, humanitarian perspective. Mogherini’s philosophy, as she is clear in her interviews, is to always work towards finding common ground. As she states later in the film, her view is that it is possible to be both strong, and humane. Regardless of the amplitude of the issues with war refugees and migration, she is convinced that there is a common duty to save lives.  She states ‘If my neighbour has a problem, I have a problem’. By helping to solve her neighbour’s problem, she believes she will solve her own.

Mogherini and Kaldor both think the way forward is to assist with the long-term development of legitimate, democratic systems in troubled countries.  That is Mogherini’s explanation when the film follows her to Agadez, in Niger, as part of the EUCAP Sahel Niger programme. EUCAP is primarily a civilian mission, designed to help strengthen the rule of law in areas at risk; Agadez is a city which is now a hub for human migration – displaced persons as well as extremists. As Piras shows Agadez, in a further outing for her animated maps, as a route north for advancing hordes of men in Tuareg head-dress, Mogherini talks of the desperate plight of trafficked men, women and children, of slavery, of organ trafficking. Mogherini is concerned equally with Europe’s security situation as she is for the humanitarian crisis unfolding outside of Europe’s borders; she understands their complex relationship and that these go hand in hand.

The question of the EU’s economic protectionism, which does have a negative impact on its Southern neighbours and does compound the issue of illegal migration, is not explored in the film.

Meanwhile, Piras’s narrative implies that Europe is under siege; that all EU members must align; that the failure to do so is in all cases due to misguided nationalism. She points the finger directly at Eastern Europe and Great Britain. The result is that Mogherini is co-opted in this film to help Piras make a different, and cruder, point to the one she is actually pursuing. Mogherini’s mission, after all, is to develop policy frameworks, to engage in diplomatic work within the EU as well as outside, to perpetuate a long-term balancing act, and enhance readiness for developing challenges. This is not the same thing as putting most of a continent on war-footing. Mogherini’s objective is the rule of law, not the rule of force.

At first sight, Europe at Sea seems to be a factual documentary, but it soon becomes obvious that it is an advocacy film. This film, which looks expensive – high production values, a visual style somewhere between feature film and glossy corporate video –  is at times sensationalist, and sometimes even voyeuristic. An underwater sequence, showing a sunken refugee boat and human remains, crosses the line of decency. The camera lingers too much, the film lapses into prurience. It is highly doubtful that such shots would have been included, in that way, had the dead not been ‘other’.

This is revealing of another key aspect of the film: there is a hint of us-and-them running through it. Its attitude towards the ‘other’ is troubling. ‘Them’: the migrants and refugees; ‘Them’: Eastern Europe. And… ‘them’: Great Britain.  On two occasions, Piras inserts an unnecessarily hostile shot in the edit: a man in a Union Jack suit, bearing Union Jack flags, dancing in a somewhat foolish way in front of a building named ‘Little Britannia’. It’s the kind of belittling dig that speaks volumes about the filmmaker’s stance.

The repetition of that image does not help. While Mogherini’s approach is dialogue and negotiation – time-honoured tools of diplomacy, Piras seems to rush to condemn, and to insist that all must align because of an imminent threat.  Piras’s position is the kind of attitude that could make a Remainer re-think their views on Brexit.

Some will possibly accuse Europe at Sea of being a propaganda film, as happened when Piras’s previous film, The Great European Disaster Movie, was shown in the UK a couple of years ago. But it does such a disservice to the EU – it just can’t be.  It would be fair to say however that it is a campaigning film – not for the EU, but for the filmmaker’s own take on the European question.

To some degree, Piras is open about the film’s stance: it is linked to the ‘Wake Up Europe’ campaign, which in turn is associated with the ‘Wake Up Europe Foundation’. The latter states its agenda clearly: that it is an ‘educational charity that aims to raise public awareness of the dangerous trends currently under way in Western societies’.

Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.


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