Neighbourhood Policy: Dark clouds over Mare Nostrum

22 March 2011
La Repubblica Rome

Initially ignored by Europe, the Mediterranean region was subsequently the focus of several integration projects, all of which failed to produce results. The current crisis, now striking its southern shores, is a testament to the need for a new approach.

The Mediterranean has lived through innumerable periods of peace: not least the pax romana which we can proudly claim was one of the most exceptional and long-lasting eras of calm in the history of the region. At the same time, it has also provided the theatre for a vast number of conflicts between different states, nations, cities, regions and beliefs. And these have continued to haunt the modern world, which has brought with it its own harvest of feuds, tensions, and full-blown wars: in the Maghreb, the Mashriq, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, and Palestine etc.

For many years, the situation in the Mediterranean region has been a source of concern in Europe. The European countries on the Mediterranean have failed to keep pace with their Northern European neighbours, while those on its southern shores have fallen even further behind. At the same time, states on both sides of the Mare Nostrum continue to have difficulty forging alliances with their continental partners.

Sisyphus remains the dominant mythological metaphor

When it was created, the European Union did not take into account the specific characteristics of the Mediterranean, and thus became a Europe separated from the “cradle of Europe” –  an adult deprived of a childhood, which inevitably had to contend with many obstacles to its development. Banal and repetitive explanations about the lack of progress in the region as a whole have failed to convince the peoples who live there, and if truth be told, those who propose these explanations have difficulty in believing in them themselves…

Northern Europe’s understanding of the present and future of the Mediterranean is based on a set of parameters that are not accepted by southern countries. In fact, they constitute two completely different interpretive frameworks. Even before the onset of the current conflict in the Maghreb and the Mashriq, the two sides of the Mediterranean had little in common, apart from a sense of dissatisfaction. Worse still, the sea that is so dear to our hearts has become a maritime frontier, stretching from east to west, which separates Europe from Africa and also from Asia Minor.

On numerous occasions, decisions that concern the fate of the Mediterranean have been taken far from its shores and without due account of the opinions of those who live there – a situation that has resulted in a certain number of frustrations and illusions. For many years, the region has been marked by a burden of dissent which continues to outweigh any prospect of consensus. And with this in mind, the figure of Sisyphus, who once again came to the fore in the thought of the 20th century, remains the dominant mythological metaphor that continues to define our era.

Localisms, regionalisms and so many other “isms”

Those who have advocated a holistic approach to the problems of the Mediterranean have made many attempts to involve the countries on its African shores in discussions on the future of the region. And in recent decades, their efforts have resulted in a plethora of plans and programmes: the charters drafted in Athens, Marseilles and Genoa, the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) and the Sophia-Antipolis Blue Plan which identified goals for the Mediterranean “until 2025”, the Tunis, Naples, Malta and Palma Mallorca declarations, and the Euro-Mediterranean conferences held in Barcelona, Malta and Palermo. All of these efforts – which were generous and praiseworthy in their intentions and encouraged and supported by governmental commissions and international institutions  – failed to live up to expectations.

When considering the shores and the territories of the Mediterranean, our perspective is invariably troubled by the weight of its history, and for this reason "the land of myths" has suffered greatly from its own mythology, which in turn has been taken up by other cultures.

Should we allow exasperation or resignation to prevent us from enumerating the ongoing threats to the shores of this sea? At a time when the Mediterranean Basin has been rocked by a war whose outcome is uncertain, I believe we should remain vocal about these dangers: environmental degradation, pollution, unauthorised construction projects, poorly controlled demographic flows, corruption, an absence of order and discipline, localisms, regionalisms and so many other “isms”…

War in Libya a continuation of the situation

We should also bear in mind that the Mediterranean region is not solely responsible for this situation. Its most noble traditions (those which combine art with art de vivre) have continued to struggle in vain against the scourge of corruption. The projects launched by the Barcelona Process – and in particular the partnerships that were one of its major goals – have failed to bear fruit. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempt to create a new "Union for the Mediterranean", which was overly hurried in its implementation, was also brought down by the disdainful response from the countries of continental Europe (and from Germany in particular). For as long as anyone can remember, the Mediterranean has been a problem to be solved that has yet to be addressed by a comprehensive project. While Europe has allowed fear of immigration to dominate its policy for an entire region, the countries on its southern shores have remained on their guard, nursing the wounds of colonialism. At the same time, the entire region has been a strategic priority but rarely an economic one. Sadly, the latest developments in North Africa, with the outbreak of war in Libya, amount to little more than a continuation of this situation. We can only hope that the “weak and oppressed” who have risen up against injustice and tyranny can be saved. Once this has been achieved, perhaps a new destiny will emerge for the Mediterranean – a brighter future which the peoples on both sides of the Mare Nostrum surely deserve to see.

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