The Mediterranean Union and the Geography of Closure

by Reda Benkirane



Aljazeera Centre for Studies, August 2008

Beyond the moment of hype and celebrity where the new-born ‘Union for the Mediterranean’ has been introduced on the world stage during the French National Day and its military parade, social scientists, researchers and other observers from the civil society could hardly identify any substantial matter behind the spectacular announcement and such a political show.

This position paper confronts Sarkozy’ Mediterranean dream with contradictory facts, deeds and words.

Arabic version published in Al Sharq, Qatar, 14-8-2008


This position paper reflects to a certain extent the position of social scientists and intellectuals from both sides of the Mediterranean who, unlike the political leaders of their countries, don’t feel any form of jubilation with the perspective of a ‘Union’ that ratifies the state of political, economic, social and cultural disparities prevailing in the region. Considering that France is leading this political project involving several hundreds of millions of inhabitants, many observers remain dubious about its ambition to succeed outside the Hexagon what it has systematically failed to do internally vis-à-vis its population of Southern Mediterranean origin.

This article shows that the novelty of this political process backed by EU might be, alas, more in the marketing approach of existing problems than on true innovative and transformative actions that would make the Mediterranean a more viable region for its populations.

The Union as a dividing idea

With the Paris Summit on the ‘Union for the Mediterranean’ held on 13-14 July 2008, we don't know precisely if this spectacular gathering of Heads of States is going to reinforce the European Union or divide it more regarding its general policy towards the South. We have no idea how long this last-minute proposed Union might survive after the departure of the current French president – most likely in 2012 – who remains at an exceptional level of unpopularity in the opinion polls a year only after his triumphal election. But what is certain is that the southern countries of the Mediterranean have been subject to a heavy political marketing when they are vainly seeking for a true prospective vision and a geopolitical strategy that would establish stability and sustainability in the region. In this respect, the main issue of any regional political institution of the Mediterranean is and will be the Palestine-Israel question. As long as a definitive peaceful agreement will not overcome, once for all, theIsraeli-Palestinian cancer – the mother of all conflicts in the region, security, stability and prosperity in the Mediterranean will remain a chimerical quest. It is on the Palestinian question that we might judge, in the last resort, the relevance of such an ambitious and spectacular Mediterranean initiative.

Every decade or so, there is a rise of attention and a particular political focus on the Mediterranean basin. It does not last for a long time but it makes sense if we consider the persistent and unresolved conflicts and wars that have deeply affected the development of this region during the last 60 years. Whenever this focus of attention resurfaces in the international arena, every nation surrounding the Mare Nostrum is suddenly diverted from its internal problems and external disputes: then political leaders are convoked and asked to reach a higher level of perspective and to rethink the region of so many different nations with diverging interests for a general reshape in the name of common values and a glorious past. The pattern is recurrent: generally this sudden focus culminates with an institutional process that once inaugurated is the beginning of the decrease of interest. Money is flowing along countless cooperation programmes, but quite rapidly the prospective vision and the political will which is supposed to sustain them shades away. Ten years pass, then the Mediterranean issue is raised anew as a common identity anchor and the whole cycle starts all again.

The project of a 'Union for the Mediterranean' (previously known as the 'Mediterranean Union' and later as the 'Union of the Mediterranean') initiated by French president Nicolas Sarkozy is not an exception to this historical recurrent trend. But this time the focus on a hypothetical political union is raising more questions and scepticism for the 17 countries bordering the old and polluted Mare Nostrum. With the re-launch of another post-Cold War Mediterranean cycle, one might think that effectively political maturation and evolution have led to this proposal on the international political marketplace. At this point, it is important to remind the context from which emerged this idea of a political Union. The so-called 'Mediterranean Union' surfaced a year ago during the last French presidential elections (April-May 07) when its author expressed it while campaigning as a candidate of the Presidential election against Turkey's candidature to the European Union. He presented it as an alternativesolution to his frontal opposition to Turkey's integration. So here is the true origin of this bizarre idea of creating an overlapping Union, partly European, duplicating existing EU programs. For Sarkozy, such a proposal, once backed by EU, would offer the advantage of solving the Turkish dilemma for all those that persist to think that out of 27 members, a non Judeo-Christian member does not have its place in the European Club. The French president may invoke the geographical factor; it is rather the religious and the cultural factors that motivate his views.

Geography of closure and politics of exclusion

Forget all the marketing political ideas that have been oversold to the Southern Mediterraneans regarding the necessity of being secularist in order to benefit from fully democratic nation-states, forget what has been claimed on the inevitable and irreversible modern distinction between the political and the religious and/or the cultural domains. It is only once a debate on the Christian heritage of Europe was engaged – where the Pope him-self was actively participating to the discussion – that such an odd political Union of minor Europeans (and their populist leaders) and old and poor Mediterraneans (and their autocrat rulers) became conceptually imaginable. In reality, from the moment political leaders started to talk about their wish to mention a (Christian) religious identity in the European constitution, EU was beginning to appear exclusive to its religious and cultural minorities, as well as to its 8 millions of Southern Mediterranean immigrants.

Because it is unthinkable for Sarkozy to admit Turkey as a plain EU member, he prefers to think about creating a political ‘Club Med’, an entity attracting enough where this country and other EU potential candidates (Morocco) or privileged partners (Tunisia) from the southern border of the Mediterranean Sea could evolve in parallel instead of seeking their future with or within EU. It is not enough to have built a demarcation line protecting the Shengen space from the savage immigration of the South, it is not enough to have the Spanish Guardia Civil monitoring its southern coast and the Italian Carabinieri chasing the African clandestine immigrants, it is not enough to ask the Moroccan and Tunisian authorities to do the dirty job of containing Sub-Saharan and North African migrants, now time has come to build something equivalent that would prevent nations-states to ask for their integration or for a privileged status in the European space. Europeans, who, beyond their rhetoric on human rights and world peace, remain political dwarfs and still refuse to adopt any form of economic protectionism to defend millions of jobs which are directly threatened by the quantity and quality of services and goods provided by India and China, have decided to protect themselves first from the Blacks, from the Barbarians and from Bedouins who believe in a faith that is presented almost officially as a religion of hatred.

For those who know a little bit Sarkozy's political pedigree, and in particular his provocative deeds and offensive words towards the Africans (like his outrageous Dakar Speech), the Arabs and the Muslims, the idea that he will promote a union between the Northern and Southern Mediterraneans appears as surrealist. How can we consider any proposition of Union from a politician known for his violent diatribes against French citizens of Arab-Muslim origin and who constantly denounces in the international arena Hizbollah and Hamas as terrorist organizations, and who, to make things worse, is in favour of a strong military response to Iran's nuclear program? It is he who, in a television debate, said about the second national religion that he could not tolerate ‘religious practices’ such as excision of women and people sacrificing sheep in their bathroom. How can we trust that he will promote peace and stability outside the Hexagon when it is he who is partly responsible of the youth insurrection in November 2005, when as the Minister of Interior he qualified the youngster living in the suburbs as 'racaille' (scum, rabble) and that France would need to clean them up with a 'karcher' (a brand of high pressure power washer)? How can we believe that he might succeed in any form of inter-religious dialogue, when we know his role and his responsibility in the institutionalization and the normalization of the French Council of the Muslim Cult (CFCM), the official structure that represents Islam and which is the political battlefield of Morocco and Algeria and is lamentably failing to represent the French Muslims and meet their democratic expectations? What kind of dialogue of cultures might be promoted when, on the other hand, it is he who invented and implemented – despite a massive opposition – the French Ministry of National Identity and Immigration, a governmental tool specially tailored to deal with the haunting French question of the 'Others' and the 'Non-Self'? To have an idea about the depth of the geopolitical knowledge of the former Minister of Interior, we can also recall that although he is raising whenever he can the danger of an objective alliance between Islamism and terrorism, he was unable to answer in a famous radio interview the question of whether Al Qa'ida is a Sunni or a Shiite organization.

France as the leader of the second rank Euro-Mediterranean nations 

How can we remove from the radar screen the typical signature of Islamophoby – which seems to be, since September 11, the preferred cultural sport of the French intelligentsia – expressed at the highest level of national politics when, for example, one of the candidates of the last presidential elections based his whole campaign on the denunciation of the ‘rampant islamization of France’, with his magic formula ‘Islam is the bedrock of Islamism, and Islamism is the bedrock of terrorism’. The embarrassing truth is that the 12-15 million Muslims in Europe are the Jews of the 21st century. In the same manner that European citizens of Jewish confession were held collectively responsible for the financial and economic crisis of the 30's of the past century (when in reality the overwhelming majority was ordinary poor), European Muslims are being considered as the followers of a religion responsible for all the contemporary violence on earth. Very few people in Europe see this accusation as utterly racist and unacceptable, most of the observers tend to mitigate this view by showing that there are 'good' European Muslims and very bad ones – in general those that are engaged in a more political Islam. How can we make European opinion leaders understand that political Islam is as vast, evolvable and nuanced (from conservatism to liberalism, from radicalism to secularism) as Islam is deep and wide, pluricultural and plurilingual, and religiously diversified in many schools of thought and of law? How can we make them realize that dogmatism is also in their perception of the contemporary Islamic question, in the very eyes of the observers?

The truth is that the world going multicultural and multipolar does no more need French views on universalism, because in reality the values of liberty, equality, fraternity – which never really concerned the populations that were colonized – do not apply today even for French citizens of Southern Mediterranean and African origins. France has not made the lucid and critical historical work of reviewing its harmful role in slavery and colonialism, and is unable nowadays to apprehend the challenge of cultural diversity in an increasingly complex world.

In a general atmosphere of financial recession, peak oil crisis, economic assault from Chindia, demographic ageing, there is a certain mental comfort in European salons to perceive contemporary complex and plural societies in terms of 'Self' and 'non-Self', 'Us' and 'Them', and to identify scapegoats in the immigrants or the religious minorities and to assign them the role of victims that have to pay the price for all the evils of the current times. Whenever the Europoliticians – who have to take into account the political weight of far right electorate – raise the Mediterranean fibre, they don't think for example of Islam as the past and possibly future matrix of interreligious and intercultural exchanges, of philosophy, science, technology and art. For them, the religion of one fifth of the world population evokes primarily violence, terrorism, bearded and veiled fanatics more than anything else.

In this sombre context, it is easy to understand that the idea behind an operative Mediterranean Union is to create a buffer zone where will be absorbed a certain number of fears and threats, where will be contained the demographic pressure from the South (300 millions of Arab citizens desperately seeking for alternatives to their pro-Western autocratic regimes), the cultural and political impact of Islam (which is a constant matter of detestation, repulsion and fascination), the economic and political pressure from China and India. In reality, we can consider this so-called Union as a consequential projection of Huntington's civilizational clash. More importantly, Sarkozy's dream consecrates the representation of the Mediterranean as the limes separating North and South, Old world and new terrae incognitae, the Civilized and the New Barbarians as described in the seminal book L'Empire et les nouveaux barbares (1992) of Jean-Christophe Rufin (current French ambassador in Senegal).

And Sarkozy’s politics, which looks as a late and pale copy of Aznar’s and Berlusconi’s pro-US neoliberal and neoconservatist politics, is leading France to become a follower of the US and a zealous agent of an Atlantist Europe. In this context, the 'Union for the Mediterranean' sounds like a major diversion operation that is sold like a visible counter-balance of the Atlantist EU inclination and of the American supremacy in the Arab world.

Because France is becoming – militarily, politically, economically, culturally – a second rank power, that it has no more the ideological means to counter US foreign policy in Europe, Africa and the Middle-East, one possible perspective of evolution is to make the country the leader of the second class countries in Southern and Eastern Europe. And the 'Union of the Mediterranean' is the kind of entity that can allow such theatrical gesticulation on the world stage.

A redundancy of the Barcelona Process, a duplication of Euromed existing programmes

European Union seemed divided regarding its position on the idea of the 'Union'. Germany, one of the major financial contributors to EU, was until very recently put aside from Sarkozy's personal initiative: the German government perceived this by-product idea of the last French presidential election as a factor of division inside EU. Spain which was deeply involved in the Barcelona process felt the same. But Germany has been successful in trying to give more substance to this empty concept of Union by putting pressure on Mediterranean countries in order to pursue the main goals and programmes of the Euromed Barcelona process.

The first significant institutional process around a true long-term political vision of the Mediterranean region is indeed the Euro-Mediterranean Conference held in Barcelona on 27-28 November 1995 which launched an ambitious Euro-Mediterranean partnership known as the 'Barcelona Process'. This Process which had to work on three main objectives (political stability and security, shared prosperity, cultural mutual understanding) defined political, economic and social relations between the countries of the European Union and of the Southern Mediterranean. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership engaged 35 members (25 EU countries and 10 Southern Mediterranean countries) and involved several billions euros in diverse programmes developing North-South collaboration.

At the time of the launching of the Barcelona process, a huge wave of optimism was spreading despite the Yugoslavian drama and the Algerian civil war. The Oslo peace process engaged between Palestinian and Israeli Authorities was at its beginning raising far more hope than scepticism. In this context, it was objectively funded to envisage that if the most important conflict of the Mediterranean region was on the verge to be solved through a political process, the vision of all bordering nations reunited through common interest and shared values would become reality. But the failure of the peace process and the beginning of Al Aqça Intifada were fatal to the spirit of the Barcelona process.

So what Sarkozy is currently presenting as a première is to a large extent – and thanks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's powerful and persevering efforts – a redundant Barcelona process and a duplication of existing programmes. One might notice that during the Heads of States Summit, the focus was less on the political vision than on concrete projects around security, counter-terrorism, trade, immigration and energy issues. The fact that the accent has been put more on programmes such as solar energy development, water policy and naval routes of navigation shows clearly that Sarkozy's initial Union has been considerably scaled down after the negotiations with reluctant but still influent EU members.

Failure and violence in the Mediterranean

Every summer, millions of pilgrims in quest of pleasure and high life start their minuted migration towards the Mediterranean beaches. The rest of the year, Europe celebrates the Mare Nostrum in museums and colloquial encounters. Beyond holiday postcards and tourist catalogues mirroring the glorious multicultural past, a rapid overflight of the Mediterranean space can scale the nature of its problems and the amplitude of its past and current divisions.

During the bloody decade of the 90's, we witnessed the collapse of former Yugoslavia which provoked an ethnic cleansing and massacres of Muslim Europeans of an unprecedented scale. Eastern Europe is still under the trauma of this destruction of a unique cultural diversity. Greece has still not resolved its conflicts with the Turkish neighbour which remains – even with the islamist government – an unconditional Atlantist ally that is desperately pursuing – maybe even against its own self-interest – an endless process of integration to EU while maintaining a high level of cooperation with Israel (in particular in the energy sector with projects of underwater multi-pipelines for crude oil, natural gas, fresh water and electricity lines) that may be the cause of future wars with the Arab countries. Syria has been systematically isolated and put under pressure by the American foreign policy – this strategy of isolation has lamentably failed – while this country is hosting millions of Iraqi refugees who flew from their country under US occupation and which has been the victim of a systematic destruction since the first Gulf War (1991). Lebanon has never fully recovered from its 17-year civil war and its state is more precarious than ever with a recurrent institutional process in search of a constitutional consistency. Beyond its occupation and the perpetuation of the Nakba tragedy, Palestine is enduring a new traumatic experience with a bicephalous authority and internal intestine confrontation. Israel has been completely misguided by a corrupted political class that has failed to propose alternative futures to its population after it has been unable to defeat either militarily or politically Hizbollah in its last war against Lebanon (July-August 2006) and Hamas in Palestine. Egypt and Libya share in common a political future highly unsure as long as it is locked in a dynastic political authority that Arab journalists call ‘jumlaka’ [contraction of jumhuriya (republic) and mamlaka (monarchy)]. Tunisia remains probably the most monolithic regime (praised by Sarkozy) while its Islamist opposition may be the most democratic and non-violent political movement of the Arab world. Algeria, rich of several dozens of billions of oil and gas revenues, is the theatre of urban hunger riots, and remains unable, 45 years after its independence, to build houses, hospitals, roads, railways to a frustrated population avid of prosperity, freedom and security. The Western Sahara conflict is a poison that have generated 30 years of tension with its Moroccan neighbour which remains, despite a promising democratisation process, a kingdom of social injustice where the very few have the maximum of rights, privileges, goods and capital. On the Northern side of the Mediterranean, Spain and Italy remain very sensitive to rightist ideologies which consider the South as the matrix of all dangers. And France, under Sarkozy’s presidency, seeks to conduct this odd and disparate set of nations that looks more like a mundane political 'Club Med' for populist and autocrat rulers than anything else.

Disconcerting and persistent paradoxes; when Europe pursues its unification, it encourages free circulation of goods and people within Shengen Space, but reinforces in a synchronous way the closing of its borders. The Mediterranean Union which will be endorsed by the European Union is a default project for all those who wish to maintain populations from Gibraltar to Bosphorus straits in the same political two-tier system with, in most of the cases, rulers that have no other legitimacy than the flaccid support of European chancelleries. European political leaders always claim to the Southern Mediterraneans that people are first and governments second but in fact they just consider the opposite as the natural prevailing order. The Union is rooted in the negation of the European vocation of Turkey, in the negation of the legitimate democratic aspiration of Southern Mediterranean populations, in the negation of the migration of potential young workers that could contribute to rebalance the demographic ageing and the weakness of European workforce. Sarkozy's Mediterranean dream is the consecration of the confinement geography, the inequality geography, the monologue geography.

In reality, the Mediterraneans are more interested in the next modernity that is taking shape in Asia than on what is happening in the old Europe. Populations are looking at what is currently happening in the Arab Gulf where new Venices are emerging as capitals of world business and diplomacy. New Mediterranean seas are emerging in the Arab Gulf, in the Indian Ocean and beyond the Malacca Strait. The Future is under construction in these regions, who still care about the Mediterranean?

The truth is that the Mediterraneans don't need a political union, since this project comes either too late or too soon; its initiator and advisers don't have the humanist approach, the intellectual calibre and the political insight to rethink the oldest basin of religions, cultures and civilizations.

Reda Benkirane

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