Mediterranean Tipping-point? Focus on the Human Priorities...

med2globeThe current situation in Tunisia and Egypt, plus the gigantic after-shocks of revolt still spreading through other Arab countries, must surely prompt us to do some in-depth soul-searching on the mutual relations between Europe and the Mediterranean of the southern shore.


For a quarter of a century or so, an ambiguous, fragmentary DIY approach has mainly presided over the dealings of the European Union with the societies of this region. Europe's Mediterranean policy, as of today in full-blown crisis and verging on war with the long-courted Quadafi regime in Libya, has been more concerned with capitalising on the assets of proximity with our Mediterranean neighbours than with assuming any more uncomfortable responsibilities.

It has carefully cultivated an environment conducive to European economic interests, watchfully husbanding peaceful neighbourly relations with so-called stable regimes in southern and eastern Mediterranean countries, while simultaneously erecting ever more insuperable barriers against the flows of human beings. It has indeed become hard to recall that, prior to 1986, the circulation of human persons between the Mediterranean's southern and northern shores went practically free and unhindered. In 1996, at Barcelona, the then much-touted Euro-Mediterranean partnership did nothing to reverse this trend to slamming frontiers shut. It rather went to some lengths to definitively enshrine the divorce between economic and human flows in the Mediterranean zone, while hyping up the "cultural dialogue" as a means to alleviate the effects of this policy.

Despite the countless discourses on the urgent need to set about "building a common destiny" with the other riparian states of the Mediterranean, the Europe of Maastricht definitely opted de facto for the low road of separate human development. Obsessed by security concerns, this strategy is predicated on the implicit vision of an unbridgeable civilisational divide between the "European family of nations" and our "Muslim neighbours", grounded on the economic argument of preserving the irrefragable European standard of living. Vocal European support for Human Rights in such associate countries has largely remained disembodied and selective, unconnected with the rising expectations of civil society there. Openly flouting any such hopes, the creation of the Union for the Mediterranean succeeded the eerie exploit of associating the governments of the southern shore - mostly only too glad to comply - with the European policy of heavy policing and fencing in frontiers.  Launched in the framework of a French initiative free-styled by a President at the time riding the wave of the Mediterranean dream abroad, while at home being hardly loath to cater to populist anti-immigration feeling, the UFM was soon to fizzle out, with its General Secretary recently handing in his resignation. As for the Human Rights which we have so long unconvincingly lip-served, the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt have today at last taken them into their own hands and given them back life and meaning. They are most vocally claiming them from their rulers past and present, but also before the face of the world, and above all an astounded European elite. By thus returning the demands for freedom to the sender, i.e. Europe, with the impetus of a boomerang, they are most appropriately reminding us that we belong, not to two hermetically sealed, separate worlds, but to one and the same space, common to us all, including shared political and social aspirations

In such a context, the utter failure of realpolitik is finally an excellent thing. It is most expediently forcing Europeans clearly to reinitialise their attitudes towards the South. Either thy choose to further fortify their frontiers with their Muslim neighbours, relegating them to an essentialised ‘otherness', with as flip-side a regressive definition of European identity along de-universalised purely religious lines, or they must fully assume what has made them such close cousins to the societies of the south, that is to say, human and cultural geography, intense transnational links, and now commonly recognised aspirations. Because the Mediterranean is not only an economic, strategic, political, cultural, energy-based nexus of contiguous spaces, but first and foremost a human arena, an ever more unified space of interwoven mobility and civility, crying out to interconnect with that of the north. Herein must lie the crucial stake of Europe's commitment.

Reconfiguring that vital north-south linkage, also means for Europeans a unique opportunity to reconsider their own project under the auspices of a more globally open world. But such a challenge demands daring new departures in both political thinking and action, which have been grievously wanting among our decision-makers until today. In several European countries, among which France itself, the ambitions of the political class have currently been displaying the symptoms of terminal mediocrity, woefully devoid of any coherent long-term vision of the world. It is dearly to be hoped that the current revolution which is inexorably spreading among our nearby neighbours may represent that salutary tipping point which will at last enable us to reinvent together a common future with greater perspicacity, and open eyes.

Jean-Robert Henry is Emeritus Director of Research at the CNRS (French National Research Centre)/IREMAM at Aix-en-Provence

>Read French-language original version

>Read Michel Camau's article on Europe's responsability in the longevity of Authoritarianism in Tunisia

>Read William Pfaff's article in the New York Review of Books

>Read Alain Cabras's French-language article "L'Union pour la Méditerranée : être et dire"

>Read what Bloggers from Tahrir Square had to say

>Read Elodie Auffray's article: "Tunisia : "Social networks were a centerpiece of this revolution"

>Read Yasmine El Rachidi's Cairo Blog

>Read Olivier Roy's article "Revolution post-islamiste" on le monde.fr

>See World Religion Watch on Facebook