A new dawn for the Mediterranean
The Arab democratic spring: a new dawn for the Mediterranean
It is a little known fact that Barcelona sits about the same distance from Algiers than from Madrid. The Arab revolts are big news for the world and bigger news for Europe, and they might become a defining moment for southern Europe and the Mediterranean project.
The close links between southern European countries and their neighbours across the sea had their darkest side exposed by the Arab upheavals: the scandalous holidays of France’s elite at the expense of their corrupt hosts, Malta and Italy’s business dependence on the murderous Gaddafi family, Spain’s uncritical alignment with the Moroccan regime, all have been revealed to a great extent by the events of winter 2011.
Within the EU, southern states advocated engagement over conditionality and argued that a transformation would come from aid and dialogue rather than sanctions and tougher stances on human rights and democratisation. Seeing the full extent of their involvement with the North African autocracies, this now sounds like protection of their business partners rather than looking for effective strategies for transformation. Their position has thus been greatly weakened at a time when a Mediterranean drive from Europe is more urgent than ever. Who will again seek France’s expertise on Tunisia or Italy’s on Libya?
If the EU needs to rethink its Mediterranean policy, it is the southern member states that need to do the bold exercise of critical evaluation of their past practices before they can start taking their rightful role in assisting the transformation of their Arab neighbouring countries into democracies. This transformation will be a long and difficult process in which success will by no means be guaranteed and where setbacks, or even outright failure, can not be discarded. Temptations to focus on the short term effects – migration, instability, uncertainty – will be difficult to resist. But southern Europe must overcome that temptation and start to articulate a revised, mid-term vision for a democratic Mediterranean which they will undoubtedly benefit from.
What will that new future look like? Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain embody in their own individual way, a new, positive way of imagining the Mediterranean. The city has managed to balance maintaining some of the best aspects of the Mediterranean city (quality of life, friendly public spaces, tightly knit urban communities) and becoming successful in globalisation, an instantly recognised brand that evokes design, cosmopolitanism, excellence in sports and the arts, modern architecture and innovative urban practices. Catalonia is both typically Mediterranean – a tourist paradise, a massive producer of quality food products, a beacon of history and culture – and totally exceptional in the Mediterranean context – an industrialised country, a place for technological innovation, a confident player in the Europe of the regions. Spain’s transformation after the death of Franco may be distant in time, but conveys in the southern Mediterranean the image of a country close in culture and which faced comparable problems (the role of the military, religion and politics, violent terrorism, the heritage of a civil war), and therefore a more relevant benchmark than Central and Eastern Europe.
The spirit of Barcelona 1995, at the birth of the EuroMediterranean Partnership, coincides to a large extent with the aspirations of the young (and not so young) who have taken to the streets to reclaim their dignity. That is why this city, and its country, must help revive that spirit – one of transformation and partnership, rather than stagnation and complicity – and play a leading role in assisting the transitions that have just begun and which should bring to our Arab neighbours no less than what we already enjoy: democracy, rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression, respect for all sorts of diversity, a higher degree of equality and social justice, prosperity and a revival of our own culture with an open, cosmopolitan perspective.
Director of CIDOB