Inventing a cooperative identity

After World War II, the Mediterranean concept flourished because of the interplay between anti-American trends in southern Europe and Cold War alignments. France–as a country with persisting great power ambitions–and a number of political groups in southern Europe, such as leftist parties in many countries and the left wing of the Christian Democratic Party in Italy, tried to create a sense of Mediterranean solidarity so as to contrast it with the strongly emerging role of the United States in the area. From the global point of view, the Cold War objectively brought together former colonizers and colonized under the umbrella of communism or anti-imperialism. These political trends were based on a Mediterranean identity ideology, which proved attractive and helpful even for non-state actors, e.g., the emerging Italian oil company’s struggle against the “seven sisters" (international oil conglomerates), and Vatican policy towards the Terra Santa.

The Mediterranean ideology slipped into the European Community because of the overwhelming French influence on everything concerning former colonies–in particular, development aid to African and Mediterranean countries. In 1972, Brussels technocrats, always under French influence, launched the “politique méditerranéenne globale” (in the sense of "comprehensive") with the aim of homogenizing policies towards the countries in the region and rationalizing their management. It was a hub-and-spoke policy, and was construed as the expression of the special Mediterranean solidarity existing between Europe and the southern Mediterranean countries.

This Mediterranean geopolitics is solely Europe’s. During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States used to distinguish on strategic grounds between western North Africa and the Middle East, the latter a huge area stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the upper Gulf. Today, particularly in American eyes, the Middle East has enlarged into the Greater Middle East, with the Maghreb remaining aside, and Europe retaining its Mediterranean policy by developing it into a "Mediterranean Partnership". The strategic and geopolitical reality of the Mediterranean, however, is fragmentation and opposition, with conflict flashing here and there.

While Mediterranean identity is an invention, this is not a good reason to reject it. People have many identities, some of which are obviously bound to prevail. Any cultural or political attempt to make people believe that there is a prevailing “natural” identity (e.g., if one happens to be Italian he/she has to believe in "my country, right or wrong”) must be rejected. We have many identities, many riches, and we are responsible for choosing those identities that fit, with a view to the public good and making human solidarity prevail.

In this sense–and admittedly in a very rationalist perspective–a Mediterranean identity can be of very good use. After the end of the East-West confrontation, the attempts made by the European Union to upgrade its Mediterranean policy–the Barcelona process–reflect a number of objective changes and emerging trends in the area. In this sense the setting up of a Mediterranean framework sounds like a good suggestion. In fact, the most significant such trend would be the peaceful cohabitation in Palestine of Israelis and Palestinians. We do not know if and when the Middle East peace process will succeed. If–as this author believes–it will, then Mediterranean solidarity could be a sound platform to make cooperation work between Arabs and Israelis and to involve the Europeans.

Such a Mediterranean arrangement in Euro-Arab-Israel relations would make much more sense than the idea of two separated identities, one Arab and one European, with Israel destined to become an EU member and thus included in Europe. Including Israel in the European identity would not only create unease and misunderstanding with the Arabs but also with a good number of Israelis. If a Mediterranean identity is accepted, "invented" as it may be, it could work as a unifying factor, stirring cooperation between diverse peoples. Rendering it acceptable is a “rationalizing” act that governments and non-governmental organizations should prepare carefully, so as to make it a convincing and convenient option for interested people.

Besides being a convenient framework for fostering Arab-Israel cooperation in a triangle with Europe, the Mediterranean concept may help also with respect to changes stemming from migration. Emigration towards Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, from Arab and Islamic countries, has substantially changed a previous situation of asymmetry, whereby Arabs and Muslims were scarcely present in Europe whereas the European presence in the Middle East and North Africa was fairly developed. This balancing trend has been fully realized, for example, by the Catholic Church. The church had been accustomed to look at the Middle East in the same way as the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, whereas today it looks at the region as a component of a single Mediterranean area to which both Europe and the Middle East pertain: the Catholic and Christian communities in the Middle East being now balanced by the Arab-Muslim communities living in Europe. European governments should retain this Catholic vision as well.

There is no doubt that migration goes beyond ideology and invention: today’s Arab-Muslim migrants will become tomorrow’s European citizens. In this perception the Mediterranean can be seen as a substantive link among countries. It can legitimately be assumed as something people have in common.

Thus we have at least two examples in which it fits to have a Mediterranean identity, independently of whether that identity really exists or not.