The Mediterranean of the imagination

The Mediterranean has become the focus of numerous experiments in region-building. Over the past decade, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States have all launched initiatives of one sort or another to organize the Mediterranean.

The premise underlying these efforts has been that a "region" could constitute a useful framework for constructive action somewhere between ad hoc bi- or multi-lateral cooperation, at one end of the spectrum, and participation in universal institutions like the United Nations, at the other. But whether or not that premise is valid elsewhere in the world, it is altogether misplaced with respect to the Mediterranean, because the Mediterranean does not constitute a region in any meaningful sense of the word. Indeed, it is highly doubtful that it even possesses enough of the precursor attributes of a region to justify attempts through institution-building to create one.

The Mediterranean does not embody a common identity. Its members do not share a cultural tradition, language, religion or recent history of administrative unity. Its political systems cover the entire range from liberal democracy to rigid authoritarianism. And it is not driven together by the kinds of common external challenges or threats that normally create alliances or functional communities, except at the very highest level of abstraction. Indeed, the only thing Mediterranean societies and states have in common is geography.

It is geography, or, more precisely, the stereotypical rhythms of life emanating from climate, that seem to sustain the notion of the Mediterranean as a distinct socio-cultural or ecological space. But this space is really the Mediterranean of the imagination–of sunshine and red tile roofs, of wine and olive oil, of afternoon siestas and late dinners, of warmth and vitality and perhaps even a touch of hedonism. In short, it is the Mediterranean of long ago and far away, of images that inspired European writers and artists and were bound to fire the imaginations of cold and slightly puritanical northerners.

But apart from these rhythms, even geography no longer imparts a basis for “Mediterraneanism.” In the more distant past, it may have given those on or near the sea some sense of shared identity or fate, because the state of technology dictated a direct correlation between proximity and the intensity of economic and cultural interaction. Dependence on sea-based transportation and communication and the fact that the Mediterranean was practically a closed lake gave it its distinctiveness within the world arena. But while geographical proximity is a constant, its socio-political significance is not. For Europeans, the opening of the Suez Canal made the Mediterranean into a route to somewhere else, rather than a self-contained world, and subsequent advances in communications technology and land and air transportation reduced the relative importance of the sea as a medium of economic and cultural interaction or power projection.

Proximity still matters. That is why western Europe is so concerned about the spill-over effects of systemic dysfunction in North Africa. But without a common political, economic or cultural substructure, there is no basis for any sustained cooperation among the disparate societies and polities ringing the Mediterranean. Most significantly, the lack of any common set of values with respect to democracy, the rule of law, government accountability, human rights, cultural and religious tolerance, and gender equality precludes a common diagnosis of the challenges confronting the area, much less a common prescription to deal with them. Instead, the bureaucratic-patrimonial or authoritarian regimes on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean are actually threatened by the transformation agendas of the Europeans on the northern shore (and of the Americans). Those in the West may differ on their understanding of the preferred means for promoting change or the likelihood of success, but they at least agree that the lack of change constitutes a security threat to them. But for the former, as well as for conservative social and cultural forces and economic interests in their countries, it is precisely the prospect of change–through the liberalization of political, economic, and social/cultural systems–that threatens their sense of security and self-affirmation.

As a result, “the Mediterranean” is little more than an abstraction whose regional existence can barely be affirmed at the conceptual level, much less the organizational or institutional level. And any institutional superstructures arbitrarily erected to express that idea will inevitably spend most of their time inventing ways to justify their continuing existence. Rather than persisting in the futile effort to fit this heterogeneous area into the Procrustean bed of a comprehensive agenda derived from geographical determinism, policymakers ought to be promoting differentiated agendas based on “coalitions of the willing” with convergent views or interests. By adopting a policy of "Wider Europe" and thus implicitly conceding the limitations of the Barcelona Process, the European Union, at least, appears to recognize this imperative.