An Alternative Bridging Project
Omar Barghouti, Adrian Grima - 16/09/2005
Repositioning the Mediterranean in the centre of a new progressive project means thinking about this diverse region and its resources in original and truly sustainable ways. The Mediterranean, for example, has an overabundance of sunlight that can provide countries in the region and beyond with cleaner energy. This would not only have serious, long-term positive effects on the health of our planet as a whole but would also promote the region as a hub of research in the field of sustainable energy development. Europe, on the other hand, would provide already available technology and know-how, and possibly the initial investment that sets the ball rolling. Of course, this is not meant to encourage the rich to waste more energy and the poor to produce it for them - it is meant, rather, to encourage a new reliance on renewable sources and to start a chain reaction of sustainable practices throughout the region and beyond, an outreach guaranteed by the millions of tourists who visit the region every year and who would therefore be exposed to this wave of green innovation. The other long-term effect would be to establish a more fruitful relationship between equals and to provide more skilled jobs for people on all sides of the Sea.
Another area in which civil society, possibly in partnership with the institutions, can play a major role in rethinking and rejuvenating the Mediterranean and the relationship between the various cultures and resources within it is cultural, ecological and agricultural tourism. As a hub of research and production of alternative energies, the region could attract people through conferences, research visits and the like. It could also provide renewable energy to small-scale farms, resorts and cultural sites and thus have a direct effect on the income and livelihood of people in the region who would not need to flee to continental Europe in the hope of a better future. The shift from mass tourism, which has a devastating impact on the environment, and therefore on all living species in the region, to cultural, ecological, and agricultural tourism would also pave the way for more research into traditional, more sustainable and holistic ways of living, and possibly even to ethical tourism.
Moreover, with its popularity among so many northerners, the Mediterranean is a region with a great potential to develop fair trade, encouraging local communities to produce crafts and foodstuffs that reflect and respect their environment and culture and guarantee fair wages for the producer and a fair price for the consumer. There are already some important fair trade producer initiatives and "social cooperatives" in Palestine and Southern Italy, to mention but two. A democratic strategy based on empowering local communities has the potential to succeed because it aims to provide for a generally guaranteed demand but also because it has the potential to create a new demand for forms of "recreation" or leisure such as eco-villages that have long-term effects even on those who benefit from them as visitors or short-term residents. These are initiatives that start to refuse the "ours-theirs" divide that Said talks about and builds on the "interconnectedness of innumerable lives."
The role of culture as a "vehicle for dialogue" within the Euromed area was highlighted in a 2003 Report by the High-Level Group established on the initiative of the President of the European Commission, who at the time was Romano Prodi. Apart from the Barcelona process, the Group proposes to "involve civil societies in ending the discriminations from which European citizens of immigrant origin still too often suffer and the persistent situation of injustice, violence and insecurity in the Middle East, in implementing educational programmes designed to replace negative mutual perceptions with mutual knowledge and understanding, and so on." Culture, the report suggests, must be used to "reinforce the emerging sense of fellowship and common destiny, so that Europe and its Mediterranean partners lay the foundations of a wider civic consciousness based on a convergent understanding of history and their common heritages." The Group, which recommends mobility and sharing of expertise, proposes to make education a vehicle for learning about diversity and transmitting knowledge of the Other, and this includes, amongst others, redefining the foundations of the humanities and social sciences and the way they are taught, as regards the anthropological, legal, cultural, religious, economic and social dimensions of the history of the Mediterranean region, and to develop elements of common knowledge.
On an institutional level, the Barcelona Process launched by the Conference of EU and Mediterranean foreign ministers that was held in Barcelona in November 1995 can be a proper foundation for starting the dialogue -- particularly among civil society representatives -- about this alternative Mediterranean project. It emphasizes friendly relations based on: political and security partnership through the establishment of a common area of peace and stability; economic partnership by creating an area of shared prosperity; and partnership in social, cultural and human affairs, by developing human resources, promoting understanding between cultures and collaboration between civil societies.
Tackling these serious tasks, however, entails challenging the three main impediments that stand in the way: current US foreign policy in the region; Israel's occupation of Arab land and denial of Palestinian rights; and Europe's colonial legacy in the Arab world, manifested in socio-economic and political weakness in the south and uncontrollable immigration to the north.
Although Cyprus presents another serious obstacle that must be addressed, the fact that there is general agreement -- supported by the UN and most major players -- that the EU is the proper framework for solving this conflict, makes this issue not among the major impediments mentioned above. Reunifying the island on the basis of equality, democracy and withdrawal of all foreign forces, remains the only internationally-sanctioned solution, regardless of how long it may take.
Going back to the primary challenge to the suggested Mediterranean alliance, it is naïve to assume that the US will just stand by and watch while a competing Euro-Arab pole is being established. The possibility for aggressive and multi-faceted US intervention to thwart the effort should be taken into consideration in all phases of planning for this alliance. Emphasizing the UN's central role as the best available -- if not perfect -- embodiment of international law and universal rights can attract wide international support, which will be needed to fence off any American attempts to sabotage the entire process. Regardless, Europe is invited to take a stand, to disengage from anachronistic, cold-war groupings such as NATO, to free itself of its current role of "washing the dishes," while the US cooks the dinner and eats it too, as expressed by Robert Kagan, a leading neocon ideologue. With the ominous consolidation of power in the hands of fundamentalists, militarists and financial oligarchs in the US, the wider the Atlantic, the narrower the Mediterranean will be.
As for the second obstacle, although the Barcelona process has included Israel -- for obvious reasons -- it is time to critically analyze the roots and prospects of resolving the long standing Arab-Zionist conflict, the most deep-rooted conflict troubling the region. Despite differentiating itself from US foreign policy to various degrees in other conflicts, Europe remains overall submissive in its relation with the US in the Middle East. "We are friends and allies but we are not servants," French president Jacques Chirac recently burst out in protest. Facts on the ground, however, can blur this distinction.
Europe's understandable guilt over the Holocaust is often cited as the most profound cause of its direct or indirect acquiescence in aspects of Israel's violation of international law, mainly its illegal occupation of Arab lands, its stubborn rejection of the right of Palestinian refugees to return and its entrenched and distinguished form of apartheid against its own Palestinian citizens. Going beyond moral inconsistency and guilt-generated injustice, though, requires overcoming this basic obstacle on the path of translating Euro-Med rhetoric into sustainable realities on the ground. Arab leaders may sign anything that overlooks this conflict, but their legitimacy is as solid as ice-cream on a hot Mediterranean summer day. The Arab world's hearts and minds cannot be remotely represented by its unelected, despotic rulers. This is where civil society, even where it is stifled by corrupt institutions, can be empowered by a strong Mediterranean initiative.
Ignoring the gravity and implications of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine, as the 2003 EU Report Dialogue Between Peoples and Cultures in the Euro-Mediterranean Area mentioned earlier does, is not acceptable or constructive. Creative, bold and morally sound solutions are indeed required to achieve justice and lasting peace in this century-old conflict. A project that has every potential to win wide Arab support for a Mediterranean alliance is the unitary, secular and democratic state solution to the Palestine-Israel problem. Only such a state can reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable: the inalienable, UN-sanctioned rights of the indigenous people of Palestine to self-determination and the internationally accepted rights of Israeli Jews to live in peace and security after justice has prevailed. Regardless of Israel's establishment on the ruins of Palestinian society and as a result of massive ethnic cleansing of most Palestinians during the Nakba (catastrophe of 1948), Israeli Jews and Palestinian-Arabs (Muslims and Christians) should enjoy equal democratic rights without discrimination, and without ethnic supremacy of either community. The return and compensation of the Palestinian refugees, in accordance with international law, remains the cornerstone of any such historic solution to this long conflict. This would not only redress the injustice done to Palestinians and end the last remnant of colonialism in the world, but will also remove Europe's sore thorn from the heart of the Arab nation. It may well spawn an authentic process of democratic reform in the Arab world at large, after denying Arab rulers their age-long alibi of the "conflict" with Israel. This home-grown political transformation will better promote and protect the process of integrating the Mediterranean region on shared values of freedom, democracy, rule of law and the fundamental equality of all humans, regardless of faith, ethnicity or nationality.
As for the last mentioned obstacle, the colonial legacy, it must be admitted that European colonial ravage and cruel exploitation of the south has left its nations impoverished, dependent and incapable of sustaining any meaningful development. Without seriously stopping its collusion with the south's autocratic regimes and consistently investing into the region's infrastructure and sustainable economic, political and cultural development as compensation for decades of organized robbery and horrific atrocities, we shall continue to witness this often uprooting phenomenon of one-way migration.
Forming a Mediterranean alliance of progressive forces everywhere in the region that attracts the support of similar elements elsewhere would be beneficial to all those involved and would reflect the Mediterranean's true heritage of coexistence, multiculturalism, stability and prosperity. And as the eminent Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes says: "[C]ultures are not isolated, and perish when deprived of contact with what is different and challenging. [...] No culture [...] retains its identity in isolation; identity is attained in contact, in contrast, in breakthrough." Omar Barghouti / Adrian Grima