The “Barcelona process”: ten years on

Fred Halliday
11 November 2005

Catalonia, the autonomous region in the northeast of Spain, is proud of commercial traditions and expertise that its people often trace to the early influence of Phoenician traders crossing from the other side of the Mediterranean sea. Its capital, Barcelona, is about to host a conference marking ten years of a diplomatic initiative that seeks to cross cultural, political and human borders in not so different ways from those pioneers of 3,000 years ago.

The conference on 27-28 November 2005 takes place a decade after the launch of the “Barcelona process”, designed in 1995 to foster dialogue between European Union member-states and countries on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean – including the Arab states (among them the Palestinian National Authority, but not Libya), Israel, Cyprus, and Turkey.

The key aim of this new “Euro-Mediterranean Partnership” – as embodied in the wide-ranging “Barcelona Declaration” the participants in the first conference committed themselves to – was to promote democratisation, security and economic growth in the countries to Europe’s south and east. The challenge the partnership addressed was at least partly to demonstrate that the European Union could act in a united and effective manner around the sea – the Romans’ mare nostrum (“our sea”) – that nurtured the historic cultures that shaped modern Europe.

Fred Halliday’s “global politics” column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:

“Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects” (March 2005)

“Sudan between war and politics” (April 2005)

“Iran’s revolutionary spasm” (July 2005)

“Political killing in the cold war” (August 2005)

“Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a ‘marginal man’” (September 2005)

“A transnational umma: myth or reality?” (October 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work

Four areas of progress

Today, there is considerable frustration in Spanish and European Union diplomatic circles at the apparently meagre results of this engagement, and uncertainty about what forward-looking proposals a review conference can elaborate. Yet an overall balance-sheet of developments since 1995 reveals a mixed, even dynamic, picture. The goals of the 1995 conference may not have been achieved, but four major positive developments are to the credit of the “Barcelona process”.

First, Libya has since 1995 become engaged. Three factors contributed – its decision to settle the Lockerbie affair by allowing two of its junior officials to go on trial before a Scottish court in the Netherlands, its subsequent renunciation of any nuclear programmes, and the moderate turn in its foreign policy. True, Muammar Gaddafi’s visit to Brussels in April 2004 was marked by a sharp difference of historical perspectives: from his tent parked outside EU headquarters, Gaddafi rebuked Romano Prodi for the massacre of tens of thousands of Libyans by Italian colonial occupiers. But as United Nations sanctions have been lifted and even Washington is allowing some diplomatic and economic contact, Libya has become again part of the international community.

Second, there has been a marked change in the relationship between regional states and Islamist politics. In Egypt, an insurrection that was in full swing in 1995 has greatly receded, if not quite died. The mid-1990s alarm about the rise of Islamist forces in Turkey has given way to settled acceptance of the post-2002 government led by the reformist Islamic party, the AKP. The war in Algeria between the military regime and its various Islamist armed opponents – sparked by the regime’s refusal to allow the Islamists to come to power through an electoral victory in 1991 – has ended. The regime’s amnesty referendum on 29 September is part of its effort to contain discussion of its own forces’ part in this brutal conflict in which up to 150,000 people died.

Third, Lebanon has witnessed dramatic change in its relationship with Syria. The international revulsion following the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 forced Syria to withdraw from the country the forces it had installed there on the invitation of the then president, Suleiman Franjieh, in 1976 – the first year of a civil war that was to last fifteen years and kill an estimated 150,000 people. The Syrians’ departure has opened new uncertainties: both for a still riven Lebanon, and for a Syria whose regime under Bashar Assad is under pressure from all sides.

Fourth, the Balkans – an area central to Mediterranean and European security, though not formally included in the Barcelona process – have returned to precarious stability after the devastating wars of ex-Yugoslavia from 1991-95 and (in the case of Kosovo) 1998-99. Even as the final constitutional status of Kosovo and Montenegro remain uncertain, it seems that “Yugoslavia” has been reduced to its Serbian heartland, while the post-communist nationalist leader responsible a decade ago for Belgrade’s rampaging military campaigns, Slobodan Milosevic, faces war crime and genocide charges in The Hague.

Three problem areas

If these four areas of the Mediterranean show signs of progress, in three others there is a bleaker outlook.

First, the western Sahara question remains unresolved. Morocco continues to occupy the former Spanish colony – abandoned by its old colonists in 1975 – and to block the calls by the UN for a meaningful referendum. A plan proposed by James Baker, UN envoy and former United States secretary of state, was rejected by Morocco, which is acutely sensitive to the inter-state dimension of its rivalry with Algeria on the issue as well as resistant to the claims of the native Sahraouis and their longstanding, pro-independence Polisario movement.

Second, Cypus remains in effect divided into two states, as it has been since the rightwing Greek coup and the subsequent Turkish invasion of 1974. Here too, a UN peace plan was rejected – in this case by Greek Cypriots, swayed by nationalist and religious demagogues within their own community. The Turks in northern Cyprus have made the most courageous moves in recent years, most noticeably in opening the border dividing the island, while the Greeks have held out against compromise and are now using the issue to complicate Turkey’s accession negotiations with the European Union.

Third, the most prominent conflict bordering the Mediterranean – that between Israel and the Palestinians – remains paralysed. The first Barcelona conference in November 1995 coincided with the Tel Aviv assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Perhaps, as many Israelis argue, the Oslo peace process was already in trouble by then, but Rabin’s death marked the end of the dynamic in the process; the ten years since have seen if anything a degeneration in relations both between and within the two peoples involved. Its milestones are familiar: Binyamin Netanyahu’s 1996 election victory, the collapse of Camp David and the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the building of the “separation wall”, and continued inter-ethnic violence.

The Mediterranean world

An assessment of ten years of the Barcelona process has also to take into account the broader patterns of international relations. Insofar as this European Union initiative was meant to displace the hegemony of the United States it has clearly failed. Washington remains the key player in Palestine and in the Balkans, and indeed launched its own democratisation initiative on the Arab world in 2004 without any apparent reference to the existing Barcelona process. The Europeans themselves are as divided as ever in matters of security and foreign policy – as evident by the fissures over Iraq since 2003, inter-state competitiveness over the enlargement of the UN Security Council, the collapse of the constitution project after the French and Dutch referenda, and divisions over trade policy in the context of the Doha negotiations.

Yet, for all these difficulties, the Mediterranean region – whose richly overlapping worlds were anatomised by the great French historian Fernand Braudel – continues to pose a challenge that is collectively recognised by the states bordering on and associated with it. It has been the graveyard of many ambitions in the 20th century: from Italian fascist dreams of a new Roman empire, through British and French imperial projects (Suez, Algerie Francaise), to the radical social models embraced by newly independent countries (Yugoslavian and Algerian workers’ self-management, Israeli agricultural communalism, Albanian communism under Enver Hoxha and Libyan “anti-imperialism” under Gaddafi.

The fate of these earlier dreams is a warning to the admittedly more modest goals of today, but also a sign of the cycles of change within the Mediterranean region. If there has been only minimal progress towards democratisation in the Arab countries since 1995, the capacity for large-scale convulsion impelled by social division, population growth and technological revolution is clearly present. Meanwhile, there are some ominous developments in European lands – from corruption in Italy under Silvio Berlusconi to French anti-Turkish obsessions.

These cycles of change may even be said to include the geo-strategic boundaries of the region itself. Iran, for the first time in 2,000 years, is beginning to play a military role in the eastern Mediterranean; and tens of thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are seeking to enter Europe at its first destination-point, Spain. Many cities along its shoreline – Naples, Athens, Istanbul, Barcelona itself – are being transformed by immigration from Africa, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union. There is not, nor was there ever, one Mediterranean. Mare nostrum, our sea, it may remain, but only to ask anew: who are we?

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData