Can Europe Make It?

From tourist dream to existential threat, it’s time to bid farewell to Club Med

The collapse of the Mediterranean neighbourhood, once Europe’s success story, is the casualty of both terror and the financial crisis. It threatens to transform mare nostrum into a moat.

Max Holleran
5 April 2016
Club Med postcard, 1961. Arroser/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Club Med postcard, 1961. Arroser/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.It’s hard to remember that, only a decade ago, the Mediterranean region – both in Europe and Africa – was the great success story of the EU. A war in the former Yugoslavia had been brought under control, tourism was flourishing in north Africa, and countries like Spain were experiencing the most dynamic economic growth in the eurozone. Both EU members and countries beyond the edges of Europe seemed to be benefitting from EU economic policy: creating a more seamless region, less fractured by nationalism, religion, or language.

It was an achievement that brought the ancient fable of an interconnected ‘Mediterranean world’ right up to date, fusing it with the EU project of dismantling borders.

Now, these very same ties are an existential threat to Europeans. The countries on the Mediterranean’s southern shore are either at war or have become launch points for unsafe boats loaded with refugees. These rafts are aimed for southern European countries which, while in the EU, are mired in debt and fractious party politics.

But let’s think back to before the EU empowered their border control (Frontex) to secure Greek and Spanish beaches against Syrian refugees, and before Europe’s divide between southern debtor nations and their northern creditors – to when the European Union was funding development projects in north African and eastern European countries as part of a “neighbourhood policy”. Just as the precursor to the EU (the European Economic Community) gave billions of dollars to post-Franco Spain and post-dictatorial Greece and Portugal in the 1980s – to tie economic stability to democracy – they showed a similar inclination in north Africa and Turkey in the 2000s: offering up development grants for infrastructure and skills training.

Certainly, the “neighbourhood policy” seemed to work for a while. Turkey thrived and contemplated EU membership, Morocco and Egypt grew robust tourism industries. These countries lacked strong democratic institutions. But the feeling in the corridors of Brussels was that increased trade with Europe and more visitors from abroad would create favourable conditions for the growth of civil society. Eurocrats likened north Africa, Turkey, and Egypt to southern or eastern Europe just two decades earlier: politically and economically ‘rough edges’ that would be improved, if not absorbed, by the European core.

As recently as 2008, the EU created a nascent Mediterranean federation, called the "Union for the Mediterranean", to bolster regional trade and to unite southern European leaders with their north African and Middle Eastern counterparts. While technocrats in Brussels spoke grandly of ‘Social Europe’ and the need to promote Europeanness over previous national identities, a separate and exciting notion of ‘Mediterraneanism’ was on the rise.

‘The Sea’ was the animating force that brought together empires and continents.

While the longitudinal divide of the Mediterranean is a natural demarcation of where Europe begins and ends, the constant leitmotif of the ancient world was a Mediterranean region unified by spoke-like city states. These micro-kingdoms traded together in a vast network, and ‘the Sea’ was the animating force that brought together empires and continents.

The region’s importance as a ‘neighbourhood’ is what Europe’s most famous historian of the twentieth century, Fernand Braudel, called the “Mediterranean world”. He challenged prevailing notions of history that emphasised the continuity of the nation-state. In contrast, Braudel’s Mediterranean was a perpetually transnational space in which geography was more important than fleeting political arrangements. This idea took hold in a new generation of scholars interested in globalisation and migration.

For twenty-first century politicians attempting to legislate for a Europe without borders, Braudel’s description of the Mediterranean during the reign of Spain’s Philip II (written, not coincidentally, while in a Nazi prison camp) was not merely well-told history, but a vision for a prosperous and enlightened future bereft of nationalism.

Club Med membership card, 1960. Club Med/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Club Med membership card, 1960. Club Med/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.Over the past four decades, tourism has been the most pronounced expression of the “Mediterranean world.” Visitors have increased by 386% since 1970, and the industry generates $224 billion a year. It was the success of the Club Med hotel chain, ubiquitous across southern Europe in the 1960s, which exoticised the region as a place for rest and relaxation. This was possible on a budget because of the economic disparity between northern and southern Europe. The Club Med vacation became emblematic of both the lure of the Mediterranean, as well as the success of the post-war welfare state in which every family could afford some summer fun in the sun.

The chain, started by the Belgian Jew Gérard Blitz, was initially a non-profit for budget tourists willing to live in former army tents, for the chance to enjoy a week of simple beachfront revelry with an emphasis on sports. During the late 1950s, Club Med became famous for creating a space of sexual freedom, before embracing Fordist mass leisure in the 1960s and eventually becoming one of the largest travel companies in Europe. Over the next 20 years, the gap between northern and southern Europe would shrink: sending tourists to Turkish resorts in Antalya, heritage tourism in Luxor, and Moroccan camel treks, in search of lower prices and comfortably exotic experiences beyond Europe’s edges.

The Club Med hotel chain, which still owns properties on both sides of the Mediterranean is now, tellingly, a Chinese company, although led by the son of France’s former president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing: a committed EU supporter who served in a number of positions in Brussels after being ousted from the presidency in 1981.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the European Union put forth a vision of itself as an expanding geopolitical unit. The EU successfully implemented economic growth that led to middle class prosperity in southern Europe and much of eastern Europe: allowing those who once lived under dictatorship and communism to cash in on the Club Med middle-class dream. This strengthening of international bonds was not always easy, especially when freedom of movement was debated. Yet, for the most part, nationalist fears of Polish hordes living off the dole in London declined as a fairly orderly system took hold.

After economic reforms in post-socialist countries in the 1990s, the EU had its sights set on Turkey, North Africa, and Ukraine as upcoming beneficiaries, if not outright members. Yet, the current crisis on both sides of the Mediterranean (not to mention Ukraine) highlights the limits and perhaps arrogance of an EU dream tied to fast-paced geographic expansion.

Now the talk is only of food aid, Tomahawk missiles, and where to put the razor wire fences.

The disintegration of the Mediterranean neighbourhood has been a casualty of both terror and the financial crisis. In Spain, millions of homes stand empty as a lasting sign of that country’s real estate bubble, and unemployment has stubbornly stayed at over 20% of the population for five years. Greece and Cyprus have seen bank runs and negotiations with the EU that amount to a new form of economic governance that gives foreign creditors important decision-making powers, which many view as undemocratic.

The other side of ‘the Sea’ has seen flotillas of refugees swallowed by the water, and the rise of ISIS franchises have downed a Russian jet in Egypt and executed tourists in Tunisia. Libya has gone from brutal autocracy to a failed state with an ISIS welcome banner. Once thriving tourism destinations, such as the beaches of Tunisia and even the centre of Istanbul, have seen a sharp decline in visitors due to government warnings of new plots on the horizon.

The concept of Europe investing in highways and higher education in the southern Mediterranean is no longer spoken of in Brussels. Now the talk is only of food aid, Tomahawk missiles, and where to put the razor wire fences.

While the European Union has still committed 15.4 billion euros to neighbourhood development in southern and eastern Europe from 2014 to 2020, it is hard to imagine economic improvement as a realistic goal in war zones and proxy areas filled with militarised tent camps. While the outer borders of Mediterranean Europe are secured, the founding concept of the EU – freedom of movement – has been questioned in the wake of attacks in Paris and Brussels.

Europe’s successful integration into a federation seems to be both in political jeopardy – from eurosceptic parties and hard-right nationalists – yet forcefully maintained by a new collective fear of the Mediterranean neighbourhood. This is a change that could transform mare nostrum into a moat.

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