Mediterranean mirage: Europe’s sunken politics

Fred Halliday
30 July 2008

"They only went to Paris because they wanted to meet his wife". An Arab diplomat friend with an inexorable grasp of the realities of international relations is a vital source of wisdom in separating glitter from gold. The reference in this case was the summit organised by Nicolas Sarkozy in the Grand Palais in Paris on 13 July 2008 which launched his favoured initiative, the Union for the Mediterranean (UPM); though if the event made a dramatic opening to France's chairing of the European Union's rotating six-month presidency, it is doubtful that even the lustre of Carla Bruni could have made this more than a one-day-headlines wonder.

For this is an event that demands deconstruction - not just in its own terms, but in relation to the wider infirmity of the European Union in mid-2008, as it faces problems of legitimacy, accountability, identity and democracy that it seems incapable of addressing let alone resolving (see Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality", 20 June 2008).

A hollow promise

In real terms the French president's enterprise was never likely to amount to much - and only in part because "Mediterranean" is in EU-speak a euphemism for "the Arabs", and thus a world away from the imaginative historical understanding of Fernand Braudel's deep apprehension of a natural, political and economic sphere in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the age of Philip II . For the reality behind the exalted rhetoric is of a deeper set of fractures and rivalries whose healing would require political boldness and leadership, and understanding rooted in awareness of the failures of the past in this area.

True, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas were photographed together, but they did not need to go to Paris for that to happen; the king of Morocco absented himself so that he could avoid sitting next to the president of Algeria, with whom his country has been in conflict over Western Sahara since 1975; Libya's Muammar Gaddafi also failed to arrive, even though he had been lobbying for years for admission to the negotiations encompassing European Union and Mediterranean states.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His many books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003), 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005), and The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

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

"A 2007 warning: the twelve worst ideas in the world" (8 January 2007)

"Sunni, Shi'a and the "Trotskyists of Islam" (9 February 2007)

"Al-Jazeera: the matchbox that roared" (25 March 2007)

"The Malvinas and Afghanistan: unburied ghosts" (4 May 2007)

"Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse" (4 June 2007)

"Crises of the middle east: 1914, 1967, 2003" (15 June 2007)

"Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

"Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix" (13 July 2007)

"Eternal Euzkadi, enduring ETA" (3 August 2007)

"Cyprus's risky stalemate" (26 August 2007)

"Islam and Europe: a debate in Amsterdam" (1 October 2007)

"Justice in Madrid: the "11M" verdict" (5 November 2007)

"The mysteries of the US empire" (30 November 2007)

"The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Stolen Wealth Funds: fantasies of control" (4 March 2008)

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

Syria's Bashar al-Assad arrived, but only to claw back a bit of lost diplomatic ground; and he neither met Ehud Olmert nor permitted group photograph of the summit participants. A great noise was made about the fact that Syria finally "recognised" Lebanon as a separate state, by agreeing to open an embassy in Beirut - though this is both six decades too late and carries no guarantees that Syria will also stop killing Lebanese politicians and journalists and covertly dominating the politics of that country. The closer to the realty the independent observer comes, the harder is it to be persuaded by Sarkozy's summit rhetoric and the mirage of regional unity (for an assessment of the tensions surrounding the event, and how the French's president's manic style tended to occlude them, see Patrice de Beer, "Nicolas Sarkozy, the frenetic leader", 28 July 2008).

An oceanic fix

The French president's convocation - whose revealingly proper title is the "Barcelona process: union for the Mediterranean" - falls into what British diplomats would call a "talking" (as opposed to a "doing") event. In other circumstances there might be no harm in that - but at present, a huge and indeterminate jamboree is the last thing that Europe or the "Mediterranean" countries (whoever they are) need. This, again, is only in part because the EU already has a regular mechanism for dialogue with the Arab states, Israel and Turkey: namely the original "Barcelona process", launched in 1995 (see “The 'Barcelona process': ten years on”, 11 November 2005).

The regrettable reality is that in almost thirteen years of life it has achieved little. Europe plays no significant role in any of the inter-state and inter-ethnic conflicts of the Mediterranean area - Palestine, Kurdistan, and Western Sahara, for example. The exchange of prisoners and bodies between Israel and Hizbollah on 19 July 2008 was negotiated by a German diplomat, operating as the envoy of his own country (see Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "The Israeli-Hizbollah prisoner deal", 14 July 2008); it was Germany which also attempted to broker a deal between Abkhazia and Georgia over their long-running dispute.

The one place Europe has had something of a role (albeit as a junior ally of the United States), is in the Balkans: but the Balkan states were not part of the Barcelona process and the EU has in recent months been seriously divided over the issue of Kosovo independence. That some of the Balkan states were invited to Paris shows ambition, but in itself amounts to nothing.

The crisis of the Barcelona process was evident three years ago, at the ten-year review conference of November 2005. The crisis in Palestine apart, the other main goals - promoting trade and investment, encouraging democratisation in north Africa - had come to nothing. On most issues of the day, middle-eastern states take no heed of what Europe says: the Israelis build their wall and settlements; the Palestinians vote for Hamas; the Iranians pursue their nuclear programme; the Turks repress the Kurds; the Saudis, Egyptians and Tunisians crack down on even the mildest of liberal critics.

At the 2005 review conference Spain, which is in charge of this process, thought it had agreement of all the heads of state to attend, and had in particular found a formula on Palestine that satisfied the Arab states. But, twenty-four hours before the meeting was to start, an advance British government party flew in from Malta and - on Tony Blair's instructions, and to the fury of the Spanish - vetoed the Palestine text. The result was that Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak, followed by nearly all the other Arab leaders, pulled out. The European heads of state were all there, from Portugal to the Baltic, but (apart from the Turks and Israelis) the "Mediterranean" guests failed to appear.

The Union pour la Méditerranée venture, the brainchild of Sarkozy's Europhobe adviser, Henri Guaino, promises to be little different. When the French president first proposed it, he did not mention the Barcelona process, the established EU framework for dealing with this issue; he failed even to inform the Germans or British about what was supposed to be an EU initiative. His own foreign ministry was also kept in the dark. Now the summit has agreed to set up a new EU institutional process, but there is as yet no budget, nor agreement on where the headquarters of this new entity will be: Spain insists that Barcelona is the suitable home, but Malta, Tunisia, Morocco and Brussels itself are all in the running.

In the absence of any significant diplomatic or political conclusions, the 13 July summit agreed to a meagre shopping-list of practical items: some (such as ecological co-operation in the Mediterranean, and increased vigilance in regard to illegal migration) are already in operation while others (such as a "Mediterranean University") are whatever the "Club Med" equivalent of a pink elephant may be.

An Irish cocktail

In a broader context, the pomp of the Paris summit serves another, unstated but self-evident, purpose: displacement. It distracts the attention of the European and world publics away from the disastrous situation in which the European Union, at the end of the first month of the French presidency, finds itself. The immediate cause of this crisis was the Irish vote, in the referendum of 12 June 2008, to reject the revised EU constitution known as the Lisbon treaty (see Joseph Curtin & Johnny Ryan, "The Lisbon treaty and the Irish voter: democratic deficits", 13 June 2008).

It is relevant here to note that Ireland has been ambivalent with regard to international obligations. It has played a distinguished role on occasion as United Nations peacekeeper and/or promoter of international understanding in ways that earn a place alongside benign non-hegemonic powers such as Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and New Zealand. This role is personified by Irish diplomats who have well served United Nations bodies, among them such luminaries as Seán MacBride, Conor Cruise O'Brien, and Mary Robinson (Frank Aiken, the international-minded foreign minister and parliamentary representative of my home country, Louth, discharged his duties in the same spirit). These people believed in Ireland as an exemplary as well as independent power on the world stage - and were not afraid of annoying the great states in the process.

At the same time, the Irish like other small nations also occasionally yield to the temptation of using their autonomy within international bodies for partisan ends (another case is the Greek Cypriot vote against the Annan peace plan of 2004). Ireland has been a great beneficiary of the European Union, above all in financial terms, and has achieved the growth rates it has in part because of its thirty-five years of EU membership since 1973.

Yet the foundations of this growth were always less than secure. Peadar Kirby's brilliant book, The Celtic Tiger in Distress: Growth with Inequality in Ireland (Palgrave, 2001) argued that the Irish economy's expansion was always precarious as it relied on fluctuations in the world economy that could easily turn to its disadvantage; but that it also entailed increasing levels of social and income inequality. It was that inequality, the exclusion of a significant part of the Irish population from the benefits of the 1990s, that played a major part in the "no" vote of 12 June.

A twin regress

Nicolas Sarkozy was obliged to visit Dublin on 21 July 2008 as part of his attempt as chair of the European Union presidency to try to find a fix for the Irish "no". In all probability some constitutional solution will be found to allow the Lisbon treaty to go forward. Even if it does not, the EU as an economic entity and, often forgotten, as the first zone of peace that covers Europe in its history, will continue. The problem is, however, that the Irish vote is far from being the only obstacle that the EU faces.

The rejection of European integration is the fault not of the Irish, but of the anterior, and un-renegotiable, rejections of the original constitution by France itself and the Netherlands in 2005. Here the damage was much more serious: the torpedoing of major constitutional changes in Brussels and, with consequences yet to be fully discerned, the antagonising of Turkey in the negotiation process. Electoral narcissism on the western fringes of Europe may be deplorable, but the real, historic and strategic, damage has been done on the other end of the continent, in regard to Turkey. This development - one to which the the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Greek Cypriot's rejection of the Annan plan for the reunification of the island in 2004 have made their own contribution - constitutes the most worrying threat to the long-term security of modern Europe.

Even more ominous, however, than these electoral and political setbacks, are other aspects of the EU today, in particularly two long-term trends that, if continued and allowed to lay down future standards, will indeed finish off Europe as a civilised and democratic union.

First, the rolling back of workers' rights and social protection: rather than lamenting the Irish referendum vote, commentators would be better advised to look at the vote of two days before - the decision on 10 June by the ministers of employment and social affairs to abandon the European norm of a forty-eight-hour week, one of the major social achievements of the past century, and instead allow a week of up to sixty (and in some cases sixty-five) hours. This pernicious development was made possible only because of the advent of rightwing leaders to power in France and Italy and their collusion with the new influence within the EU of the former communist states, countries where the excesses of free-market economics and labour exploitation now prevail.

Second, the example being set by one of the founding members of the union, Italy. This country is after the April 2008 election once again governed by a Silvio Berlusconi-led coalition, and one with an ideological colour even darker than its predecessors (see Geoff Andrews, "Italy's hour of darkness", 17 April 2008); for it contains leading members who celebrate Italy's fascist past, it passes laws that hound immigrants and discriminate against Roma (Italian as well as those with family origins in southeast Europe, including Romania), it promotes grotesque forms of sexism and gender discrimination in public discourse and the media, and it legislates in favour of its own partisan interests (see Marco Brazzoduro, "Italy's choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk", 24 June 2008).

The comedy of manners which surrounds Berlusconism cannot conceal these sinister and deeply regressive trends in Italy. It is here, to Rome - and to Paris and Brussels - that the bill for the crisis of the European Union should be sent. The grandstanding about Ireland's failure to assent to the Lisbon treaty, or initiatives to boost the "Mediterranean" - a term that has long ceased to have any political, economic, cultural or strategic meaning - are distractions from this core concern.

A European tunnel

It is here, not in the rhetoric or limits of the Barcelona process of the UPM, that the real failure of Europe in regard to the Arab and "Mediterranean" worlds really lies. To focus on specific negotiations, or conflict-related targets, may be mistaken and may, indeed, understate what Europe can achieve. The whole Barcelona process of the mid-1990s was modelled on what was thought to have happened a few years earlier in regard to east-central Europe - with the EU, and influential states such as Germany, helping to encourage a transition to democracy and liberal markets in the former communist east. However, the analogy between eastern Europe and the Arab world was mistaken: communism collapsed in the Soviet Union and in most allied states, because the ruling elites had lost the will to govern: had, in effect, given up. The Arab elites of Algeria or Egypt have far from given up.

In another way, however, there is indeed an analogy, one all too rarely stated: the main contribution of the European Union to the collapse of communism did not lie in particular policies, but in the very fact of the EU's success, as a political and economic venture: this, the force of example, of democracy and prosperity combined, was what undermined and overwhelmed the communist world in the 1980s (see "1968: the global legacy", 11 June 2008). It may be in this regard that Europe can also, over a longer period, help to promote change in north Africa and the middle east also.

But it can only do this if Europe continues to live up to its best ideals, to set an example that other countries can seek to imitate. It will not be done by slamming the door on Turkey, indulging in anti-Muslim "civilisational" rhetoric, and persecuting immigrants. The greatest failures of Europe in recent years can be found in its failure to live up to its own ideals, in its indulgence of much that is ugly in European history and public attitudes, and in the jettisoning of major social gains of its past. It is time to retrieve the gold, not indulge the glitter.

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