The Mediterranean: Bridge or barrier?

Tarek Osman
Wednesday 27 Feb 2019

Tarek Osman pinpoints the factors enhancing or preventing more cooperation between members of the Arab and European countries

The future of the Arab-Euro relationship, following the first EU-Arab League summit, will boil down to whether both sides see the Mediterranean as a bridge or a barrier between them.

Bridge means enhanced trading, legislative and regulatory coordination, new thinking about migration across the Mediterranean, and security arrangements based on both averting the threats of radicalism and militancy, as well as increasing understanding of each other’s value systems (and how often they are different from the other).

The ultimate objective here would be bringing the Mediterranean shores together into a truly integrative economic neighbourhood.

Barrier means transactional relationships, seeing the other through the lens of a fraught history, clinging to old suspicions but coating them with vague political correctness, and cooperating against radicalism and militancy, but from vastly different perspectives.

The destination here is calculated interactions based on short-term interests, after which each side retreats to its shores.

Let’s start with the Arab calculus. Here, the case for a “bridge” rests on three points.

- Many in political Arab circles believe they have transcended the grave threats that emerged in the region in the past years, have shielded their societies from the chaos that has engulfed others, and have contributed to (relatively) stabilising the wider Middle East and North Africa.

In this view, they now enter a stage where they must effect transformative changes in their countries’ socio-economic landscapes — without which, the security they brought would be vulnerable to the social and economic ills from which their countries suffer.

In this view, these transformative changes will only materialise through lasting linkages to the “advanced” world. And so, here, Europe represents the closest neighbour in that “advanced” world.

- Those Arab political circles believe they have a case that Europe must appreciate. In their view, the stability they have brought spills over to Europe. Without that stability, Europe would be scrambling to confront acute dangers that will always be drawn to its riches.

And so, a serious partnership between the two shores of the Mediterranean is not transactional, but, in this view, grounded in an unescapable connection between Europe and the Arab world, and a meeting of minds on a hugely important long-term objective.

- Beneath the official rhetoric, there is a recognition, at the highest level of Arab leadership, that the solutions to the socio-economic ills in the Arab world necessitate much more than direct investments, developmental programmes, fiscal support and technological transfers.

There’s a recognition that Arab societies need to resuscitate the old modernisation projects of the first half of the 20th century, when large sections of Arab elites looked to Europe, not as the “other”, but as a role model, at least as an inspiration.

But, along with these factors, there is an Arab suspicion that augurs well for the Mediterranean being a “barrier” rather than a “bridge”. This suspicion is that many in Europe aim to impose their view of political systems and social development on the Arab world — whether because of failure to understand the region or because of a condescending view of its modern history.

This suspicion gives rise to apprehension, within key Arab political circles, of Europe’s long-term objectives in the region, and so to a guarded approach to cooperation.

In Europe, the case for a “bridge” rests on two factors.

The first, similar to one in the Arab argument, is based on inescapability. The idea goes something like this: “If we [in Europe] cannot, realistically, detach ourselves from the threats coming to us from the Arab world, we must engage with it in ways that ensure that our investments in it are sustainable, and would lead to meaningful and lasting positive changes.

These changes would not eradicate, but will lessen, the socio-economic problems there, and so will dilute the dangers that would come to us through the Mediterranean.”

This view leads to a long-term, ambitious, and deep commitment, which is step one in seeing beyond the dangers, in reflecting on the wider scene, which contains, along with the perils, major promise.

The second originates from a more humble realisation. Europe understands that many of its views and conceptions of the Arab world, including after the wave of Arab uprisings in 2011, have proven wrong.

Some in Europe cling to the idea that Europe sided with the forces of good in the Arab world and sought a transformation in the region similar to that which took place in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But, within many decision circles in Europe, the view is different — and more realistic. That view realises that any serious engagement with the Arab world must stem from respecting its own history, interpretations of global politics in the past half century, and the dominant streams in its own cultures — and not from a haughty view that wants the Arab world to “evolve” to Europeanism.

On the other side, the case in Europe for the “barrier” is bottom up. All European leaders know that at the heart of the rise of the far-right across the continent are acute feelings against immigration, especially from the Islamic world.

And so, in this view, European efforts, aside from politically correct rhetoric and diplomatic gestures, must cater to the feelings of the voters. Meaning: European efforts must engage with the Arab world so as to keep its people, ideas and cultures away.

The tragedy here is that most of the factors for “barrier” are old, or stem from domestic anxieties that give rise to images of the other that have nothing to do with reality on the other shore of the Mediterranean.

Working on these anxieties necessitates open, honest dialogues. And this is the real value of this first EU-Arab League summit.

It inaugurated a discussion, without which misperceptions and blindfolded views will transform the Mediterranean (one of the most illustrious conduits of ideas in human history) into a moat.

The writer is the author, most recently, of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (Yale, 2017) and the writer and presenter of several BBC documentaries on the Arab and Islamic worlds.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Mediterranean: Bridge or barrier?

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