Environment: Bridging an ancient sea —Saleem H Ali
Blending cultural connectivity with an ecological approach to conflict resolution will make all sides realise that for better or for worse they are stuck with the same earthly constraints of their geography
Efforts at forming regional governance institutions are gaining momentum all over the world, but none could be more historically significant than the prospect for a Mediterranean union proposed at a historic summit in France last week. While it is easy to dismiss the meeting as “showy multilateralism” in line with French President Sarkozy’s flamboyant style, there is little doubt that gathering 36 heads of state from Arab countries, Israel and Europe together in a congenial moot is a remarkable accomplishment. Nevertheless, one may still wonder why this proposal is any different from MERCOSUR in South America , SADC in Africa or SAARC in South Asia.
Most significantly, this is the only proposed union that is centred on an environmental area rather than any political geography. The Mediterranean Sea and its environs are unique natural systems that have among the highest number of endemic harvestable fish species and coastal habitats. The importance of this region at an environmental level was realised as early as 1975 when 16 countries signed on to a “Mediterranean Action Plan”, considered by the United Nations Environment Programme to be the first multilateral environmental agreement for a region.
But the importance of this agreement goes far beyond ecological concerns. This is a region with the longest history of cross-cultural conflict, quite literally between a developed “North” and a developing “South”. The influx of immigrants from Africa to Europe every year via the Mediterranean has raised alarms in both continents about economic stability. Providing new avenues for investment from Europe towards African economic development might help in abating this tide of hapless migrants.
This is also a region where colonial influence from Europe was most direct and proximate and any attempt at levelling the playing field here could pave the way for a much wider rapprochement between the colonisers and the colonised. French rule in Algeria and the Italian colonisation of Libya still conjure many painful memories for North Africans. This is why some leaders are also sceptical of the agreement, such as Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, who has labelled the union a “salad” which is “nonsensical”. Yet Mr Gaddafi is known to make such statements and then change his tune when a critical mass of influence is organised.
Building on the Barcelona Process, which was started in 1995 to help the European Union engage with its neighbours, the process has also raised some concern in Turkey, as this may end up being a losing compensation for the country’s bid to join the EU. Instead of being suspicious of the process, Turkey should consider this an additional opportunity for engagement since the structure of the organisation includes most EU members as well. Arab states will no doubt be raising concerns about Israel’s participation in the effort and the potential that this may legitimise occupation. However, Sarkozy has been very careful in giving the Palestinians an equal spot at the negotiating table for this proposed union, tacitly recognising their statehood at an international forum of this prominence.
The Mediterranean has been the crucible of many great civilisations and is increasingly an arena for a potential clash between Islam and the West. France is in a pivotal position to lead the way in this regard, far more so than the United States. It has close historic ties to the Levant states of Syria and Lebanon as well as to the Maghrib states of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Through its judicious use of counter-terrorism tactics and projecting progressive Muslims, it has also averted any major terrorist attacks on its soil since 9/11 despite having the largest Muslim population in Western Europe (over 6 million, approximately 10 percent of the population). While occasionally there are rumblings of dissent on issues like wearing hijab, the French seem to be finding a balance between Muslim identity and embracing European pluralism more so than other nearby countries like Denmark or Germany.
Blending cultural connectivity with an ecological approach to conflict resolution will make all sides realise that for better or for worse they are stuck with the same earthly constraints of their geography. Mr Sarkozy deserves to be congratulated for showing true leadership where so many other world luminaries have faltered. Perhaps he can bring some of his talents to reconciling the differences between the intransigent states around the Indian Ocean as well!
Dr. Saleem H. Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Natural Resources and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Web site: http://www.saleemali.net