Baltic and Mediterranean Cooperation is Becoming Important

Esa Aallas

Journalist and writer

When Finland and Sweden became the new members of the European Union in 1995, the political cooperation and dialogue between Nordic countries and the Mediterranean region increased rapidly. According to Finnish professor, Mr Tuomo Melasuo, the growing importance of seas is a common issue: for instance, how to solve environmental and energy policy questions in the sea areas ? Moreover, during the Swedish Presidency on the second half of 2009 the new Baltic Sea Strategy is going to be presented to European Union. Modern immigration provides one link to the Mediterranean, says Mrs Katarina Runesson, international coordinator, at National Museums of World Culture in Göteborg, Sweden. Concerning to internal diversity and intercultural dialogue, mostly Lutherian but rather secular, democratic Nordic countries have new challenges like the visibility of Islam. 

The Greek historian Starbo, born in Asia Minor in the first century B.C., described the uncivilized North as uninhabitable because the cold weather and also a country where men were warriors and courageous in opposition the civilized and urbanized South. According to Aristotle, peoples in the North are products of cold climate, courageous but not particularly skilled or wise. But they were independent and unable to rule the others. Otherwise people in South were very skilled but not very courageous. Those days are gone. Today the North has well-fare, the South not everywhere. Today the migrants and refugees are travelling from South to North, also to the Nordic Countries. Today the cooperation between the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean is coming more and more important.

Professor Tuomo Melasuo works as Research director at Tampere Peace Research Institute (TAPRI), including the Mediterranean Studies, in the University of Tampere, Finland. He also coordinates the Finnish national network of Anna Lindh Foundation.

Esa Aallas: Finland and Sweden are Nordic countries but same time non-coastal Mediterranean countries. Are there some historical connections between these countries and the Mediterranean?

Tuomo Melasuo: From Antiquity until today there is a continuity of contacts between Sweden/Finland and the Mediterranean, even if their volume has always been modest. It is not known if the geographer Pytheas from Marseilles entered into the Baltic Sea four centuries before our time. And more than thousand years later, several Arab geographers wrote on Nordic and Baltic countries. As well as Ibn Khaldoun, famous North African historian and the father of sociology treated this subject in his famous world history. In the Middle Ages, Nordic, including Finnish, pilgrims travelled, first of all, to Santiago de Compostella, but also to Rome and even to Palestine. Mr. Olof Rudbeck (1630-1702), rector of the University of Uppsala, pretended that Sweden (Svea) was the reincarnation of the lost Atlantis and Swedish the original language of Adam and Eve. His theory definitely connected the Northen Europe with the Mediterranean mythologies. More or less the same time North African corsairs, who often were Danish and Dutch origin, sacked the city of Reykjavik taking tens of hostages for twenty years. Finnish women travelling down to Tunis in order to buy free their beloved husbands is other example. Still in the early 1930’s a Finnish author, Eetu Vuorio, published an oeuvre pretending that the Finns are originally from the Mediterranean, from Crete or from North Africa.

E.A : Why the Mediterranean matters in Nordic Countries in spite of the fact that Scandinavian do not belong to “inner Mediterranean circle” on the map drawn by French president, Mr. Sarkozy ?

T.M : Since 1995 Sweden and Finland wanted to be full members of the European Union, this implies that we are active in all the domains which are important for Europe. Europe needs the Mediterranean world for reaching its own goals and vice versa. Similarly: if the Nordic countries want the Southern European and Southern Mediterranean countries to understand and support our ambitions in the North, we must be active and creative in the South. Apparently Mr. Sarkozy has a limited knowledge and understanding of history and international relations. It is more and more necessary that even Mr. Sarkozy learns to appreciate Finland and Sweden as non-coastal Mediterranean countries. A little bit same way as France wants to join into the Baltic Sea Council, formed in 1992 with eleven memberstates [France made its application earlier this year].

E.A. : Finland’s Prime Minister, Mr. Matti Vanhanen, told during the Union for the Mediterranean meeting in Paris in July 2008 that Finland must be active in Euromed process for binding the others interest towards the Baltic Sea and the North. Do you agree ?

T.M. : There are practical, political and, in a certain way, even global reasons why the Baltic and Mediterranean cooperation is coming more and more important. On the global level the importance of seas and sea areas is increasing. This is due to three different factors. Firstly, the growing maritime transport in general. Secondly, increasing importance of ecological and environmental reasons to climate change where seas play an important role. Thirdly, the quest of natural resources; the new competition on Arctic Sea is a clear sign for that. Concretely, level new transport and port facilities can share same logistic and technological experience and make progress together, both sea areas are planning to construct “maritime highways”. North Stream gaz pipeline from Russia to Germany through Gulf of Finland and the Baltic is just now on the agenda, for instance, like those from Algeria to Spain and France. The same kind of quest for sharing new technology is valid concerning different attempts to solve environment challenges.

E.A. : You mentioned that Mediterranean and Baltic cooperation is important also politically. Would you like to comment with details that ?

T. M. : Both sea areas are going towards major changes. New Baltic Sea Strategy will be presented to EU during the Swedish Presidency in 2009, and the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation will have some kind of new beginning with the Union for the Mediterranean decided by European leaders in Paris in July 2008. Both sea areas need their cooperation in order to strengthen their own role in European politics. One strategic question is how Southern Mediterranean partner countries could benefit on Baltic cooperation and vice versa. This cooperation with Nordic countries might be a kind of guarantee in their relations with their immediate neighbours in Southern Europe. Mediterranean and Baltic cooperation is also necessary to reassure the importance of both areas -Europe and the Mediterranean- in the world. It can only strengthen their roles and positions towards major challengers such as US, Russia, China and India, for instance. Only a Euro-Mediterranean community can be a global player.

E.A. : Finally, could you mention some examples with Anna Lindh Foundation activities in Finland?

T.M. : Personally, as the coordinator, I am particularly proud of our performance during the Euro-Mediterranean Dialogue Night in May with two major events together representing very well the cultural landscape of today’s Finland. Firstly, all the winners of multicultural song contest “Ourvision” participated at the soirée in the Cultural Center Caisa in Helsinki, showing the cultural importance and richness of the people arrived relatively recently in Finland. Secondly, late afternoon session on “Mika Waltari and the Mediterranean” with a very important public participation to celebrate the 100 years anniversary of the most Mediterranean author of 20th century Finland.

Katarina Runesson is the coordinator of the Swedish national network of Anna Lindh Foundation. She also works as an international cooperator in National Museums of World Culture in Göteborg, Sweden. These museums include also the Mediterranean museum [Medelhavsmuseet].

Esa Aallas : What role can culture play in new Swedish diverse reality ?

Katarina Runesson: Culture helps us shape and enforce our image of ourselves. Cultural policy therefore plays a role above the mere regulation of activities: it is a source for overcoming differences and strengthening unification. For this reason, Swedish cultural policy focuses on creating conditions for all to benefit from and participate in cultural life.

A crucial factor to the success of this policy is the promotion of intercultural meetings both on a local and an international level, like between Euro-Mediterranean partners. Such encounters have proven enriching as well as challenging.

E.A : Last year Sweden was among the European countries that received the most immigrants. Migration to Sweden has been fairly constant over the years. Thus, the influence of other cultures has been historically present.

K.R : After the Second World War, most immigrants came from Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey, in order to contribute to the Swedish work force. Also the modern immigration still provides us with links to the Mediterranean region, with new Swedish citizens from Lebanon, Syria and Kosovo. In relation to our population (9,2 million), the Swedish Muslim community is very large, encompassing about 100 000 people.

E. A : How are the migrants integrated into your country?

K. R : There are number of challenges. Cultural differences often receive the blame, when in reality it is prejudice that allows a less nuanced reflection of religious and cultural practices. As a result, media and other channels of information construct a notion of culture through images of cultural identity that confirm stereotypes and hinder social participation. This creates the tendency to identify cultural reasons as the cause of social problems.

E. A : You see that in spite of Sweden’s historical links and friendships beyond country borders, we are facing a society divided along cultural, religious and social lines.

K. R : As a secular society, Sweden has difficulties approaching a world-view strongly linked to religion, which causes barriers in dialogue between groups also on a local level. At the same time there are wonderful examples of the opposite: a more inclusive educational system, multicultural entrepreneurship, broadened horizons and appreciated influences as young people of different backgrounds are finding opportunities to work together.

Our new diverse reality should be perceived as a rich multiplicity, yet it is too often seen as a massive commerce of voices, where too many speak and too few listen. The real messages will not be delivered in the political arena, but through actual meetings between actual people through informal channels of communication.

E. A : Do you have in your mind an example of Anna Lindh Foundation activities in Sweden ?

K.R : There are several, but one in particular that I would like to mention: “Vox pacis” [Voices of peace]. This project received funds from the Anna Lindh Foundation to create workshops leading up to a concert that gathers voices and music from the different world religions [].