Intercultural Trends and Social Change in the Euro-Mediterranean Region

Gemma Aubarell

Anna Lindh Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures

Twenty years after the Barcelona Process and the implementation of its ambitious social, political and economic partnership project, the relation between Europe and its southern and eastern Mediterranean neighbours is facing one of the most challenging and decisive moments in its recent history. Throughout this period, the region has experienced profound transformations in an increasingly more global and open environment. In the southern Mediterranean, a new generation of youths has played a central role in the mobilisation towards the opening of their societies. At the same time, in the north subjected to the turbulence of the social and economic crisis, the social dialogue agenda and the objective of living together based on diversity have posed new difficulties internally and in relation with the other. Both realities come together on both sides in defence of values such as pluralism, inclusion and dignity. Civil society has emerged as a decisive actor of the changes in the region and the human dimension has become a central part of the possible responses to the challenges posed. Hence, the need more than ever to understand the degree of citizen ownership of this project.  

Intercultural Dialogue and Citizenship on the Euromed Agenda 

Envisaged from the outset as a tool complementary to the process of economic and political partnership, the cultural and civil society dimension has actually been one of the most sensible elements. The difficulties of building a shared relationship based on differences and the permanent manipulation to which these differences have been subjected have posed difficulties in understanding the benefits that this project could offer citizens. In order to confront this complex situation, the different initiatives and the main sociocultural programmes promoted in the framework of the partnership have traditionally been focused on improving the mutual perceptions between the northern and southern Mediterranean.

Diversity, knowledge and the approach to “the other” have been the dominant perspective throughout this period. As a result of the circumstances created in the international panorama following the events after the 11 September, a dynamic was created around the Muslim and western dimension framed in the global East-West dialogue. Therefore, this inevitably reductionist binomial has strongly marked ideological, disciplinary and media debates, influencing a public view highly centred on issues, such as the risk of fundamentalism and xenophobia.     

Along the same line, the challenges derived from migration mobility, the management of diversity and the settling of Muslim communities in Europe have resulted in an agenda that tends to generate stereotypes derived from the difficulty of managing internal agendas. These problems have recently given way to other global phenomena of extreme radicalisation, which are common to both realities. The trivialisation of perceptions, the construction of stereotypes, the risk of intolerance and, in what interests us here, the manipulation of the religious and cultural issues warn us of the challenge posed by the constant perception of diversity as a threat and the search for shared values. 

The urgency of re-launching the Euro-Mediterranean project in the last stage would mean a strengthening of the social dimension in the framework of the process of the Union for the Mediterranean, if the agenda of this project embraces crucial fields, such as gender, youth and employment. But the current situations of change marked by the recent emergence of the Arab Springs will be the most decisive and triggers and effective. The approach of the new European neighbourhood programmes in the region clearly supports the civil society dimension and the fields of cooperation in cultural production, as axes of the motivation of the most invigorating actors.  

These dynamics of change have caused and activated a renewed shared vision of the idea of citizenship. In the conception of dialogue established in the Barcelona Partnership, the creation of a community on which the Euro-Mediterranean alliance was based was not credible unless its maximum human exponent not only stopped being the main challenge in terms of stability but above all formed a positive view and shared common values and aspirations. 

Hence the importance of intercultural citizenship as an emerging value in this new stage. Shared values such as equality, diversity or participation enable dialogue to evolve from being a mere instrument of communication to a tool of interaction and exchange. The ownership of the values inherent in citizenship strengthens the prevailing need to build an active culture of dialogue shared very particularly by youths. Strengthening those instruments that foster understanding, which support intercultural skills and create spaces of citizen participation, is a priority.   

In all this time, the intercultural dialogue dossier has taken on growing strategic importance, with which it has been enriched and revisited, and a more global and dynamic dimension has been included within to enable it to confront the challenges posed. The creation of the Anna Lindh Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures (ALF) in 2005 would be the most outstanding exponent of this aim. The Foundation has been the instrument of the partnership that has led the intercultural dialogue dimension, fostering the creation of networks (today with over 4,000 involved) and supporting joint projects proposed by the civil society stakeholders. Over these years, the Foundation’s programme has gradually been adapted to the new context, basing its action on the fields of culture, education, and media. This perspective has given the Euro-Mediterranean project instruments of intercultural competence and consolidated areas of participation and debate in which youths are a central element. The ALF, through its national networks and its programme, very well reflects the evolution and difficulties of dialogue between European citizens and their Mediterranean neighbours, acting in its turn as an observatory of the evolution of their mutual perceptions through the Report on Intercultural Trends and Social Change in the Euro-Mediterranean Region. 

The approach of the new European neighbourhood programmes in the region clearly supports the civil society dimension and the fields of cooperation in cultural production, as axes of the motivation of the most invigorating actors

Observing Mutual Perceptions. Values and Trends in Socio-Cultural Relations

The Anna Lindh Report on Intercultural Trends and Social Change in the Euro-Mediterranean Region summarises in its two editions (2012 and 2014) the results of the survey launched by Gallup on the mutual values and perceptions of around 13,000 people in each one and brings together the reflections of over 60 experts. In this framework, it is very interesting to wonder: How are these circumstances affecting our perceptions? In what way does the interest in diversity run the risk of being seen as a generator of conflicts? How can the increasingly more exposed globalisation be combined with the potential of exchanges? What are the keys to approaching the other without falling into manipulations or abusing cultural relativisms? Are our values increasingly closer in theory but distant in practice? 

The opinions of citizens help us to better interpret and analyse the problems and potential of this relationship. They are keys that enable the mechanisms of cooperation and dialogue to be adapted to the changing reality confronting both shores of the basin and can help explain the current moment of our mutual perception in the region.  

Interest in the Other Has Become a Random Trend 

We know about the importance of human movements in the region and we have data that shows the relevance of the channels of communication that support the new technologies. There is no doubt that the Mediterranean is seen by its inhabitants as a real space of human relations, but if that is so, why has this not truly brought about better mutual understanding? We are unsure of the quality of this interrelation, if it is only the result of need, if it is seen as a generator of conflicts or if it is regarded as useful in terms of mutual awareness and enrichment.   

In the framework of the evolution of Euro-Mediterranean relations since 2011, the ALF survey data shows that there is a growing appetite for mutual awareness and awareness of the other. And this in a crucial moment in which a generation of youths has been part of the movements of change, and in which a series of diverse transitions are seeking models.

We know about the importance of human movements in the region and we have data that shows the relevance of the channels of communication that support the new technologies

The interactions have grown over recent years, in which 43% of Europeans say they have been in contact with people from the southern and eastern Mediterranean (eight more points than in 2009). Meanwhile, in the south, probably because of the effects of the crisis, the recent regional conflicts and the obstacles to mobility, this interaction is slightly reducing (from 24% to 22%). The opportunities for the emergence of this relation between people from the north and south are determined by the standards and real and legal possibilities. Therefore, it is not surprising that tourism is, according to European responses, the main source of relation with the southern and eastern shores, while the online relation through Internet is the most frequent for the people interviewed in the southern and eastern basin. 

The 2012 Report (based on data from the survey conducted before the Arab Spring) outlined the strategic importance of Internet and, by extension, of online communities, which emerged definitively as a privileged instrument for intercultural meeting. Talking online makes contact regular and the basis for a social interaction that goes beyond the circumstantial moment of the meeting. Southern and eastern Mediterranean countries pointed out that they related with Europeans far more intensively via Internet in 2009: 24% compared with only 4% of Europeans, a trend that was consolidated in 2012 (19% and 6%). In these periods it is significant how this contact, in the case of southern countries, is far more important than direct contact or contact in public areas. In the new 2014 edition of the Report, however, we see how the role of the media is not valued in equal measure as an effective instrument when expressing opinions and supporting demands, while action through social movements or even individual action is valued. And it is notable how the use of the media in this aspect is more valued in Europe than in southern and eastern Mediterranean countries, where it is even less valued by its main users, youths. 

What most interests us about the other? Overall, interest in the other is manifested mostly in European citizens. Culture and diversity attract European citizens much more than the opposite. The economic relation is sought by both in similar percentages; it has even increased in the southern countries in the last period. In parallel, interest in European political and coexistence models is the field in which citizens living in the south of the basin express most interest. 

Religion and Cultural Diversity Matter, But Are they Perceived as a Value or as a Risk?

Even though religious beliefs and practices are still the subject of least interest to Mediterranean citizens as a whole, mutual interest in this aspect has increased, as revealed in the 2012 survey: up to 11 points for Europeans and 6 in southern and eastern Mediterranean countries. This trend leads us to consider the centrality of this dossier in the current context for our relations in the region and their coexistence with different (and contradictory) situations: secularisation, individualism and religiosity. 

If interest in the beliefs of the other is clarified, religion emerges as an essential value in the ranking of southern countries, although it is no less true that the importance of values such as family (solidarity, respect) is the most shared value in the societies from the north, thereby qualifying the north-south reductionism to which we are accustomed. 

European citizens are increasingly more in favour of promoting religious values, and although if varies, depending on the countries, we could say that this upward trend differs from that of their southern neighbours, who drop more than 11 percentage points as a whole. Nevertheless, these same countries coincide in attaching great importance to religion as a value of progress in their societies.  

In an increasingly more diverse environment in religious and cultural terms, it is revealing how Euro-Mediterranean citizens as a whole attach ever more importance to cultural and religious diversity, also in the southern countries. These, in contrast to European countries, share in most cases the belief in the existence of absolute guidelines. This approach in the trends that take us to positively value diversity and its combination with our own values can constitute a consistent base in our future relations.

In an increasingly more diverse environment in religious and cultural terms, it is revealing how Euro-Mediterranean citizens as a whole attach ever more importance to cultural and religious diversity

However, we must bear in mind how religious and cultural diversity is seen as a risk. This opinion, shared in the north and south (48% and 46% respectively), would respond to the current framework of economic crisis and employment in Europe, which makes management of diversity a relevant challenge. In this respect, we must also consider the situation created after the Arab Springs in societies such as Tunisia or Egypt in terms of religious movements. 

How Have the Arab Springs Affected Our Mutual Perceptions?

The survey was conducted one year after the first revolutions in the region, which means that opinions are expressed at an early stage of the emergence of spaces of freedom and opening. The first impression is positive: the European countries (48%) and southern Mediterranean countries (44%) believe that the Arab Springs will have a positive impact on the relations between both shores. 

In political terms, the results would confirm that democracy is a shared future and that it brings similar values for European and southern and eastern Mediterranean citizens, respectively: the value of freedom (46% in Europe and 49% in the southern and eastern Mediterranean), freedom of expression (34% and 37%), free elections (22% and 15%), dignity (14% and 12%), stability (11% and 15%) and prosperity (9% and 12%). There is a very interesting detail that helps to understand the process of transition and the values that this brings: Europeans value the civil commitment to resolve the problems in society as the best way of achieving efficiency, including the integration of social movements (20%), while the responses from southern and eastern countries clearly prefer individual action (20%).

However, the medium and long-term stability of values and attitudes, the support for opening and the progressive resilience shown by public opinion in the region to the changes (the resistance to change has gone from 90% in 2009 to 79% in 2012), must be analysed with nuances. The emerging attitudes of minorities with regressive values and the consequences of the situation of complex change confronting the region have many readings and we must keep in mind what emerges in many analyses as a resistant trend.

What Are the Prospects for Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation?

The image of the Mediterranean is still closely linked to a vision of positive values such as hospitality, history and lifestyle. This image is still more highly valued in the second survey and is clearly shared on both shores. This idea, however, is polarised and the vision of the Mediterranean as a risk and source of insecurity emerges strongly in both surveys (with significant values up to 75%). Thus, we could say that the Mediterranean label remains in the mind of its citizens even though they are living with a highly conflictive reality. 

One detail that can be surprising is that it is in Europe where there is a high percentage of citizens who express their will to leave their country. Very probably the crisis has greatly affected this view. 60% of Europeans say they would go while the same percentage of southern and eastern Mediterranean citizens believe it is best to stay in their country.  

One detail that can be surprising is that it is in Europe where there is a high percentage of citizens who express their will to leave their country

If we talk of a progressive coming together of values that can make sense of the north-south relation from diversity, there are some interesting key aspects on which to base our relations. The first is the validity of the project. European and southern and eastern Mediterranean countries agree on emphasising the positive effects of the cooperation project in the region, in particular in terms of incentivizing innovation and entrepreneurship (85.5%), respect for cultural diversity (85%) and the concern with the environment (83%). The validity of the Euro-Mediterranean project would therefore depend on its capacity to enhance the value of diversity and the commitment to innovation and initiative. The value of the project and its social ownership are closely linked to its effectiveness to improve the life of its citizens. So it is necessary to consider strategies more in keeping with the realities. 

The Value of Intercultural Dialogue Seen from Different Euro-Mediterranean Societies

An interesting aspect that the Report reflects is the result of the participation of the different national networks in their perception of the main challenges presented by intercultural dialogue in its diverse realities. Some of the most valued prospects when approaching intercultural dialogue: the risk of assimilating southern neighbours exclusively with immigration and the need to work; the establishment of platforms of dialogue in those societies that have already been exposed to intercultural tension in the recent past; the value of tolerance and acceptance of the other in those societies distanced from the Mediterranean framework and not exposed to multiculturality; the opening and the Euro-Mediterranean to support the transitions underway in the southern countries of the basin; the importance of the social and economic conditioning as a basis of dialogue in societies in transition; the role of civil society as an actor of cooperation and its margins of action; and the importance of close neighbourhood relations in countries that share borders and interactions. This shows that the Euro-Mediterranean strategy must take into account the diversity of the situations that it comprises.