The Cultural and Social Euro-Mediterranean and the Enlargement of the European Union. A View From the Perspective of Scandinavian Societies

Tuomo Melasuo

Tampere Peace Research Institute (TAPRI), Finland


In the mid 1990s, European countries, and especially the members of the European Union, hoped to establish significant co-operation with other countries in the Mediterranean and to exert a real and positive impact on Euro-Mediterranean relations. Several countries in the southern and eastern Mediterranean shared this point of view. This convergence was made evident in the Barcelona Conference in November 1995, in which Sweden and Finland, two Scandinavian countries that had joined the European Union at the beginning of that selfsame year, took part as full members.

In the years that followed the Barcelona Conference, the countries of Scandinavia promoted a true Mediterranean policy intended to contribute towards ensuring that the Conference’s goals—especially its economic and political objectives— moved forward within the European Union in general and in the Euro-Mediterranean region in particular. As is to be expected, the political direction of the Scandinavian countries has evolved over the years in keeping with the changes that have occurred in Europe and in the neighbouring regions. Today, in the autumn of 2005, the Mediterranean world faces transformations of supreme importance. Many of these changes have already been in progress for some years now and can be summed up in the following remarks. Firstly, we are forced to recognise that the results of the Barcelona Process have, at least so far, been more modest than was hoped eight years ago.

This fact has aroused a considerable sense of frustration in the south and a certain passivity in the north of the Mediterranean. More important still than these reservations is the fact that the economic and social situation in the southern countries has continued to worsen throughout all these years. Fortunately, some co-operation networks have been set up in the cultural sphere and have produced positive results. The decline in the social and economic situation, however, remains the most delicate factor in the Euro-Mediterranean context and determines to a considerable extent the future options for the development of the societies in the region. The second series of changes are to do with the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, when ten new members from Eastern Europe and a few Mediterranean islands joined. The impact and significance of this enlargement for the countries in the southern and eastern Mediterranean, as well as for EuroMediterranean co-operation, is only known to an approximate degree.

Everyone seems to be in agreement, however, that this enlargement will have a considerable impact on all partners, despite the fact that in the political sphere these changes are easily recognisable and manageable, at least in part. Even though this is the case, the political sphere may still hold some unexpected surprises, as reflected in the behaviour of Poland and the activities of certain countries in the ‘New Europe’ in response to the Anglo-American war against Iraq in the spring of 2003. Where the influence of the enlargement will be more unpredictable and difficult to control is in the social and economic spheres. Nevertheless, it is in these ambits that its impact will be greatest and more profound, with more sweeping effects for the societies. In the short term, the effects of the impact of the repercussions of the war against Iraq and its occupation by the Anglo-American troops will be extremely uncertain as regards the situation in the Middle East and North Africa and, naturally, for Euro-Mediterranean relations.

The aggressors and the occupiers have speculated on the immediate effects of the attack in the political sphere, but they have not concerned themselves to any great degree with the social and cultural impact over the long term. Nevertheless, the continuation of the chaos they have unleashed, the fact that Iraqis’ living conditions are more difficult during the pax Americana than during the ‘reign’ of Saddam Hussein and the large number of Iraqi deaths constitute irrefutable signs of this impact. Now, in the autumn of 2003, in the light of the growing difficulties in Iraq, but in particular due to the proximity of the 2004 elections, the current US administration is once again seeking the support of the international community and the United Nations, though more as a means to share the burden in the eyes of its voters rather than to benefit the Iraqi people, which it seems to have absolutely no interest in.

Blatant evidence of this is the recent decision of the American Senate whereby the Iraqis should pay half of the financial costs of their own occupation. As in every war in the Middle East—the Six-Day War in 1967, the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973, the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s and the Gulf War of 1991— the true and profound effects of the conflict will not be visible or take effect until some years hence. The societies of the Middle East and North Africa react relatively slowly. Time is needed for the feelings of frustration to have an impact socially and culturally on people’s lives before taking a political form. The effects of the war in 1967 did not become apparent until the 1970s, and the attack of September 2001 against the United States came ten years after the Gulf War.

And we have no idea how Mediterranean societies will react socially and culturally following the war that broke out in the spring of 2003. In the Middle East, this situation is reinforced by the negative effects of the failure of the peace process in Palestine. Once more, by turning everything into terrorism and into a fight against terrorism, the spread of the occupation—and the support given it by the AngloAmericans—makes things even more perverse, as the victim is held responsible rather than the aggressor and the occupier.

The fact that no really serious measure has been put forward by the Anglo-Americans to continue advancing the peace process is a sign of their lack of will and of their incapability with regard to the primordial responsibilities in the region. This situation as a whole and the reasons given are precisely why the social and cultural aspects will be essential for the future of the Mediterranean world and EuroMediterranean co-operation. How are Scandinavian countries reacting in the light of these changes?

The focus of Scandinavian countries

The Mediterranean policies of the Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden—are politically sensitive and are constantly evolving over time, with the accent placed on different issues from year to year. As the period of their membership of the European Union grows, so the difference in their political focuses in general and their Mediterranean policy—which depends on their own political situation and on the character of their regimes—becomes more apparent. In the early years of the Barcelona Process, there was a kind of informal division of labour between the Scandinavian countries, but now the ambitions of their individual political regimes dictate the Mediterranean orientation of each country.

For some years, Denmark has been active in the field of human rights in the Euro-Mediterranean context. It is home to the EMHRN (Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network), which is based in Copenhagen. When the current government came to power, and almost all the centres and NGOs that worked in the international sphere were threatened with the loss of government support and so were in danger of disappearing, only the EMHRN remained, though, it has to be said, it is in difficulties. In recent times, Denmark has tried to play an even more active role by organising the colloquium “Security in the Euro-Mediterranean Region: Building a Comprehensive Concept”, held in the autumn of 2002 for senior officials and the EuroMeSCo in Copenhagen.

The war in Iraq has, however, complicated Denmark’s political focus, as it is the only EU member in the north to have decided to send troops to Iraq. Recently, if my information is correct, it has also made public the idea that the sole goal of the European Union’s Mediterranean policy ought to be to support and complete action taken by the Americans in the area. The other countries in the north do not share this approach. For almost ten years, Sweden has been focussing on cultural dialogue issues in its approach to EuroMediterranean relations. In June 1995, before the Barcelona Conference, a huge gathering was organised on this issue in Stockholm, which gave rise to the meeting held in Mafraq in Jordan the following year.

These two conferences were followed by the Stockholm Conclusions of April 1998. Sweden has also been active in relation to the Baltic countries, for which it hopes to become a kind of godmother regarding the future Mediterranean policies of these new members of the European Union. Rivalry over this issue is beginning to break out between Sweden on the one hand and Denmark and Finland on the other. All three of these countries want to guide the Baltic countries’ first steps in the Union. In other words, they want to act as a kind of tutor in Mediterranean policy for the Baltic countries. Finland has concentrated its Mediterranean approach, at least during the early part of its membership of the European Union, on environmental affairs.

In 1997, it organised the Conference of Environment Ministers in Helsinki. And in 1999, during the Finnish presidency, the TAPRI Research Project on the Mediterranean organised an intensive training course on environmental issues for Mediterranean journalists. In the following years, Finland has shown itself to be very active in the SMAP (Short and Medium-Term Action Plan). In fact, environmental issues in the Mediterranean are very convenient for Finland, as it also puts these in practice in its own neighbouring areas. This means it is able to concentrate on more or less the same issues on its eastern border with Russia, on its southern border with the Baltic countries and in a more general manner in the Baltic Sea and in the Mediterranean as well. In general, Finland feels relatively comfortable with the European Union’s Mediterranean policy.

Rarely are differences to be perceived between Finnish interests and those of the Union as regards Mediterranean policy. With regard to policy on defence and security, it should be remembered that Sweden and Finland are not NATO members.The Baltic countries and Poland, however, joined a year ago. There has been a complete change with regard to this issue in just a few years in the Baltic. Barely ten years ago, only two Baltic countries were members of NATO; now they all are except Russia, Sweden and Finland.The enlargement of the European Union to these nine new countries that are NATO members will unquestionably have an impact on NATO and the EU’s Mediterranean policy.There is the risk that these countries will want to align themselves with the US positions, to the detriment of European interests. As a result, the development of a European defence policy in the Mediterranean may suffer more delays than any other issue as a consequence of the enlargement. Naturally, the enlargement will exert the same kind of influence in the east of the European Union. Despite the coverage given to security measures in the media, it is social issues that will play a primordial role in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

Enlargement and Social Issues

The social dimension, that is to say, the living conditions of the various societies, is the most important issue in the Mediterranean today and to a large extent directs the cultural and political behaviour of the various peoples. If social life becomes blocked and undergoes no change that offers a glimpse of a better tomorrow, then the frustrations that this will generate may hold a number of unpleasant surprises in the near future in Eastern Europe as well as in the Mediterranean. When we talk of the social dimension, we are also and above all talking about the everyday lives of individuals and Mediterranean societies.

It is perhaps this familiarity and this immediacy that hinder us from seeing the importance of social issues, to the point that they can even seem so banal and ordinary that they do not draw our attention sufficiently. In general, however, the issues—such as housing, schools and education, work, health, etc.—are very practical and have a considerable impact on all societies. In the Muslim world, there are tens of millions of young people who have no prospects in terms of education, training and housing (which equates to talking about marriage and a normal sex life), or in employment. In short, they have no prospect of living a decent life. EuroMediterranean co-operation ought to be capable of quickly proposing a number of positive changes and improvements to such living conditions. Yet after evaluating the debate on Euro-Mediterranean co-operation, we can see that co-operation has had a relatively significant effect on the economic impact of enlargement, but virtually no effect or indeed no effect at all on its social impact.

How will Mediterranean societies react socially to enlargement? We have some notion of what will happen in the short term, but no idea about the long term. I am of the opinion that these social issues are common to Eastern Europe as well as the Mediterranean; they only differ in degree. Are the two regions perhaps interdependent? Can the Maghrebi potential in certain agricultural sectors (vegetables, citrus fruits, olive oil, etc.) be used to revitalise the markets of Eastern Europe? The same question could also be asked in relation to fishing and petroleum. What might the future of trade exchanges between these two regions be? Naturally, we also have to ask ourselves to what extent the resources of the European Union will suffice to facilitate co-operation with the southern countries. Given these circumstances, Scandinavian countries understand well the importance of accords of association and of the free trade area in the Mediterranean.

This will be one of the most important means to balance the economic impact of enlargement. For some time now, there has been increasing talk of social engineering and innovation, not just as regards Euro-Mediterranean co-operation, but also and above all to do with the negative effects of neo-liberalism and globalisation that threaten the privileged societies of northern Europe. So, it will be necessary to fight to preserve our well-deserved achievements.

Enlargement and Cultural Issues

There can be no doubt that when Samuel Huntington talked of a clash of civilisations, his perspective was that of an Anglo-American protestant. His view has reinforced the logic of confrontation, if not simply contributed to the outbreak of conflict. His viewpoint is very remote from the cultural plurality of Europe and hence it is very difficult for Europeans to understand. Cultural dialogue across the Mediterranean—though very difficult on certain issues, such as human rights, good governance, etc.—does not resemble a clash of civilisations. This is understood perfectly on both sides of the Mediterranean, as the efforts made to set up the Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue of Cultures attest.

This foundation was accepted by all the Barcelona Process partners at the meeting held in Naples in December 2003. The enlargement of the European Union, taking in Eastern Europe, opens up a number of possibilities and windows for cultural co-operation that may have contradictory effects, that is to say they could be both positive and negative at the same time. Eastern Europe is a very culturally diverse region. For example, with regard to religion, we find the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christian faiths. But we should also recognise that Eastern Europe had a Marxist and socialist past, with all the successes and setbacks that that entails. I am of the view that it is still too soon for Eastern Europe to be able to recognise and embrace this part of its cultural heritage from its recent past. This complex situation could give rise to various different approaches in the Mediterranean.

Taking an optimistic viewpoint, it would be desirable for Eastern European countries, given their experience and multiculturalism, to make suggestions to the Mediterranean countries regarding what they ought to do to implement their transformation and transition successfully. It is also essential for them to work together in order to reinforce the multicultural approach in the European Union. The outcome in the cultural sphere of enlargement can also be viewed much more cautiously. On this point, I have to confess my own concerns following certain experiences and discussions that I have recently had with highlevel representatives of the Eastern European countries. It is possible that the things that have happened over the last 50 years have been much more traumatic than we have so far been prepared to recognise. Doubts and suspicions about the other, regardless of who that other may be, are very strong. And even though religion as such may be multicultural, my view is that individual societies fail in their particular experiences of multicultural living.

The eastern countries have not experienced the same kind of immigration as western Europe and so lack western Europe’s understanding of what it means to share and live side by side with others, even though it is at times difficult to do so. This lack of experience in Eastern Europe presents a number of difficulties, which are evident, for example, in the way ethnic minorities are treated in these countries, such as the treatment of the population of Russian origin in Estonia. Unfortunately, we have no alternative but to recognise that there is racism in countries in the East as well, and that this racism may, in the short term, have a negative impact on Euro-Mediterranean co-operation. Bush’s war in Iraq in the spring of 2003 has contributed towards reinforcing these dubious aspects.

Cultural co-operation is an essential part of the Barcelona Process and is very important, constituting much more than a mere dialogue on and with Islam. It is important to remember that without the Mediterranean, Europe would not exist. And as Mohammed Arkoun commented ten years ago,5 “in order to achieve its cultural, social and political objectives, Europe needs to return to its Mediterranean roots.”

The Scandinavian Countries and the Future

The enlargement of the European Union eastwards has not entailed major changes or challenges for Scandinavian countries. This is because these countries have a long tradition of co-operation with Eastern European countries, as they have been putting into practice intensive co-operation with the new members since the early 1990s. Scandinavian countries will go largely unaffected by enlargement, the effects of which will be mainly to do with the import of alcohol—which are subject to lower taxes in the East—and an increase in competition due to the deregulation of the job market. Major changes are not expected in our dealings with the Mediterranean.The principle of reciprocity holds sway, and if we want Mediterranean countries to understand the concerns of northern Europe, then we have to be active in the south and demonstrate our solidarity there. It has to be said that Lutheranism has given the northern outlook a particular character in the cultural sphere.

There is the risk—though it is small—that we will believe that we are the only ones to live well and that we are always right. Luckily, however, this is not taken as seriously as it was in the 17th century. Scandinavian countries can also make a contribution in the social sphere.With their relatively long tradition in this ambit, these countries have a capacity for innovation and their achievements have spread around the world— paternity leave is a good example. And it seems clear that Euro-Mediterranean co-operation requires free, innovative spirits if it is to achieve the social progress that is so sorely needed. Some progress has been made in the economic sphere. Between the time Sweden joined the EU and 1999, its investment in the Mediterranean region increased eightfold.

Finland has also been trying to increase its trade. Numerous trade and industrial delegations led by a minister have recently visited countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Finnish exports are concentrated in telecommunications systems—with Nokia in prime position—and imports in fruit and clothing. One of the Finnish priorities in the region is to develop trade, as well as co-operation on environmental issues and telecommunications. The enlargement of the European Union has had only a marginal effect on these priorities. Finland tends to follow the same parameters as Sweden and Austria—which joined the European Union at the same time as Finland—in its Euro-Mediterranean cooperation activities.

The most interesting of the Scandinavian countries’ activities are in the sphere of culture and cultural dialogue. In addition to those activities already mentioned, it is worth pointing to the founding of various Scandinavian institutes in the last ten years. Sweden has set up a foundation in Alexandria and has strengthened the institute it already had in Istanbul. For its part, Denmark has opened a research institute in Damascus.And Finland, after some hesitation, has done the same. With regard to cultural activities, it is important to bear in mind southern interests relating to Scandinavia. In 2000, the University of Alcalá de Henares was one of the first to organise a gathering on the northern and the Iberian peripheries of Europe.This was followed by another, this time convened by the Complutense University of Madrid in September 2003, on information societies in the north. These events were held for the purpose of creating a northern research unit in Spain.

The activities organised in Catalonia are also worthy of mention. In 2002, a colloquium was held in Barcelona on regional cooperation in the Baltic and the Mediterranean, and in May 2003 the IEMed organised a major conference on the effects in the Mediterranean of EU enlargement. In addition to these activities pursued in the Iberian Peninsula, those efforts made in Rome and Morocco with a view to developing northern European studies must also be highlighted. Euro-Mediterranean relations are extremely rich and varied, given that they take into consideration the various sectors and parts of Europe and the Mediterranean. As a result, despite their virtual weakness today, they show signs of improving in the future.

With regard to enlargement, it is important to set in motion a clear and convincing approach to the Mediterranean in the social, economic and cultural spheres, in order to get around the dangers contained within the specific features and lack of experience of the new members. Enlargement may in fact serve to alleviate the political pressure being brought to bear today. Is it possible that enlargement to the East might alleviate some of the negative effects of the crisis in the Middle East and the war against Iraq? The answer to this is ‘of course’, though there is no doubt that enlargement will constitute a challenge for the countries of Eastern Europe. All the new member countries, such as the Baltic countries and Poland, will be involved next year in Euro-Mediterranean co-operation. What is the economic and political outlook resulting from this situation? What cultural impact will this have? How will the debate on security progress?

For the moment, no answer has been found to all these questions. From the point of view of the Scandinavian countries, the enlargement of the European Union opens up a whole host of possibilities for Euro-Mediterranean relations, with difficulties, yes, but also with positive alternatives. We need to focus on these options in a constructive, dynamic and firm way. The development of EuroMediterranean co-operation is perhaps the most important challenge that Europe will have to face in the coming 20 years. And for this theme to continue advancing, we all need to work hard and hold firm to our convictions.