The Mediterranean and Europe

Predrag Matvejević

Philosopher and writer

The image offered by the Mediterranean is far from reassuring. Its Northern shore trails behind the North of Europe, and it is the same if we compare the Southern shore with the European. Both in the North and South, the basin as a whole has difficulty maintaining unity with the continent. It is not really possible to consider this sea as one “whole” without bearing in mind the fractures that divide it and the conflicts that tear it apart; today in Palestine, and yesterday in Lebanon, Cyprus, the Maghreb, the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, reflections of other more distant wars, such as that of Afghanistan, and of another even closer, Iraq. The Mediterranean is very familiar with other conflicts between coasts and inland.

For a relatively short time, the European Union has been forging itself without considering all this; in other words, a Europe separated from the “cradle” of Europe has been born. As if someone could develop after having being deprived of childhood and adolescence. The banal or repetitive explanations given were unable to convince those they were addressed to. And those giving them did not believe them either. The parameters with which in the North the present and future of the Mediterranean are observed do not fit in with those of the South. The reading schemes are different. The Northern coast of the inland sea has a perception and awareness different from those of the coast in front. In our time, the two shores of the Mediterranean only have their discontent in common. The sea itself increasingly seems more like a frontier that extends from East to West, separating Europe from Africa and from Asia Minor.

But the decisions related to the destiny of the Mediterranean are made without consideration of all this and even with disregard to it, which engenders frustrations and phantoms. Manifestations of happiness at the spectacle of the Mediterranean are contained and fleeting. The feelings of nostalgia are expressed through the arts and literature. Fragmentations prevail over convergences. For some time, a historical pessimism, a literary “crepuscularism”, has been seen silhouetted on the horizon.

Mediterranean consciousness is alarmed and sometimes organises. Over the last few decades, the demands have resulted in numerous plans and programmes: the Charters of Athens, Marseilles and Genoa; the Mediterranean Action Plan and the Sofia-Antipolis Blue Plan for the future of the Mediterranean “around the year 2025”; the Declarations of Naples, Malta, Tunis, Split and Palma de Mallorca, among many others; the Euro-Mediterranean Conferences in Barcelona, Malta and Palermo, and the civil society forums held in Barcelona, Malta and, lastly, Naples (with the attendance of 1,200 people from all the Mediterranean countries). However, the results of other similar efforts, laudable and generous in their intentions, and encouraged or supported by the government commissions or the international institutions, have been quite limited.

What point is there in continuing to stress, with resignation or exasperation, the aggressions still suffered by our sea? Nothing allows us, however, to let them pass in silence: environmental deterioration, dirty contamination, ferocious initiatives, poorly controlled demographic movements, corruption in a literal or figurative sense, lack of order and scarcity of discipline, localisms, regionalisms and endless other “isms”. But the fact is that the Mediterranean is not the only one responsible for this state of affairs. Its best traditions (those that associate art and the art of living) have vainly opposed all of this. The notions of exchange and solidarity and of cohesion and “partnership” must be submitted to critical examination. Fear of immigration from the Southern coast is not by itself enough to determine a rational policy.

The Mediterranean appears as a state of affairs and continues to be unable to become a project. The Southern coast maintains its reservations, after the experience of colonialism. Moreover, the two shores were much more important on the maps used by strategists than on those unfolded by economists.

The Mediterranean has delayed in confronting modernity. All along its coasts it has known nothing of laicism

So much has been said about this “primary sea” converted into a maritime strait, and about its unity and division, and its homogeneity and disparity; we have known for a long time now that it is neither “an independent reality” nor “a constant”, but that the whole Mediterranean is composed of many sub-wholes that challenge or reject the unifying ideas. The historical or political conceptions occupy the place of the social or cultural conceptions, without managing to coincide or harmonise with them. Both in the North and the South it is not possible to reduce the categories of civilisation or the matrices of evolution to common denominators. The proposals of the coastal strip and those of the inland mutually exclude or oppose each other.

The Mediterranean has delayed in confronting modernity. All along its coasts it has known nothing of laicism. In order to proceed with a critical examination of these facts, it is first necessary to free ourselves of a supremely embarrassing burden. Each one of the Mediterranean coasts has its own contradictions, which are continuously reflected both in the rest of the basin and in other sometimes distant spaces. We have witnessed the cruel failure of the implementation of coexistence in multiethnic or multinational territories, in which diverse cultures and distinct religions cross and mix.

There is no single Mediterranean culture; rather there is a Mediterranean with many cultures. Cultures characterised by some quite similar features and by others which are very different. The similarities are motivated by the proximity of a common sea and by the meeting on its shores of nations and forms of expression very close to each other. And the differences are marked by reasons of origin and history, as well as of beliefs and customs. However, neither the similarities nor the differences are absolute or constant; rather the first sometimes prevail and, at other times, the second. The rest is mere mythology. 

“Developing an alternative inter-Mediterranean culture.” Implementing a project of this kind does not seem to be imminent, but perhaps it would be less ambitious to “share a differentiated vision”, although this is not always easy to do.

Both in the ports and on the high sea “the old submerged ropes”, which poetry seeks to recover and knot together again, have often been broken or torn because of intolerance or ignorance. For a long time, on the stage of this vast amphitheatre the same repertoire has been performed, to the point that often the gestures of its actors are familiar and predictable. But, on the other hand, its genius has managed to reaffirm its creativity in each era better than anyone. Therefore, it is necessary to rethink the overcome notions of periphery and centre, the old relations of distance and proximity, the meanings of the splits and annexations, and the relations of the symmetries with respect to the asymmetries. It is no longer enough to limit oneself to observing these things on a scale of proportions or through a dimensional perspective; rather they can also be considered in terms of values. Some Euclidian conceptions of geometry need to be overcome. The forms of rhetoric and narrative, of politics and dialectics, inventions of the Mediterranean genius, have been used for too long and sometimes seem threadbare.

Adopting only particular projects related to Europe must be avoided, which sometimes simply conceal economic-political interests

The question of whether “the Mediterranean exists beyond our imagination” is asked as much in the South as in the North, both in the East and the West. However, despite the splits and the conflicts that take place or that are suffered in this part of the world, there are common or accessible ways of being and ways of living.

Seeing the Mediterranean based only on its past is still a persistent habit, both in terms of the coast and inland. The “patria of the myths” has been forced to suffer because of the mythologies that it has itself engendered or that others have contributed to nourishing. This space rich in history has been the victim of historicisms. There is still a tendency to confuse representation of reality with reality itself; the image of the Mediterranean and the real Mediterranean do not identify with each other at all. When it is broadened, an identity of being eclipses or rejects a poorly defined identity of doing. The retrospective continues to impose itself on the perspective. And, consequently, thought itself continues to be a prisoner of stereotypes.


In Europe, the fact of confusing European civilisation with universal civilisation is quite a notorious temptation. Bestowing an almost absolute meaning on a concrete and contingent reality is a common error. On these occasions it would be more useful to dispute the expectations and hopes that one part of Europe has of the other. Although for this it might be necessary to first define or clarify some concepts and terms.

The term “Eastern Europe” has been a more political and ideological than geographical and cultural designation imposed after the Second World War and the Cold War. On falling into disuse, this denomination has been replaced by another, equally imprecise: that of “Central and Eastern Europe”, given that Central Europe also includes some countries that, like Austria or Switzerland, have never been subjected to the “communist” regimes of the East.

For its part, the term of the “other Europe” refers to a notion that is also poorly defined, perhaps on purpose. What is other in this part of Europe and what is European in this otherness? No one has ever answered this question and, what is more, I do not know of anyone who has even asked it. As a whole, Europe is no longer what it once was. Moreover, what we know as the Third World has changed, and some now speak of a Fourth World.

One part of the “other Europe” of our time apparently belongs to the Third World; the remains of the Soviet empire, vestiges of the old Russia, of Byelorussia or of Ukraine, much of the broken up former Yugoslavia, the boundaries of the Balkans, of Bulgaria, Albania or Rumania, and perhaps also of Greece or Turkey. After a change which was as violent as it was unexpected, the notions of Western and Eastern Europe finally seem to fit in with the cardinal points. And we could only be pleased at this good use of words if things had turned out differently.

The return to the past is no more than a chimera, but the return from the past is a real tragedy

If the denomination of the “other Europe” is ambiguous, the reality it refers to is no less so. Today we can see this reality just as it is or as it should be. The rhetoric knows how to adapt to these ambivalences. Politics takes advantage of this, and political rhetoric abuses.

This involves thinking about Europe by considering the values of the culture and civilisation that characterise it. Adopting only particular projects must be avoided, which sometimes simply conceal economic-political interests. This point seems to be of extreme urgency at a time when Europe itself is creating its definition and preparing, not without difficulty, the European Union Constitution. The enlargement of the Union gives extraordinary relevance to this task.

Each new attempt usually starts or concludes with a banal and at the same time essential question: “Which Europe?” On many occasions, and in diverse contexts, we have heard about the Europe of coal and steel, until reaching that of Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and the euro. Perhaps it would be useful to re-evoke some terms in which this question was posed and rescue some of our predecessors’ ideas from oblivion. Moreover, some have retained their relevance: “Europe will be would be or will not be… It will be more scientific than literary and more intellectual than artistic. For many of us this lesson will be cruel.” Julien Benda warned us with these words in his Discourse to the European Nation, written on the eve of a war that would have been European if it had not become worldwide. We could change some tones of the warnings of the aforementioned author or even add something in the same vein.

It would be desirable for the current Europe to be less Eurocentric than that of the past, more open to the so-called Third World of colonialist Europe, less egoistic than the “Europe of nations”, more a Europe of the citizens, and less a Europe of the states that have fought many wars against each other. A Europe more aware of itself and less subordinated to Americanisation. It would be utopian to hope that, in a foreseeable future, it were more cultural than commercial, more cosmopolitan than community, more understanding than arrogant, more welcoming than proud and, finally, of course, more socialist with a human face (in the sense that the dissidents of the old Eastern Europe – for example, Sajarov – gave to this term) and less facelessly capitalist.

And it seems legitimate to ask what this “other Europe” that finds itself confronted with these alternatives would be. In most of what have been called “countries of the East”, post-communism has not yet managed to “reach” the self-denominated communist regimes (in terms of standard of living and production, economic exchanges, social security, pension scheme, etc). To cite just one example, Slovenia, one of the best situated new states, has taken almost eight years to reach its own level; that is, to achieve the same productivity that it had in the early 1990s. The objective of this is not to rehabilitate the well-known practices of a socialism that has proclaimed itself “real”. The transitions of these countries are lasting much longer than expected. Only with rare exceptions do they manage to truly transform themselves. (These two notions must be more clearly distinguished: transition is based on hypothesis; transformation is a result.)

The bad smell of the Old Regime is still perceived in many areas of our continent and outside it. It is a reality that already seems concluded, although not completely concluded or achieved in an acceptable way. It is a difficult situation to put up with and hard to be free of. Many grave diggers have tried it in vain, without managing to dispose of its remains. It is a role that is anything but pleasant.

More than one regime ostentatiously proclaims its democracy despite the fact that its democratic appearance hardly seems credible; between the past and present there is an interruption, and between the present and future the hybrid meeting between a desire for emancipation and the remains of subjection is developed. For more than eight years, I have called this ambiguous non-place “democratorship”.

On the one hand, Central Europe does not allow itself to be limited to one representation. On the other, it is not possible to be aware of its particularity if it is not within its borders

Sharing out still continues but there remains little to share. There is a belief that the present has been conquered while the past has not even been understood. Certain freedoms are born without it always being known what to do with them, with the risk of abuses. In these countries there has been a need to defend a national heritage and, in many cases, today it is necessary to defend oneself against this very heritage. And it is the same with memory: it had to be safeguarded and now it is as if there was a desire to punish the very people who saved it.

I am well aware that these somewhat forced affirmations cannot be generalised, given that what is valid for Albania, or for certain members of the former Yugoslavia, cannot exactly be applied to Bulgaria, Rumania or Russia. And in its turn the Bulgarian, Rumanian or Russian situation cannot be compared with that of Hungary, Poland or, especially, with that of the Czech Republic or Slovenia. Croatia is between the two groups; that is, behind Slovenia and before Serbia and Montenegro, an exhausted Macedonia or a weak Bosnia. I wish it the future it deserves.

The return to the past is no more than a chimera, but the return from the past is a real tragedy. Resuming the most primitive forms of savage capitalism – which contemporary capitalism itself has abandoned – cannot sustain any kind of reconstruction, or encourage any type of renewal. The idolatry of the “market economy” produces scarce results in those places where the market itself is lacking, in which there is inevitably sometimes even a lack of merchandise! Neither do the results of middle class democracy – those which the aforementioned “democratorships” have tried to appropriate – possess universal values. The reformers forget this, because their understanding of this matter is limited. Therefore, can anyone be surprised at the fact that sometimes our discourses are so desperate? They probably have more of disillusionment than desperation.

The Mitteleuropa is certainly a much more serene space; however, in it there are still marks and scars of modern history: the consequences of the Cold War, the uncertainty of post-communism, the incomplete identities and the irritability of the national consciousnesses, the fear of a new hegemony practised by neighbours together with a feeling of impotence, the nature of the recently formed states and of the ideologies they proclaim, the national or ethnic conflicts which have scorched the Balkans and which threaten to spread further; all these factors are doubly related with the past and with the present. There is no need to be surprised if sometimes Central Europe gets carried away with melancholic memories, struggling with difficulty against the provincialism that threatens it, and badly prepared to bestow new splendour on the traditions of an already past time.

On the one hand, Central Europe does not allow itself to be limited to one representation. On the other, it is not possible to be aware of its particularity if it is not within its borders. Some of its components are perceived more within the category of “dregs of history” than that of “historical subjects”. Central European self-identification largely belongs to the sphere of memory, and it is difficult to carry out a revision of the past.

The old utopias that still continue to charm some new followers should confront some other more realistic judgements, formulated by critical spirits belonging to Central Europe itself. The Hungarian political thinker István Bibó – who, in passing on too soon, could not witness the true meltdown of his country – prepared an extraordinary inventory “of the destitution of the small states of Central and Eastern Europe,” observed in the course of the last century. His diagnoses (which I myself try to complete in part) conserve all their current relevance even after the disintegration of communism. “The mean and aggressive character of nationalism” reappears in various forms, such as “the hatred that these nationalities show towards each other”, or “the community hysterias that diminish their intellectual horizons”, accompanied by “foolish and incomprehensible” linguistic disputes, or by “archaic records” as preposterous as they are infantile. To this must be added a never-ending “tendency towards unreality” and a quickness to “formulate claims and invoke prerogatives”, different kinds of complaints and reciprocal accusations, public manifestations “subordinated exclusively to national ends”, a flowering of confused theories and philosophies “which submerge the life of these communities”, “a chaotic eloquence and thought, based on false categories”, “irresponsibility in the major European questions”, “aristocratic simulations with a special taste for representation” and, as a corollary, “an appropriation of the country by national feeling separated from the freedom of the individual.”

Deeply involved in its own organisational problems and in its enlargement towards the “other Europe”, the European Union should not forget that the Mediterranean is the cradle of our civilisation

As violent as they may be, these conclusions continue to be confirmed in some countries that gravitate around the Centre of Europe (when I was speaking of “these convulsions that on occasions hit almost the whole community” and whose treatment should be one of the most urgent tasks, more than once I was asked if István Bibó was a Jew). The characteristics that he enumerated have not been taken into consideration by those who, not long ago, undertook the task of defending Central Europe by invoking circumstantial arguments.

Deeply involved in its own organisational problems and in its enlargement towards the “other Europe”, the European Union should not forget that the Mediterranean is the cradle of our civilisation. It is possible that in the relations with the most developed European countries an economic interest predominates, but there are profound, historical, cultural and many other kinds of reasons for not abandoning the Mediterranean to a fate it does not deserve.

The destiny of the European East no longer depends, as before, on the former Soviet Union. However, there are many who continue to wonder about the future of the new Russian state and about the influence it can exercise.

What, in fact, will the Russia of tomorrow be like? Traditional and conservative like before, or modern and liberal? “Holy” or profane, orthodox or schismatic? More “white” than “red” or vice versa? Less “Slavophil” than “Westernist”? European or Asiatic? More “collectivist” than “populist”? Mystic and messianic in its own way, or rather laic and secularised? A Russia that “cannot be understood through the intellect” and in which “it is only possible to believe” (as the poet Tjutcev said in the 19th century), or the “robust” and “big-bottomed” (tolstozadaja) Russia praised by Aleksandr Blok? With Christ or “without the cross”? A real democracy or simply a “democratorship”? Only Russia (russkaia) or “of all the Russias” (rossiskaia)? But whatever it is, in any case it will have to take into account both what remains after the Soviet Union and what has perhaps been irremediably lost in this. It would be presumptuous, and perhaps even arrogant, to answer these questions here. That is a task that corresponds to History.