The Mediterranean has traditionally been a place of meeting of highly diverse peoples and civilisations that have managed to come together in pursuit of cultural development of great importance. Today, it is necessary to rediscover this old concept which considers the Mediterranean not as a barrier of separation but rather as a medium to provide trade, social and cultural exchanges. In this respect, the scientific, literary or philosophical legacies can lay the foundations of a dialogue that fosters mutual awareness among the Mediterranean peoples. This is how we will be able to get closer to the Other and build a space of peace and respect together. Through joint projects on the two shores of the Mediterranean, the European Union and other Euro-Mediterranean institutions are working to achieve this goal.
In my professional life as EU’s Commissioner for External Relations and Neighbourhood Policy and Minister of Foreign Affairs of my country, Austria, I have mainly focused on the Mediterranean since the early stages of the Barcelona Process, which greatly interested me. Throughout these years, I have had the opportunity to meet many key figures and visit numerous countries worldwide, but the Mediterranean region has always been especially close to me. I have seen its richness and misery, its ambitions and poverty, as well as the enormous diversity that we find in nearby territories that have seen great civilisations and where the diverse cultural substrata have remained.
I have always been interested in history and culture, the different customs, traditions, religions, literature, societies and the ongoing fight of peoples against poverty. I have felt an immense curiosity for the Other and how we can build bridges between us. Bridges that help us shorten distances, enrich us and unite us in order to create societies in peace and stability. This principle of dialogue between cultures and civilisations has guided my life and work.
I dare say, moreover, that this Mediterranean, this Mare Nostrum, is the most cultural of the seas. It is formed by intellectuals, painters and writers of great value, as well as by generous people and skilled politicians. Writing on the Mediterranean involves speaking of philosophy, thought and science; speaking, in short, of Culture with a capital c, whose expressions go back to cuneiform writing or Arab algebra. Today, the world is familiar with the nostalgic Istanbul of Orhan Pamuk, the colourful Cairo of Naguib Mahfuz and its local customs and habits, the luminous Andalusia of Juan Ramón Jiménez or the prodigious Barcelona of Eduardo Mendoza, and all these authors are related to this proud and generous sea that bathes their respective lands.
However, we must acknowledge that there are changing perceptions. Some southern peoples feel resentment, anger and frustration towards the northern shore of the Mediterranean. Others are concerned about violence, the economic situation or political frustration in some countries of the region. This change in perceptions provokes situations of conflict and tensions faced with which it is necessary to rediscover the tolerance of the golden eras of common history, such as the splendour of the Toledo of the three cultures. Now more than ever this city in which Jews, Arabs and Christians coexisted is a great example. The three communities organised together their life, festivals and ways of seeing reality. In my opinion, tolerance is the tool we must use to confront the conflicts in the region. To this end, we must rediscover the old concept that considers the Mediterranean not as a barrier that separates peoples but rather as a medium to provide trade, social and cultural exchanges; a shared space, both physically and psychologically, which we all have the right to navigate.
Moreover, it is very important to rediscover the time of exchanges of knowledge in mathematics, medicine, agriculture or physics, which later gave birth to Renaissance in Europe. In this aspect, Spain has a big advantage with respect to other countries. Figures such as Averroes and Maimonides, two of the most universal Cordoba figures, are part of the legacy accumulated over centuries by Euro-Mediterranean scholars to advance the collective basis of our knowledge. The objective of this rediscovery is, finally, greater mutual understanding between Mediterranean peoples so that the idea of the Other, which interests me so much, is not perceived as a threat but rather as an opportunity. Not as something to fear but rather as something to share. In this approach, culture plays a key role. Culture is something more than mere heritage: it is also a space for human creativity and freedom. Cultural diversity is as essential for the human being as biodiversity is for the environment. We all have a vital function to develop and we are all important actors in the dialogue between cultures, the search for respect and mutual awareness.
We must rediscover the old concept that considers the Mediterranean not as a barrier that separates peoples but rather as a medium to provide trade, social and cultural exchanges
The cultural images that are created and conveyed are key elements in the construction of the perception of the Other. It is the responsibility of all, and not only political leaders, to ensure that perceptions of the Other are positive instead of negative. The media, civil society and economic, social and cultural leaders must all embark on this awareness-raising campaign which is so essential today. However, I think it is necessary to add that, at present, many world conflicts are taking place within the same country, in which distinct opinions and ideologies coexist. For this reason, the dialogue between cultures and religions, which is now more necessary than ever, must lead us to tolerance towards the Other and the fight against fundamentalism and extremism.
The history of the European Union, whose 50th anniversary we celebrated in 2007, is in the end a history of dialogue, diversity, tolerance and respect. Unfortunately, our continent has not only stood for tolerance and understanding but also for terrible fratricide and world wars. However, from the shadows of the recent past we have constructed an EU rooted in the values of respect and mutual awareness that define the role and ambitions of the institution in the world. Thus, since its origins, the EU has focused its efforts in the fields of education, employment, the fight against poverty and, more recently, youth, gender equality and immigration. Over the years in which I was Commissioner of External Relations and Neighbourhood Policy, one of my most important objectives was to contribute to the modernisation of the Union’s neighbouring countries, in the south of the Mediterranean, supporting them in the political, economic and social challenges they were faced with. Thus, for example, the EU has fostered the establishment of democracy, the participation of civil society in state decisions, improvement of economic management and greater transparency on behalf of governments. All these processes in the societies of southern countries are yielding a change similar to that of Spain and other countries of the European Union in the last 100 years.
Another initiative to take into account is the launching, 15 years ago, of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, carried out by the European Union along with its southern and eastern Mediterranean countries, which has promoted a dense network of political, social and economic relations based on a joint future vision. In parallel, in the EU we have implemented other important initiatives with the end of encouraging Euro-Mediterranean dialogue in such diverse areas as higher education, cultural heritage, the audiovisual sector and youth. For instance, the Euromed Youth programme has, since 1999 enabled the exchange and meeting of more than 25,000 youths from all the countries in the region to develop socially committed activities.
The objective of the EU assistance programmes is clear: to provide support to countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria or Egypt so that they have future perspectives and development possibilities. We all have the right to freely choose where we want to work and live. Those who have a house and work in the same place have the basic conditions to develop their lives and maintain their families without being forced to emigrate. Emigration should be conceived as a personal and free decision, and be managed in such a way that it benefits all: those who emigrate and the societies which receive them. However, poorly managed emigration can entail disastrous consequences for all and, in many cases, terrible human dramas.
Moreover, given that I am a women and I was a full-time politician until recently, it is logical that I am concerned with gender issues and the complete incorporation of women in society. I believe that, in order to achieve this balance, it is fundamental that there is basic education for all and equality of opportunities and training. In southern Mediterranean countries, a third of the population is less than 15 years old and eight million children do not attend primary school. Moreover, 27% of adults are illiterate and, of them, most are women. For this reason, the EU has developed special programmes to improve the place of women in society.
The objective of the EU assistance programmes is clear: to provide support to countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria or Egypt so that they have future perspectives and development possibilities
Despite the foregoing positive aspects, I am aware that, in order to end the lack of understanding, intercultural, interreligious or inter-citizen dialogues are not enough. Greater political will is necessary to solve the conflict in the region, mainly in the Middle East, which for many years has tarnished relations between the peoples who are suffering it. As European Commissioner, I formed part of the Middle East Peace Process Quartet which, along with the European Union, is formed by the United States, Russia and the United Nations. For many years we have been trying to pave the way for Israeli and Palestinians to reach a peace agreement and accept the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. There have been many hopes and also many disappointments. We have not yet attained the results expected, but we continue working despite the difficulties of the process because we believe that the end is worthwhile. In this respect, there are more recent political initiatives, such as the birth of the Union for the Mediterranean in 2008, which is working with the objective of uniting all the peoples in the region through major emblematic projects such as sea motorways, solar plants, de-pollution, and so on, which can provide tangible benefits to all their citizens.
To conclude, I would like to recall some of André Malraux’s words that all those who walk along the shores of this Mare Nostrum should always keep in mind: “continents separate peoples, the sea brings them together.”