Being Mediterranean is a Decision You Make

Malta, the Mediterranean and the EU

In 1999, I was asked to participate in an international seminar in Rome that discussed the theme, “Between Europe and the Mediterranean: Youth,  Towns, Culture”. The meeting was part of the IX edition of the Biennial Exhibition of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean. My main argument then was that although geographically and linguistically Malta lies between Europe and Africa, for many reasons it would perhaps be more correct to say that Malta lies, between Europe and the Mediterranean.

Most Maltese people identify themselves with Europe: Europe is ‘us’; the Mediterranean, which is often identified with the South, is ‘them’. This is not to say that the Maltese feel they are fully-fledged continental Europeans; there probably aren’t many islanders anywhere who consider themselves full members of an adjacent continental mass, and the Maltese are certainly no exception. But because the Maltese have shared the same religion and culture with Europe for centuriessince the Muslims were told to leave the Maltese Islands in thirteenth century, most Maltese feel culturally closer to Europe. The Europeans are seen as trend-setters while the Mediterranean is equated with sun, sea, irresolvable conflicts and a rich, obsolete cultural heritage.

Between Europe and the Mediterranean

In a survey carried out by sociologist Prof. Anthony M. Abela in 1995, the Maltese were asked which of the following they felt most part of: their village or town; their district, Malta, the countries of the Mediterranean, Europe, the Western countries and the world. The results were then compared to the results of a similar survey held in Spain. What emerges in a very clear way is that while 22% of the Spaniards feel that they are citizens of the Mediterranean, only 2% of the Maltese identified themselves with the Mediterranean. Moreover, 6% of the Maltese and 2% of the Spaniards thought of themselves as citizens of Europe. According to the survey, most Maltese people, 65% of them, see themselves primarily as citizens of their country.

In 2001, Prof. Abela published the results of research he carried out in 1999 in a book called Youth Participation in Voluntary Organisations in Malta: A Comparative Analysis of European Values Studies (Malta: Parliamentary Secretariat, Ministry of Education, 2001). “In Malta,” he wrote, “younger respondents,” that is people between the age of 18 and 34, “have a sense of belonging first to their locality or town, followed by their country and region. Their next belonging is to Europe, followed by the Mediterranean and least of all to the world as a whole.” Most respondents identified mostly with their town or locality, their region within Malta, or their country itself, but they combined a predominantly local affinity with a global, foremost European, sense of belonging.

When asked, “Which of these geographical groups would you say you belong to first of all?” 3% of the respondents replied Europe and 5% replied the Mediterranean. But when it came to their second choice, 17% chose Europe and only 6% chose the Mediterranean.

Abela found that next to their local identity, youth members of associations, especially voluntary workers, were more likely to have a sense of European belonging than their non-involved counterparts. The most significant difference over European sense of belonging, however, was observed for materialist and postmaterialist younger respondents. Thus, forty-five percent of postmaterialists, that is respondents who are more highly educated, more articulate and politically more active than materialists, in contrast to fifteen percent materialists have a sense of European belonging. Conversely, less than forty percent postmaterialists compared to over seventy percent materialists felt no sense of European belonging. “These findings suggest that postmaterialism is one of the most important predictors of European belonging and identity.”

The Mediterranean doesn’t feature much in the debate about whether Malta should join the EU, although it does make an appearance in the rhetoric on both sides of the Yes/No divide. The main issue is about what kind of relations we should have with the EU, whether we should join (and partially on what conditions), or whether we should negotiate a partnership with the EU like other European countries, including Norway, Iceland and Switzerland, without actually joining. The conservative Partit Nazzjonalista that is in favour of membership in the EU, claims that as a member, Malta will be in a better position to play an important (political) role in the Basin while those who are against Malta joining the EU claim that membership will compromise our position as mediators between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean.

The Malta Labour Party is traditionally closer to talk about the Mediterranean. Dom Mintoff forged relationships with a number of leaders in the Mediterranean, most notably, but certainly not exclusively that with Gaddafi. In the mid-1990s, the Party led by Alfred Sant resuscitated one of Mintoff’s slogans from his days of glory, a slogan that Mintoff had already used in January 1959. Malta, according to this slogan, will become a Svizzera fil-Mediterran, “A Switzerland in the Mediterranean”. The slogan is symptomatic of Malta’s position between Europe and the Mediterranean, because it puts together Switzerland, the idealized neutral, prosperous European country, and the Mediterranean. In its 1998 electoral manifesto, the Labour Party talked about the ‘Maltese road to Europe’, a road that would consolidate Malta’s focal position at the centre of the Mediterranean. The Maltese are European and Mediterranean, note the order. But the Party has now concentrated its campaign on the “Partnership” option, forging the best possible relations with the Union without joining; there is no direct reference to the Mediterranean. Presumably it doens’t catch the Maltese voter’s  imagination.

Alternattiva Demokratika, the Maltese Green Party, refer specifically to the Mediterranean in proposal no. 404 of their latest electoral manifesto. It’s in the section about tourism. The Party believes that Malta should be marketed as a destination for tourists seeking, among other things, “Mediterranean activities”. That’s just about it. One could argue that the Mediterranean is practically nowhere in the manifesto because it is everywhere. In an interesting section called “Paci” (Peace), proposal no. 294 states that the participation of Malta in international organizations and its relations with “neighbouring countries” should foster respect for human rights, social justice, environmental protection and peace.

A Many-Sided EU

In the debate about whether Malta should join the EU, none of the parties who have taken a public stand have acknowledged the existence of many EUs, or, to put it more mildly but perhaps less precisely, a many-sided EU.

In Malta the EU is criticized for being too strong and for being too weak; for being too rigid and for being too flexible; for being one voice and for being many discordant voices. The EU is criticized for allowing too much internal movement and for allowing too little. The simple reason for all this is not that people see in the EU whatever they want to see, but rather that the EU is all of this and more. It is not a monolith; and in the present circumstances, I can’t see the EU becoming one. The various cultures and the various egos wouldn’t allow it. But I can see Malta drown into oblivion, both in and out of the EU, unless it can stand on its own two feet and be counted. This doesn’t mean that it makes no difference whether we’re in or not – that would be a convenient simplification, and I do think we can benefit more if we’re in – what I mean is that, at the end of the day, the EU will ultimately be for us what we want it to be.

The President of the Republic, Guido De Marco, has urged the European Union to “take Mediterranean issues off the back burner, and show political will to address the region’s urgent problems.” He warned that “if we let things slide, we will leave a very difficult future to our children.”  The very existence around us of “desperate and unjust poverty defies any logic. Poverty pushes souls across the Mediterranean, an often fatal journey; illegal migration is the ultimate risk of the desperate.” For the jobless and hungry there were few options for survival, he stated, adding that “crime is not always a free choice”. According an article by Vanya Walker-Leigh in The Sunday Times (2.2.03),  the President emphasised that the Euro-Med Partnership launched in 1995 “has failed to leave its mark”. He added: “Dialogue cannot be built on pious hopes. The Partnership is being crippled by the unjust, two-weights, two-measures situation in the Middle East”.

De Marco stated that the Maltese government believes that “Malta in the EU will be in a better position to ensure the proper evaluation and understanding of the Mediterranean world in European affairs, and vice versa.” On the other hand, “a number of south Mediterranean participants in the conference voiced fears that decision-making would become even more cumbersome in the EU, and that Mediterranean concerns would be overshadowed by political and economic issues related to East European integration.”

A Role for Malta

I asked Mr. Marc Pierini, who now heads the Delegation of the European Commission in Tunisia, about Malta’s role in the Euromed process. “In 1997, when the “euromed committee” met in Brussels in late January to decide where the next euromed ministerial conference would be held, it was obviously the turn of an Arab country. However, Arab-Israeli relations by then were already so tense that no Arab country wanted to host a meeting on its soil with th epresence of an Israeli Minister. Cyprus was not, in those days, so keen on having a Turkish Minister on its soil. And, since it was to be in a Mediterranean Partner country, everybody turned to the maltese delegations headed by Alfred Zarb. We had barely 9 weeks between that day and the fixed date for the Ministerial.

Malta took up the challenge, with the only comfort of my commitment as the Commission’s euromed coordinator that I would help as much as I could with funding (that went without saying) and know how. That’s how I was despatched to Malta a few days later to start planning the whole event with Mr. Zarb.”

I asked Mr. Pierini whether this was more than just another challenge for Malta: “The Maltese Ministry of Foreign Affairs took the whole thing with seriousness and an amazing degree of commitment, Mr. Zarb formed an inter-departmental committee and to everybody’s delight the whole thing went absolutely smoothly. In my view, it was more than just good, precise, meticulous organization.” Mr. Pierini insisted that “There was a genuine political commitment to the meeting and beyond that to the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. And Malta was in a fully legitimate role as a European country sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean and as the only place where the other 26 euromed partners would agree to meet together. To me, this was more than just symbolic.”

Mr. Pierini concluded that in his opinion, there is a role here for Malta, even when the country will be within the EU.

Sustainability in the Mediterranean

At a meeting of the Mediterranean Green Network held in Malta in November, 2002, during which a number of Maltese NGOs were asked to air their views about economic, environmental and cultural sustainability in the Mediterranean, the delegates concluded, amongst other things, that “the MEDA free trade association agreements (Barcelona process) are fundamentally unsustainable and must be reoriented towards an ecologically and socially just framework prioritising respect for basic human rights and working towards relieving stress on the limited resources of the Mediterranean region.” The Network stated that “the move towards ecologically sustainable tourism is vital and urgent for our region with the objective of providing and strengthening our local economies and enhancing our cultural and natural heritage.

The demands of the Mediterranean Green Network included “prior strategic independent impact assessments before every development project in the Mediterranean” and “Resources for the promotion of renewable energy technologies on the Southern shore of the Mediterranean, including training programmes for local peoples and technology transfer schemes to enable these regions to take advantage of their enormous solar and renewable energy potential.”

The delegates demanded “the sensitive handling of immigration issues” and “resources for gender equality mainstreaming in all facets of public, life including the labour market and civil society.” They also called for “the inclusion of civil society organisations in public decision-making processes” and supported “the creation of GMO-free zones in the Mediterranean region.” By the 2010 Barcelona process deadline “the organic sector must be firmly established.”

A Decision You Make

In a provocative passage in what he calls his ‘handbook’ of the Mediterranean, Predrag Matvejevic claims that mediterraneity, is not something you inherit, but something you achieve; it is not an advantage, but a decision you make. Anyone could become mediterranean; ‘they say that there are increasingly less true mediterraneans in the Mediterranean Sea.’.

This implies that the Mediterraneans can choose not to be Mediterranean: according to Tonino Perna, ever since the unification of Italy, the South of Italy has been progressively integrating with the powerful areas of the North. The South’s economic exchange with the Mediterranean countries has been slowly decreasing On the cultural level, the homologation of the new generations has produced a profound detachment from the Mediterranean roots of the culture of the South. This escape from the Mediterranean has been accelerated by the eurocentric ideology that has been imposed on us by the mass media.

The situation in Malta is similar. Perna talks of bringing the Italian South back to the Mediterranean; in our case it’s about time we brought Malta back to the Mediterranean. This point about choosing to be Mediterranean does not contradict the other point about the existence of Mediterranean culture/s and about Maltese culture being essentially Mediterranean. Choosing to be Mediterranean respects what Perna calls our Mediterranean roots and ensures that we do not throw away what geography and history have given us; moreover, choosing to be Mediterranean is not an exercise in archaeology but a well-thought out process that shapes the future by taking into account our past and present. Choosing to be Mediterranean is a challenging, creative process that will enable the Maltese people to understand themselves and to shape their future.

Therefore, although our geography and our language place Malta in the Mediterranean, practically midway between Europe and Africa, our political and cultural aspirations lie further north. Moreover, Maltese perceptions of the Mediterranean are limited to its geographical dimension and to commonplaces about the region.

It was nature that first chose the Mediterranean for the Maltese; now it is high time for the Maltese to make this choice for themselves.


Adrian Grima

This article first appeared on Babelmed on 1 February, 2003


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