May 24, 2011
“Do you think that you are better, really better than the rest? Realize there is a problem, I know that you can give your best” shouted a popular German band fifteen years ago, in their best-selling rock song “Open Your Eyes, Open Your Mind”.
Applied to contemporary international relations, these lyrics reflect well the embarrassed reactions of Western governments to democratic uprisings across the Arab world. A messy cocktail of euphoria, scepticism, guilt and opportunism has shaken the foundations of Western foreign diplomacy over the last few months. Whilst many dilemmas continue to puzzle leaders, one thing that has become clear to Western policy-makers is that policies towards the Mediterranean have failed to meet their targets. French President Nicholas Sarkozy recently stated that neither genuine cooperation nor true integration has sprung from the “Euro-Mediterranean Partnership” and subsequent “Union for the Mediterranean” launched by the EU.
Accepting that a problem exists is a good start. But what should come next? If most of the policies that promoted in recent years were either pointless or damaging, what should be the right ones to be now put in place? Besides some vague talk of the need for a renewed “Marshall Plan for the Mediterranean” to support democratic forces throughout the region, there have been a lack of precise answers to this important question.
May I give a hint? Let us make it simple. When planning a new strategy to replace a previous, unsuccessful one, you start by learning lessons from your past mistakes. Academics point to indifference toward aspirations of people in the Mediterranean, a lack of investment in social and cultural cooperation as the greatest failures of European policies. In other words politicians have tried to foster cooperation between two impersonal blocks, failing to focus on “people-to-people” contacts. It is not obvious that this policy was unsustainable in the long run.
A new European strategy must therefore start with a genuine commitment to social and cultural cooperation and cross-fertilization. Why not start with higher education? Contrary to widespread belief, most Northern African and Middle Eastern countries abound with graduate students. These young guys and girls would undoubtedly jump at the possibility to study abroad in a European city and return to their home country profoundly enriched – just as hundreds of thousands of European students do every year. Why not extend the Erasmus program to all countries lining the shores of the Mediterranean? Erasmus is probably one of the most successful projects supported by the EU. This simple action would be an enormous step toward the creation of a true Euro-Mediterranean union.
Besides giving a unique opportunity to many Southern Mediterranean youngsters, such a measure would secure benefits to European countries themselves. EU students would have the chance to study at such reputed institutions as the Caire, Haifa’s Technion or in Rabat. Such a scheme could also help to change perceptions of “immigrants”. The wider population of European citizens would additionally see motivated students from the Mediterranean countries who deserve scholarships, rather than just alienated young men desperate for any sort of income and legal documents. The scheme could also exert “soft power” on the Mediterranean countries by demonstrating Europe’s high-quality education and unequalled lifestyle: making European products and institutions more attractive to many people.
In short, a relatively small financial investment could bring great benefits to both Western Europe and the Mediterranean in political, economic and socio-cultural terms. These were, after all, the main three goals of the famous “Euro-Mediterranean Partnership”!
SIMONE DISEGNI, POLICY THINKER
firstname.lastname@example.orgAuthor : EuroGoblin