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Opinion

Reviving the Euro-Mediterranean spirit of Barcelona

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It was the EU's first and most ambitious and innovative foreign policy initiative. The aim was nothing less than to turn the Euro-Mediterranean area into "an area of shared prosperity". At the time, the atmosphere was truly propitious: the EU had been strengthened by the Maastricht Treaty; Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation were in the process of settling their dispute following the signing of the Oslo Accords; and, to top it all off, Europe was spreading its euphoria and enthusiasm derived from the unification of Germany. The Barcelona Conference, a personal endeavour of President Felipe González, well supported by the then head of Spanish diplomacy, Javier Solana, eventually gave birth to an expression: the spirit of Barcelona, synonymous with optimism, hope and multilateral cooperation.

It does not take much insight to examine the results of that endeavour and conclude that the geopolitical situation is undoubtedly much worse than it was then, and even more dramatically, with a marked tendency towards even greater deterioration.

Both shores of the Mediterranean cannot resign themselves to the current deceptive status quo, especially Europe, whose development, prosperity and leadership must necessarily be anchored in North Africa. It will be utterly impossible to achieve all three objectives if the southern shore does not make the giant leap forward that would moderate inequalities, firstly internally and then in relation to the European countries on the opposite shore. This is not an easy task to achieve, especially considering that since the Barcelona Declaration, the number of people in this crown of North African Arab countries has grown from 260 million to 440 million, many of them very young and suffering from the syndrome of hopelessness in the absence of tangible prospects for the future.

It is comforting, however, to see that civil society and various European bodies are working to find ways and solutions to revive the spirit of Barcelona with new political, economic and diplomatic tools. In this respect, it is worth highlighting the report by the Real Instituto Elcano, the CIDOB and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, which was recently presented in Madrid. 

Contagious values or importing infections

One of the authors of the report, Haizam Amirah-Fernández, summed up both the urgency and the need for new actions, and the danger that looms over the entire basin if we remain impassive: "If Europe does not spread good governance and democratic values, it will itself be infected by autocracy and illiberalism"

Too many things have happened since that declaration in Barcelona in 1995, and almost all of them dramatic: the 9/11 attacks, the popular uprisings throughout North Africa in the so-called "Arab Spring", the climate catastrophe which, in addition to southern Europe, is causing severe drought and famine in the neighbouring continent, and finally the succession of wars and conflicts which show a growing radicalisation of positions, both between neighbours and in terms of the way the two shores of the Mediterranean look at each other: on the one hand, Europe, which is gradually looking southwards in terms of security, in all its variants; on the other, a North Africa, but with extensions also towards the centre and south of the continent, which is shaken by the rash of resentment and the unfinished business of former European colonialism.

Contrary to the unjustly widespread image that the EU neglects the Mediterranean, this space has been and is the object of its preferential attention, both in terms of diplomatic initiatives and economic means as well as cooperation in multiple fields. However, this is not enough, and this is unfortunately the failure - yes, failure - of the unfulfilled objectives of the Barcelona Conference.

We should therefore read carefully the recommendations of the report 'Creating Euro-Mediterranean bonds that deliver' in order to create and intensify the ties that bind. We need people and institutions to lower the level of tensions, and determined support for this from both sides, in the conviction that without joint progress and cooperation they will not be masters of their future.

Edgar Pisani's dire prophecy in the preface to Robert Bistolfi's book "Euro-Méditerranée: une région à construire" must be disproved with facts: "... In the regions of interplanetary regulation there will never be the Euro-Mediterranean... because in the background there is cultural incomprehension, bitter memories, contradictory dreams, cosmogonies, and sometimes contempt and hatred...".

More intercommunication and fewer separation walls or border closures seem essential steps towards understanding. This was the spirit of Barcelona, that beautiful declaration signed by the then 15 EU member states and 12 southern Mediterranean countries: Algeria, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and the Palestinian Territories (Gaza and the West Bank). A spirit that urgently needs to be revived, if only to survive in a world that is currently under threat.