[p.267] MEDITERRANEAN REGIONALITY

Dominic Fenech

Regionality, or that which makes a given area a region, is a new word in English usage. Defined as "nature or character connected with or pertaining to a region", it appears first in the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary published in 1982.[1] This paper aims to address the question of whether and to what extent the Mediterranean, today, possesses such a "nature or character". It is, in the author's view, a question which every student of Mediterranean, or for that matter any other area, studies should broach in order to avoid the danger of creating fictitious parameters within which to discuss facts and issues.

"Woe betide the historian", warned Braudel when originally broaching a similar question, "who thinks that this preliminary investigation is unnecessary, that the Mediterranean as an entity needs no definition because it has long been clearly defined, is instantly recognisable and can be described by dividing history along the lines of its geographical contours."[2] It is not of course the scope of this paper to re-discuss whether there is such a thing as a Mediterranean regionality in terms of a common geography, history and an endless list of related subjects. Braudel demonstrated that convincingly almost half a century ago and a generation later upheld his "unchallenged truth" about "the unity and coherence of the Mediterranean region."[3] Rather, it proposes to discuss the question of Mediterranean regionality in terms of recent and current international relations.

That geographically the Mediterranean is a region, objectively, requires little defence; similarly that it was a region in the sixteenth century, when the [p.268] two greatest powers of the world, superpowers by the standards of those times, lay in the Mediterranean and confronted each other right there - Braudel speaks of the Mediterranean world, never mind region. But whereas geography and history are more or less what they are independently of contemporary perceptions of them, the political parameters of a region are not fixed and shift according to changes in the political map of the world and the issues of the era.

Thus in the nineteenth century, one spoke of the Near East with reference to the Balkans, Asia Minor and the westernmost territories of Asia, because the political reality of the times was that these lands largely formed part of a single empire, the Ottoman, and because changes taking place there drew forth specific regional policies from the big powers that intervened there. The resultant interaction between native developments and big-power policies was given a regional name: the Eastern Question. Today the regional title of Near East has fallen into disuse because the nature and frontiers of the political realities in that area and neighbouring areas have changed. On the Asian site of the former Ottoman Empire and neighbouring territories, we now talk of the Middle East, a term which originally delimited a zone of military operations in the Second World War and now retains its regionality largely owing to such common factors as the Arab-Israeli conflict and oil. What was Near, like Syria, now became Middle. Similarly, in Europe, until well into this century one talked of Central Europe among other things because of German unification and the implications of this to the international balance of power. As a result of the post First World War reconstruction of a column of new states from the debris of the German, Austrian and Russian empires, and more so with the division of Europe following the Second World War, we redefined the continent into Western Europe and Eastern Europe along the lines of their political systems and alignments. What was previously Central, like Czechoslovakia, suddenly became Eastern because our perception of regionality changed. Now that drastic changes are underway in the political map of Europe and the East-West regional delimitation is apparently eroding, we begin re-discovering the regionality of Central Europe as we contemplate the prospects and implications of a reunited Germany.

Therefore, not only objective factors (geography, history, etc.) but also our subjective perception is important in determining whether a given area can be addressed as a region. One could argue that if enough people regard that area as a region, then it becomes a region by virtue of the attention paid to it as such. In the case of the Mediterranean it is by no means certain whether enough people would accredit it with regionality in contemporary political terms.

[p.269] On the other hand, the Mediterranean was conceded with such a regionality in the years that Braudel prepared himself to embark on his monumental project, which he began writing in 1940. Nor was he the only author, though certainly the most outstanding (and probably the least politically motivated) addressing the Mediterranean as a single unit then. An unprecedented quantity of books were in fact published in the inter-war period with the word "Mediterranean" or a synonym written in the title.[4] Such focus on the Mediterranean reflected the spirit of the times, as the Mediterranean idea acquired a new lease of life, unhappily, with the institution of Italy's mare nostrum policy. The attention of contemporary observers and historians was drawn to the area in question when, for the first time in centuries, a riparian state which pretended to have, and sometimes was credited with having, great-power status made the conquest of the Mediterranean the main thrust of its policy. The threat thus created to the status quo on Europe's southern flank (actually a regional definition that acquired convertibility after the Second World War) represented another front in the assault against international stability. As contemporaries watched with apprehension, expectation, or curiosity, the Mediterranean turning into an international flashpoint, the area acquired in their perception the properties of a region, and therefore worth writing about as such.

What, then, of the Mediterranean's regionality when that phase of history was over? After the war, which itself made of the Mediterranean a specific area of operations, the Mediterranean experienced with the rest of the world - often earlier and more explicitly - the far reaching effects of the war's outcome and aftermath: the pressures of superpower competition, the decline and fall of old empires, decolonization and new forms of imperialism, the quest for nonalignment, and so on. (Some of these features, such as the declaration of the Cold War, in the form of the Truman Doctrine, or the origins of nonalignment, actually made their debut in the Mediterranean). But at the same time, [p.270] as the political map of the world was transformed - as the European powers ceased to lead the world; as the number of sovereign independent states in the world greatly increased; as the tendency of states to coalesce in Communities, Leagues, Associations, Movements, etc. in an increasingly bipolar world in-creased - new regionalities appeared that tended to fragment the regionality of the Mediterranean, such as there was. Of specific concern to the Mediterranean were the movements and associations on its periphery: Western European integration; Communist European integration; and Pan-arabism.

Therefore, if the Mediterranean possessed political regionality in the inter-war period, and if such regionality stemmed from the subjective perception of it as such, how far by that criterion can we establish the regionality of the Mediterranean today? Because we are here discussing regionality on the basis of subjective perceptions, one has to rely heavily on impressions of trends formed through varied reading and observation: it is of course beyond the powers of this or any author to prove that there is or is not such Mediterranean regionality.

To start with, we can try and see how, in the perception of outsiders, the individual territorial states of the Mediterranean are regionalized. Spain, Italy and Greece, seen from a vantage point other than the Mediterranean, are often categorized as "Southern Europe". France is somewhat sui generis on account of its stature in international affairs and eludes classification except as, broadly speaking, European. Yugoslavia and Albania are often referred to as Balkan. Turkey is often lumped with Greece (when Greece is not being perceived as Southern European) and Cyprus as Balkan, Aegean or sometimes even Middle Eastern. Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt are universally classified as Middle Eastern. Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are spoken of as North Africa or the Maghreb, and occasionally Middle Eastern. Malta apparently is seen as peripherally Southern European, perhaps also as Central Mediterranean because it has no hinterland. Such tentative classification or labelling forms on the basis of geographical proximity, the nature of neighbourly relations, political and/or economic association, ethnic or cultural affinity, or, quite simply, prejudice. At any rate, such regional classification, if it does reflect the perception from the outside, would seem to make the regionality of the Mediterranean either fictitious or irrelevant.

But not if it could be shown that the riparian states themselves recognize their Mediterranean identity. A cursory look at their autoperception and foreign policy emphasis in the post-war period, however, suggests that prima facie few would define themselves as specifically Mediterranean. While it is safe to say that most of these states have at one time or other paid lip service [p. 271] to the Mediterranean idea, in most cases their policies indicate that they recognize and promote a regionality that is peripheral to, often centrifugal from, the Mediterranean.[5] In other words, their interests and involvements seem to lie in issues, problems, affinities and structures that are tangential to, or lead away from, the Mediterranean, rather than across it.

Thus, Spain, France, Italy, and Greece are part of Europe in economic terms and of the West in political terms. Yugoslavia and Albania have communist political and economic systems. They do not belong to the communist "bloc" as such,[6] but they share historically rooted ties and problems with each other and with their Balkan neighbours. However, though it does occasionally participate in Balkan forums (such as the Balkan Foreign Ministers' meeting in February 1988), Albania has the character of a closed capsule, which implicitly rejects any regional classification. By contrast, Yugoslavia, the moving spirit of nonalignment, is very conscious of its Balkan identity, but also is one of the few states that consistently promotes the Mediterranean idea.[7] Greece seems to have varied regional perceptions: European, Western, Balkan, and sometimes even Mediterranean.[8] Turkey is an outstanding example of regional identification defying geographical location. It perceives itself as Western and European whereas it is geographically neither except for a fragment of European territory in Thrace. (It is, of course, much less North Atlantic). Secondarily, however, it accepts a role in the Middle East and recognizes the practical advantages of fostering relations with the Arab world.[9] Cypriots meanwhile, because they are split along communal lines, perceive [p.272] themselves as being akin to Greece or Turkey, according to the community they belong to. The remainder of the states, except Israel and Malta, perceive themselves as members of the Arab family first of all, and then as Middle Eastern or Maghrebi, according to their location. The main concerns of the Mediterranean states of the Middle East focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict with all that that entails. North African states seek their regional identity in the Maghreb and, beyond that, though not so much in the case of Tunisia, their visions are directed southwards: Morocco towards Western Sahara; Algeria towards Africa as a whole; Libya towards Chad.[10] Israel has little in common with any of its neighbours, although the land of the Middle East carries a special meaning and allure to it. But it is probably fair to say that, because it is a Jewish state first of all, its main identity lies less in any physical region than in a communal affinity with the Jews of the world. Meanwhile, her closest associates, the United States and South Africa, are in two different continents.[11]

And Malta? As with everybody else or maybe more on account of the currents that crossed us in old and recent history, our perception of ourselves is determined by the circumstances of the time. Just as there was a time, not so long ago, when some of us saw themselves as British and some as Italian, or Latin, in recent years some have come to consider themselves as members of the European family to the North and some as brothers of the Arabs to the South. However, our perception as being broadly speaking Mediterranean, a kind of synthesis out of the two contrasting positions, seems to have survived the test of time.[12] Yet, when one looks closer, even this Mediterranean identification can be narrowed down to a more localized Central Mediterranean: in the past two decades or so, bilateral relations have been conducted mainly with Malta's immediate neighbours to the North, Italy, and to the South, Libya.

So, therefore, we have these centrifugal tendencies in most riparian states (except perhaps those who have difficulty for one reason or another of [p. 273] integrating themselves in a different region) as though the Mediterranean - the sea - were not a crossroads of three continents and a melting pot of more cultures but simply a barrier or a vacuum, where Europe ends, where Asia ends, where Africa ends. A vacuum is not a region.

But let us follow these centrifugal tendencies and see how far they go. For while our perceptions and expectations are important, it does not always follow that what we think or hope we are is always what we really are. France, it has already been suggested, is sui generis because, when it is not a region unto itself, it is an uncomfortable and qualified member of the Western alliance, though it certainly belongs to Europe. Otherwise, there is a North-South divide within Western Europe. Italy, after trailing behind her EEC partners for so long, has been making significant progress in recent years, but still has its own North-South problem. On the international political level, Italy has been a faithful NATO partner, but only because the Communist Party, the largest in Western Europe and until the 1970s an opponent of NATO, was skilfully kept out of power. Spain and Greece are late additions to the EEC and are clearly distinguishable from their Northern neighbours by their slower economic development. Politically too, both have undergone spells of right-wing dictatorship, more extended in the case of Spain, long after the rest of Europe had outlawed m. In terms of East-West relations both have questioned their NATO membership, in Spain by referendum; in Greece by re-negotiating base agreements and plenty of anti-Western rhetoric. In the case of Greece, tension with Turkey and the need for American aid arguably accounts for continued membership of NATO more than the will to protect the West from the Soviet Union, whose ancestors had helped it obtain independence from the Turks.[13] Just as Spain and Greece remained outside the mainstream of Western European developments for most of the period since the Second World War, so have Yugoslavia and Albania, the only two communist states in the Mediterranean, stayed outside the mainstream of Eastern European developments. What has until now been termed the "Soviet bloc" stops short here of reaching the Mediterranean. Turkey, however much it sees itself as European, is not nearly accepted as such by Europe and her application for EEC membership continues to encounter serious obstacles, some real and some contrived, of a geographical, political, economic and even religious nature. The Mediterranean states of the Middle East are clearly distinguishable from the rest of [p.274] Western Asia ethnically and by tradition, but especially by the specifically local nature of their main political issue, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Finally, North Africa is literally separated from the rest of the continent by the Sahara belt and by race, culture and tradition. However much the North African states try to bridge the huge space of the desert, they remain distinct from the rest of the continent in every sense of the word and, apart from Morocco, are scaling down their ambitions on their South.

So, therefore, without stretching the argument too far, centrifugal tendencies or not, there is at least a dotted line that distinguishes or separates the riparian states from their respective hinterlands. This ring of states, so diverse from each other and so immersed in extra-Mediterranean issues and constellations, remain somewhat on the periphery of these, sandwiched between their reluctant hinterlands and the sea. Which raises the question of whether the sea - for after all the Mediterranean is, first of all, water - is divisive or unifying, fragmentary or regionary. The simple answer seems to be that it is divisive for purposes where land communication is more suitable; unifying where sea communication is more suitable.

If we talk of subjective perception we cannot ignore the psychological factor that for most of us the sea represents a barrier, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary. The role of water in communications has changed drastically since the earlier part of the nineteenth century with the invention of the steam engine, the railway, the motor car and ultimately the aeroplane. Before all that, the sea was by far the most efficient means of covering distances and transporting goods. Indeed, trading states built canals to take the sea into the land. Thus an enclosed sea such as the Mediterranean constituted in itself an efficient communications system that was often superior to that between coast and hinterland and made neighbours of coastal communities, giving the region a specific homogeneity.[14] Eventually, however, improvements in transport technology increased the efficiency of land communications more than they did that of sea communications. Especially in terms of human travel, when the aeroplane does not make the sea-land competition irrelevant, the sea has become a relative barrier. In that sense it has come to hinder interaction between different littoral communities, thus helping further to alter their regional consciousness.

[p.275] On the other hand, in terms of commerce or military strategy, the sea does not necessarily constitute an obstacle and in certain respects retains advantages over the land. Thus the EEC, the United States and the Soviet Union, powers that are peripheral or external to the Mediterranean and whose interests here are commercial, political and/or military, have absolutely no difficulty regarding the Mediterranean as a single region. In the eyes of these, their "vital interests", which is to say their vested interests, gives the Mediterranean ipso facto regionality.

The EEC's variously called "global", "comprehensive" or "overall" Mediterranean policy, which evolved after 1972, once association agreements had been signed with most Mediterranean states, implicitly treats the Mediterranean not only as a region, but as its sphere of influence in an economic, and to a certain extent, political sense. On the other hand, the superpowers regard the Mediterranean as a geopolitical unit. Both have fleets, the Sixth Fleet and the Fifth Eskadra, assigned to the Mediterranean with specifically Mediterranean tasks and strategies. The United States in 1947 took up from where Britain, another non-Mediterranean power, left off after a century-and-a-half of naval supremacy in the Mediterranean, assuming a similar role and responsibility, that is, of checking and containing Russia, patrolling Europe's southern flank, promotin rican influence in the Middle East and guarding the sea lanes beyond the Red Sea. The Soviets assembled their Mediterranean fleet in the course of the 1960s, significantly increasing its strength after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, with the scope of denying the United States a monopoly of influence particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean and of guarding the approaches to Soviet territory in the Black Sea.

Today, current developments in Europe and in superpower relations may offer a different outlook for the future Mediterranean. One consequence of the Single European Act setting the EEC on the path to tighter unity by 1992 could be a closin5g of ranks and hence a more unequal relationship with the Mediterranean.[15] But that already has been overshadowed by the sudden transformation of Eastern Europe in the latter months of 1989, which opened up a whole new region for EEC operations and co-operation and is calling forth a comprehensive Community Ostpolitik. How this will affect the EEC's [p.276] attitude towards the Mediterranean, until now its preferred regional partner, it is early to predict, but a change there is bound to be. As for the superpowers, the prospects of an early change of attitude towards the Mediterranean appeared better before the December 1989 Malta Summit than after. There again, however, if the disarmament process is to continue, the turn of naval disarmament may come as the Soviets expect their reductions in land superiority to be matched by reductions in American naval superiority - unless of course reduction in land-based weapons results in more concentration on naval forces. Here too, of course, it is early to predict.

In conclusion, it can be said that the regionality of the Mediterranean is recognized more by external actors with alleged "vital interests" than by the indigenous states.[16] In itself this follows directly from the last century when Mediterranean regionality was largely brought about by the British-Russian-French contest for hegemony. Then, the Mediterranean, after centuries of relegation, had returned as a focus of international relations, not by recovering its one-time vitality or initiative in the world, but by becoming the object of largely non-Mediterranean powers' interests. Because this paper purported to discuss regionality in terms of contemporary international relations, and because the external or peripheral actors indicated (USA, USSR, EEC) are major actors in world affairs, that appears to be already sufficient grounds for giving a positive answer to the question of regionality. Otherwise, prediction - for example, will the withdrawal or reduction of economic and political [p.277] patronage by external powers, if it comes about, lead to more, or less, regional consciousness and homogeneity among the Mediterranean countries? - is beyond the scope of this paper. It is sufficient to observe here that the international relations revolution which seems to be going on now will, if it proceeds, doubtlessly affect the place and definition of the Mediterranean in the world as it will that of other regions.


[1] Webster's 1961 edition defines the word as "arrangement or ordering in regions", which is not the definition required by this paper. The original Oxford New English Dictionary offers the adjective "Regionality", defined as "of or pertaining to a region", but not the noun.

[2] F. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Preface to the First Edition, trans. S. Reynolds (London, 1972-3).

[3] Ibid., Preface to the English Edition, 1972.

[4] E.g. (in chronological order of publication) M. I. Newbigin, The Mediterranean Lands (London, 1924); P. Silva, II Mediterraneo, dall'Unità di Roma all'Impero Italiano (Roma, 1926); E. W. Poison Newman, The Mediterranean and its Politics (London, 1927); G. Vannutelli, II Mediterraneo e le Civiltà Mondiali (Bologna, 1936); C. Petrie, Lords of the Inland Sea (London, 1937); C. Aymard, Le Drame de la Mediterranée (Paris, 1938); M. Boveri, Mediterranean Cross Currents (London, 1938); H. Hummel & E. W. Siewert, Il Mediterraneo (Milano, 1938); H. J. Greenwall, Mediterranean Crisis (London, 1939); E. Monroe, The Mediterranean in Politics (Oxford, 1939); E. Ludwig, The Mediterranean, Saga of a Sea (London, 1942).

[5] A rapporteur at a conference in 1974 on the theme of neutralization of the Mediterranean made a similar observation, noting that "this Mediterranean personality is as fleeting as the Sirocco" and that "most of the countries with Mediterranean littorals have their faces turned mainly in other directions". H. Thomas, "Neutralisation of the Mediterranean", Ditchley Journal (Autumn 1974), 73-74.

[6] At the time that this paper is written the future and relevance of such a "bloc" is uncertain.

[7] See L. Acimovic, "Yugoslav Concern for an Independent Mediterranean", The New Middle East (February 1970), 23-26; A. Z. Rubenstein, "The Evolution of Yugoslavia's Mediterranean Policy", International Journal (August 1972), 528-545; M. Javorski, "Yugoslavia and the Mediterranean", Review of International Affairs (February 1979), 8-10. The last quoted Yugoslav journal periodically publishes articles on the Mediterranean.

[8] See outline of foreign policy objectives of Papandreou's Government following 1981 elections, in Keesing's Contemporary Archives (1982), 31263-64. See also J. C. Loulis, "Papandreou's Foreign Policy", Foreign Affairs (Winter 1984-85), 375-91.

[9] See M. M. Boll, "Turkey between East and West: The Regional Alternative", World Today (September 1979), 360-68; A. L. Karaosmanoglu, "Turkey's Security and the Middle East", Foreign Affairs (Fall 1983), 157-75.

[10] See L. Magrini, "Maghreb: Integration Attempts and Elements of Divergence", Politica Intemazionale, 75-88.

[11] See A. Husain, The West, South Africa and Israel: A Strategic Triangle", Third World Quarterly (January 1982), 44-73; R. E. Hauser, "Israel, South Africa and the West" South Africa Quarterly (October 1980), 81-90.

[12] See D. Fenech, "The 1987 Maltese Elections: Between Europe and the Mediterranean", West European Politics (January 1988),133-38.

[13] P. E. Demitras, "Greece: a New Danger", Foreign Policy (Spring 1985), 134-50.

[14] See C. W. Crawley, "The Mediterranean", New Cambridge Modern History, vol. x, (Cambridge, 1960), 416-441.

[15] R. Pomfret, "The EC and the Mediterranean Countries", in Pomfret, The European Community (Malta, 1989), observes that the Community's Global Mediterranean Policy has been losing meaning for other reasons throughout the 1980s.

[16] If the quantity of publications on the subject is a reliable indicator of perceived regionality at any given time, this is borne out by the considerable number of books published on the Mediterranean, mostly on the policies and interests of the superpowers and their allies as well as the EEC in the 1970s and 1980s. Titles include, among others, M. Cherif Bassiouni (ed), Issues in the Mediterranean (Chicago, 1975); A. J. Cottrell & J. D. Theberge (eds), The Western Mediterranean: Its Political, economic and Strategic Importance (New York, 1974); L. Kaplan & R. W. Clawson (eds), NATO and the Mediterranean (Delaware, 1985); J. W. Lewis Jr., The Strategic Balance in the Mediterranean (Washington DC, 1976); G. Luciani (ed), The Mediterranean Region: Economic Interdependence and the Future of Society (London, 1984); E. N. Luttwak, "Sea Power in the Mediterranean", no. 61 in The Washington Papers (California, 1979); C. F. Pinkele (ed), The Contemporary Mediterranean World, (New York, 1983); R. Pomfret, Mediterranean Policy of the European Community: a Study of Discrimination in Trade (London, 1986); G. G. Rosenthal, The Mediterranean Basin: its Political Economy and Changing International Relations (London, 1982); A. Tovias, Tariff Preferences in Mediterranean Diplomacy (London, 1977); and the series The Mediterranean Challenge, dealing with EEC relations with Mediterranean countries, prepared and published by Sussex European Research Centre, University of Sussex.