Euro-Med Partnership: What Happened to the ‘Spirit of Barcelona’?

Written by | Wednesday, February 12th, 2020

Barcelona has tied its name to the Mediterranean. This is true in many fields, international relations among them. In geopolitical terms, Barcelona’s geographical location may be an opportunity or a risk. If the dynamics of cooperation and development prevail in the Mediterranean, it sits at the centre of a space of progress. However, in a Mediterranean riven by conflict and inequality, Barcelona finds it has an uncomfortable front-line position. November 2020 will mark the 25th anniversary of one of the most important milestones in cooperation between the countries on the two shores of the Mediterranean. Back then, representatives of these countries met in Barcelona and agreed a declaration and a work programme.

Among an array of international meetings, what made 1995 exceptional was the presence around the table of Israelis and Palestinians, Turks and Cypriots, Moroccans and Algerians. What they agreed then may seem grandiose and perhaps far removed from today’s reality, with talk of making the Mediterranean a space of peace, shared prosperity and cultural and human exchange. But, however the results are evaluated, what stands out is that a dynamic of collaboration, enthusiasm and ambition was generated that is now sorely lacking. This is why many referred to the “spirit of Barcelona”. This spirit also alludes to the cooperation between local, regional and state governments, which knew how to seek out alliances with European institutions and between civil societies on both shores. Can this spirit be revived? If so, will Barcelona again play a leading role? And, more importantly, what challenges would have to be faced twenty-five years on?

More than ever before, there is the need to defend multilateralism and cooperation at a time when more powerful actors, starting with the president of the United States, are committed to unilateralism, threats and confrontation. It is about climate emergencies, with the Mediterranean one of the planet’s most vulnerable corners due to the risk of desertification, extreme weather events and rising sea levels. This is also the Mediterranean of those who drown in it, often fleeing situations of conflict and even slavery. A Mediterranean of inequalities. Inequalities between northern and southern countries are often spoken about, but social, territorial, gender and generational inequalities must not be forgotten. The 2011 protests across the Arab world are not so long ago, and the Algerians, Sudanese, Lebanese and Iraqis may well remember 2019 in similar terms. New conflicts have also stacked up in the Mediterranean, with Syria the most extreme case, and with none of the old ones being resolved. More conflicts means new victims.

The region faces so many challenges that it is easy to be overwhelmed. The main risk is of inaction, prioritising other areas where returns are expected to be faster or more certain, though Barcelona’s Mediterranean reflex still exists. But there are also many opportunities. For one, as November 2020 approaches, it would be strange if the year commemorating the launch of the Barcelona Process did not prompt reflections on the need to revitalise, redirect or reinvent Euro-Mediterranean relations. Second, many factors invite us to think in Mediterranean terms and to do so urgently, notably refugee situation, the management of migratory flows, environmental degradation and climate change. Then there is the new wave of protests in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, which have once again reminded us that hopes of change remain alive in many societies in the Arab world. Third, Ursula Von der Leyen’s more “geopolitical commission” will be fully activated in 2020 and Josep Borrell’s appointment as high representative suggests, a priori, that there is likely to be interest in the Mediterranean.

On the other hand, there are also significant obstacles. First of all, it is fatigue and inertia. The poor results of past attempts to revitalise Euro-Mediterranean relations has a dangerous effect on convincing senior political and social decision-makers that this should be a priority. After 25 years we have reached a point when capitalising on the legacy of the past means we need to recover our creativity and strive to imagine new proposals and new forms of cooperation. Second, Barcelona has the potential to be one of the strongest and most integral hubs in the web of actors who can and want to drive the Mediterranean agenda forward. To do this, connectivity will be key and it must be asked whether enough has been done to connect the entire institutional, social, economic and cultural fabric of the city with counterparts in other Mediterranean cities. Third, another obstacle are the divisions. The Mediterranean used to be presented as an opportunity for building consensus and bridges in a politically fragmented scenario, but it is those divisions that may hinder progress of any initiative of that type.

Fourth, in Barcelona, the notion that the Mediterranean is the optimum – or even natural – parameter for developing a cooperation agenda for the South is rarely questioned. But in other spaces they think in Euro-Arab, Euro-African or Euro-Maghreb terms, or even in terms of a geopolitical region such as the Middle East and North Africa. If the goal is to promote a Mediterranean agenda, this plurality of views must be taken into consideration and synergies must be sought with those promoting them. Fifth, another obstacle is resources that are limited and must be used wisely. Sixth, the level of decentralisation of the countries on the southern shore is very uneven and their mayors’ margin of political autonomy is very small. Without giving up on the idea that the Mediterranean agenda needs a municipalist boost, the reality means a wider network of allies must be sought. Seventh, a change of context at Mediterranean, European or local levels can upset plans and best intentions. But since surprises are by nature unpredictable, it is necessary to be aware of the kinds of difficulties that may arise and do preparatory work on contingency planning. An initiative that is not limited to a single major event but extends over time is less vulnerable to these external factors.

‚Barcelona and the Mediterranean, a Second Chance‘ – Article by Eduard Soler i Lecha – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.

The Article can be downloaded here

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