Mare nostrum lives today?
Could the countries of the North, East and South-Meditarrenean act in a unified way? Creating a strong regional power, idealistically inspired by the Roman Empire?
Mare nostrum, ‘our sea’ in Latin, was the Roman name given to the Mediterranean Sea throughout the Empire’s reign. From the beaches of Spain, Portugal, the North-African coast-line, throughout the Greek Islands and to Syria, Palestine and today’s Israel, the Roman Empire controlled and dominated the entire region for centuries.
This internal sea was the Empire’s main economic income and advantage, as the countries surrounding it traded with each other, and grew economically through eachothers resources.
The Mediterranean, as a region, has changed names multiple times. For a period of time however, and until the World War II, it was customary to refer to the area of the Mediterranean as the ‘Near East’, while the ‘Far East’ centered on China. The ‘Middle-East’ was the area from Mesopotamia to Burma.
The West, Middle and the East
Today, the south Mediterranean and the countries of North-Africa, but also east of North Africa, are called the ‘Middle East’; composed of about 15 countries. The Middle-East got its name in the 1930’s when the British established the Middle East Command, based in Cairo, for its military forces in the region. But the Middle-East and the Meditarrenean are quite distinct areas. One could wonder if the Middle East really is a fitting description for the countries of North-Africa, and the Eastern Mediterraenean. This due to the fact that they are part of the same Mediterranean region, and share a common history, common religions, sea, nature and mentalities - all overlapping one with the other.
The Middle-East has since the 50’s in many parts of the world received a negative reputation, and especially so in Western countries. One reason for this is that the term Middle-East, regardless of country, gives connotations to recent conflicts and wars – especially so when seen for many people outside the region. This can in part be blamed on media coverage, and especially by negatively portraying the countries, instead of highlighting the normality of life that actually exists here.
Still, it is a fact that since the 1960’s there has been numerous conflicts in the South Mediterranean, such as the Lebanese Civil War, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Yemeni Civil War, the Arab Spring and so on so forth. The influence and spread of radical extremist ideologies, like the growth of ISIL has also installed fear in many. But how can we reap peace and consolidation in a politically, religiously and economically divided region? A region that battles for its shared oil and gas reserves, faces conflict one with the other, and more often than not experienes internal political instability.
The Union for the Mediterranean
The countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea share its rich water and natural resources, a rich fishing sea, and an enormous tourist industry that draws on people from all corners of the world. In January 2019, energy ministers from Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Jordan and Israel, with representatives from Italy and the Palestinian Authority, met in Cairo to discuss regional co-operation in offshore gas. The last gas findings seem to be the trigger that make the countries put aside any differences among them and grasp the opportunity at hand. More of such findings and events are necessary when trying to unifify the region, and are positive steps in a regional direction.
During the Roman Empire, the Mediterranean region used to function as a strong economic union, and one that could withstand most enemies. Today, the Mediterranean region also has its own union, called the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), being an intergovernmental organization which brings 43 countries together to promote cooperation. As a political scientist, having focused my research on the European Union and its relations to the Mediterranean and the Middle-East, I was surprised when I first heard of the UfM as a regional actor.
The UfM bases itself on high level meetings between each country’s governments and international organizations such as with the European Union. The projects that the UfM covers range from climate, business, tourism, employment, cultural ones, and so on. In fact, it seems that the Ufm covers most areas of cooperation, apart from having an army. Indeed, if it did have an army, this union would be able to create a strong regional force, being the Mediterranean army, a mid-point between West and East.
Surely such a union should be at the forefront when dealing with any crisis in the region, and also engaged in order to act offensively when negotiating with other international organizations. Most of the south-Mediterranean states are not part of the EU, so naturally it should be in their interest to act unified – as there is more power in number. This would require that the countries of the North, East, West and South Mediterranean start acting together, in spite of differences.
Common sea, common identity?
Being a northern European living in the Mediterranean region, it seems that people here share many of the same values and attitudes, albeit wrapped in different religions, languages and distinct historical journeys. Physically, Greek, Turkish, Syrian, Spanish, and Egyptians share three common traits, simply put: brown or black hair, a golden tan, and most importantly, warm and hospitable personalities. This is distinctively something Mediterranean, far from the more serious, at times rigid, Northern Europeans.
What I mean to say with this simplified description of a set of cultures and people, is that the sea in the middle of the earth – the middle of the ‘terra’, shares something in common, that stretches deeper than its 21 countries and their borders. In fact, Roman ruins can be found in almost all countries, giving rock-solid proof that the region is also architecturally bound one to the other.
My question is thus the following: Could one, in a near future, imagine a more solidified union, where all countries of the Mediterranean act together, in spite of their internal and external disagreements, as one powerful economic and regional actor? Reviving, in a semi-idealistic way, the concept of ‘mare nostrum’ our sea, our land, and our people? The intergovernmental organization UfM is only a small step in what could potentially become a larger union - but it is necessary that governments acknowledge the power that lies in agreeing that their countries share a common past, and a common sea, and lately, more natural resources.
Many contemporary conflicts such as the Greek-Turkish conflict, the Israeli-Arab war, or other minor and major conflicts would benefit from adhering to a new perspective of consolidation, based on a shared identity, instead of adhering to one that brings more division and disagreement.