In the western Mediterranean we encounter a paradox: there is the reality of the strength of relations formed between Europe and the Maghreb countries of North Africa (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia); then there is the perception of a growing gap between the two sides. To bridge this gap and achieve greater harmony, we need to change our perspective. We need to replace Eurocentric ideas of ‘cultural integration’, and instead focus on ‘cultural convergence’.

This will not be easy: the religious fault line between the Judeo-Christian northern Mediterranean and the majority Islamic southern Mediterranean is particularly acute, not least against the backdrop of multiple inequalities in the region, the post-9/11 security deterioration (the escalation of conflicts in the Middle East, and the rise of extremist groups ‘reclaiming’ Islam), and the rise in anti-Muslim populism in Europe.

The poor results of political and economic partnerships have also contributed to the perception of a widening gap. The Euromed partnership – also known as the Barcelona process – is more than two decades old. But the dream of the transformation of Arab societies, democracy and open economies, all to be achieved with structural support from Europe, has faded with the Arab Spring uprisings, which were perceived as evidence of the failure of Europe’s policies to support the region. Now Euromed is often condemned – especially from the European side – as having produced mediocre results or even having ground to a halt.

Euromed’s objectives were ambitious, but the strategies and funding were inadequate and the process unbalanced: for example, a free trade area where almost anything can move except people from Maghreb countries is not a partnership of equals. The new European Neighbourhood Policy – essentially a strategy to secure the frontiers of ‘wider Europe’ – seems to mark the end of perceptions of the Mediterranean as an autonomous geopolitical entity. The policy – including its post-2011 amendments – is based on a pre-Arab revolts mindset and puts in doubt Europe’s stated aim of democratisation of the southern Mediterranean.

“The growing frustration of young people makes them easy prey for radical preachers and extremist propaganda”

Working with its Maghreb partners, Europe must learn lessons from Euromed to create a long-term strategic vision and an improved, more equal partnership. We can achieve greater cultural convergence; reduce disparities; establish a better dialogue. This important work can start by taking four steps.

First, we must counter negative perceptions. Swallowing the narrative of extreme-right parties, many Europeans see Islam as an enemy and immigrants as the source of all problems. These are ideas that have now taken root in the collective European consciousness, fuelled by unprecedented numbers of refugees and terrorist attacks. For Maghreb societies, the European model has lost its appeal, with a breakdown in integration and perceived hostility to Islam and Arabs. In searching for a different modernity, Maghreb societies seek to challenge the dominant paradigm, whereby modernity equals Westernisation.

At the same time Maghreb societies are undergoing a period of great change and increasing polarisation. Political one-upmanship has helped widen existing divides between conservatives and progressives, and between Islamists and ‘secular infidels’. Arguments and controversies radicalise positions and threaten social cohesion, without producing any real constructive debate.

Second, it is vital to improve the situation for ordinary people on the ground. The Arab uprisings, which began in Tunisia, were a call to all countries in the region to pursue aspirations for economic improvement, social justice and political participation. Morocco is moving towards democracy and modernisation, a process that is far from complete. Aided by its strong leadership and clear vision, the Kingdom has consolidated, extended and implemented reforms. As the Maghreb’s main partner, the EU must offer support for such reforms, including regional integration that could boost gross domestic product by two percentage points.

Education is the basis of socio-economic development and open-mindsets. Both Europe and the Maghreb agree that the growing frustration of young people makes them easy prey for radical preachers and extremist propaganda. In Morocco, educational reform constitutes a central axis of its global strategy to fight against extremism and to promote moderate Islam.

In short, we need to give people a real stake in their own societies. Women, in particular, must be involved and valued equally (Morocco changed its constitution to ensure gender equality in 2011). But so too, in Europe, must young people with immigrant backgrounds benefit from equal treatment. Reducing their feelings of being second-class citizens would help prevent delinquency and radicalisation.

“We can build a sustainable, structured and equal Europe-Maghreb partnership that benefits everyone”

Third, we need to rebalance the cultural scales. There is currently great asymmetry in the cultural exchanges between North and South, partly due to the size of western intellectual and artistic output and its powers of outreach and communication. Reducing this asymmetry is vital in breaking down negative perceptions. Islam is a religion of peace, but that message is inaudible to a European public that remains reluctant, scared, or even hostile.

Erudite European specialists on the Arab and Muslim worlds remain silent, wheeled out by the media only to comment on terrorist attacks, where they are given a couple of minutes to explain a hyper-complex part of the world. And few European countries have had the courage to ‘decolonise’ their educational outlook and revise their history textbooks. Here, the cultural services and ambassadors of Maghreb countries must play their own role, increasing their efforts and inventiveness.

The Maghreb diaspora in Europe has the potential to serve as a bridge, but is hamstrung by its limited influence over policy and, in some cases, the absence of voting rights. And, naturally, the cultural gap must be spanned online and on social networks.

Fourth, we need a permanent and constructive dialogue between equal partners and a method to achieve cultural convergence. We need to encourage the growth of research platforms, of think-tanks (such as EuroMeSCo), and of spaces to facilitate understanding and solidarity. The Anna Lindh Foundation, which aims to bring people together from across the Mediterranean to improve mutual respect between cultures and to support civil society, needs much better funding to renew intercultural dialogue, making it an everyday reality. We should make more of the cultural and artistic boom being experienced in the countries of the Maghreb: seminars, forums, festivals, fairs, exhibitions and concerts abound, vying for public and private sponsorship. But above all we need mobility: freedom of movement between countries north and south of the Mediterranean is a must.

By taking these four steps, we can start to build a new bridge across the Mediterranean. We can realise that both sides have much in common, ending what Freud called ‘the narcissism of minor differences’. And we can build a sustainable, structured and equal Europe-Maghreb partnership that benefits everyone.

IMAGE CREDIT: saiko3p/Bigstock