The Sea Battle of Navarino, Louis Ambroise Garneray, 1831
A supranational construct of Europe that imposes boundaries but also makes them negotiable has contradiction built into its genetic code. Looking at maps of Europe at various times since antiquity, this hardly seems new – Europe’s external borders as well as its internal ones have shifted infinitely often. However, the era of nationalism and the nation-state – with its illusion of the coincidence of territory, language, history and collective identity – has encouraged a certainty of definition more incompatible than ever with a porous external border. The European Union, as a “supranational partnership of convenience that is, as a matter of principle, open to expansion”, has borders that are inherently fluid; they are regulated by European law and notoriously contested in border regions.
In the Mediterranean space – the “middle sea” between Europe, Africa and Asia – these fluid borders are all the more problematic, since they cannot be symbolized by a fence or equivalent territorial demarcation. Instead, borders literally disappear into the shimmering horizon and can only be maintained through the occasional patrol. Here, the experience of globalization contemplated by Georg Simmel over a century ago becomes social fact: borders are cultural regulations that (can) take form spatially. The European Union is thus best understood through its borders.
But its borders are also where its sovereignty is most strongly under attack. Ultimately, this is an expression of the perennial problem of European identity. It is an identity that has always been ex-centric, since much that is “European” hails from Asia (Minor), and always ex-territorial, since Europe exported its achievements to the rest of the world in both peaceful and aggressive-colonial ways. The instability of the borders to the south (and to the east) becomes almost physically tangible in the Mediterranean space: in water, boundary lines become fluid and ambiguous and their validity is contested. The weather, the conditions of the ships, and patrols add to the uncertainty.
Until recently, the Mediterranean was a hotbed of instability, not to say a combat zone. This is something forcefully evoked in Mathias Énard’s extraordinary novel Zone, whose protagonist, like some furious Achilles, harkens to the echo of past battles and retraces more recent massacres – “from Homer’s Trojans to Jean Genet’s Palestinians, from the Spanish Civil War to the Algerian War, from the crimes of the German occupying force in Greece and the deportation of the Jews from Thessaloniki to the murderous collapse of former Yugoslavia” or as another review put it, “from the Battle of Thermopylae to Napoleon’s Montenotte Campaign, Gavrilo Princip’s pistol-shot, the deportation of the Greek Jews, the slaughter of the Palestinians in the camps at Sabra and Shatila, the disembowelment of a Serbian grandmother with her crucifix”. In Serbia, the Mediterranean is occasionally called the “blue cemetery”.
If Mediterranean politics are to be realistic, they must be aware of this history of violence so as not to have to experience it anew.