The Mediterranean and the Middle East are, regrettably, two of the most unstable regions in the world, which for centuries have been devastated by domestic conflicts and religious wars, both in Islam and the West.In many cases these conflicts arise from a presumed primacy of Islam founded on the superiority, or at least the equivalence, of the spiritual sphere over the secular sphere and have escalated for various reasons, including the economic gap between underdeveloped countries in the Middle East and the West, economic growth in emerging markets (United Arab Emirates, China) and lately the re-emerging roles of States such as Russia and Israel.
The Roman Empire was divided into the Eastern and the Western Empires, the latter fell first due to religious wars and those between the Papacy and the Empire. The historic events concerning Fredrick II’s relations with the Muslim community are one example. The Eastern Roman Empire lasted a thousand years longer since it wisely separated temporal and spiritual power and it fell when Mehmed II, faced with the expansion of Islam, conquered Constantinople and the West failed to send aid because most nations were engaged in their own conflicts.
The current threat of terrorism in the East and the West is akin to the former scenario.
I am convinced that today, poverty, unemployment, widespread corruption, the lack of opportunities for youths who see no future, together with the cultural vulnerability of youths with no education or vocational training in the Maghreb and the Middle East, are the reasons why fundamentalism (and unfortunately terrorism) is spreading.
Access to adequate education, vocational training and the labour market, together with suitable policies to support those with special needs or who are unable to work, are goals that responsible governments throughout the world should meet, and should be a priority in regions riddled with political, economical and social instability.
Regrettably, governments in the Mediterranean and Middle East focus on other goals such as ensuring the victory of a political party or an ethnic group; supporting allied armed formations; fuelling corruption and enriching a few at the detriment of the majority. A political map of theses regions shows a rather distressing panorama. Only a few countries have a stable democratically elected government, capable of ensuring peaceful cohabitation, providing averagely efficient services and prospects for economic and social growth. Only wars, widespread crime, misery, anarchy and slums are noted in most of the other countries.
In recent decades several countries in the region have started to reform their budgetary, monetary, trade, investment, labour market, agricultural and service policies. However, since the benefits in terms of new jobs have been modest, the migration flows, including people who are not fleeing war torn countries, to the northern coasts of the Mediterranean have by no means decreased. Moreover, the growth model adopted by many countries in the Middle East mainly encourages high technology export and capital-intensive industries. On one hand these strategies have contributed to GDP growth while, on the other hand, they have failed to deliver adequate and respectable employment opportunities to the rapidly increasing workforce. Consequently, a vast informal sector prevails in the region, offering jobs to unqualified workers and subsistence-level salaries whilst avoiding tax and breaching basic labour laws.
Furthermore, the youth population has risen mainly in Southern Mediterranean countries, where over 30% of the population is between 15 and 30 years of age. The school to work transition time has increased as likewise the number of youths not in employment, education or training.
Consequently, there is much still to be done and considering the ongoing conflicts, it appears unlikely that a new virtuous course of action that aims to address the serious shortcomings in education will be undertaken in the near future.
However, I believe that this procedure should include:
- Vocational training programmes, in centres of excellence, providing the most marketable skills;
- Improvement of teachers’ competence;
- Partnership agreements between schools and businesses, preferably with European or Western partners;
- Support flexible apprenticeship contracts or other tangible training opportunities that are more accessible in terms of cost.
Since 2006 the European Training Foundation (ETP) has operated in concert with the European Commission and other partners to promote business and entrepreneurship education. In 2011, the European Commission passed the Small Business Act (SBA) for the Mediterranean Region for the purpose of promoting entrepreneurship and stimulating the individual economies. The promotion and creation of jobs has been on the top of the Union for the Mediterranean’ agenda for several years.
In this scenario, Fondazione Terzo Pilastro – Italia e Mediterraneo is (to our knowledge) the only Foundation in Italy to spread culture, increase youth training and foster integration between the various nations in the Mediterranean region. The Foundation is also contributing to the accomplishment of projects that aim to strengthen human capital in the Mediterranean region.
This Foundation was established on my belief that the geopolitical centrality of the Mediterranean region should be reclaimed as a valid alternative to the present Eurocentrism, mainly based on Northern Europe. It is not by chance that all my activities are inspired by the message left by Frederick II that has influenced my ideas ever since I was a boy and I believe is still very topical. I am referring both to the delicate issue of the relationship between the West and the East, which was opposed or even made impossible since the political (secular) and the religious (spiritual) spheres were not separated in most of the Eastern Islamic countries (Frederick II perceived the same issue in Italy at the time) and the centrality of the Mediterranean, or rather Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) as a bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa and a place of dialogue as envisaged by the Emperor. In my opinion the Mediterranean should reclaim this role today.
Accordingly, by means of the Foundations I have managed, I have made great efforts to realise this vision and suggest a project that Italy should adopt without hesitation in order to become a internationally recognised leader, as justified by its history and geographic location.
During the international conference, “Mediterraneo: Porta d’Oriente (The Mediterranean: Gateway to the East), promoted, as I recommended, by Fondazione Roma and held Palermo in May 2010, I underlined that the Mediterranean is a physical region and a union that corresponds to an extraordinary “history of ideas’, a multi- millennia journey nourished by faith in God, during which the Arabian, Jewish and Christian sensitivities merged, philosophy and the concept of Polis arose and the arts, literature and poetry were fostered. I also expressed the hope that the Mediterranean would reclaim its fundamental historic role, mainly by means of the language of art and culture. Many projects have been accomplished in order to materially support this course of action.
I recall the conference on ‘Italy’s Mediterranean policy’ held in Palazzo Sciarra in April 2014, when a document was issued containing suggestions for economic, immigration, safety and cultural policies in order to reinforce Italy’s role in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region, in view of its term of Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The document was sent to the (Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however our politicians were deaf to these issues, which are crucial to the future of Italy and Europe.
On the subject of economics, we suggested in the document to reconsider the concept of the Mediterranean region, in order to include Persian Gulf countries; negotiate and enter the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) to increase trade of goods, services and investments and promote regulatory convergence concerning technical requirements, healthcare, protection of intellectual property rights, competition and customs; aim to render the energy supplies from North Africa, South East Europe/Caspian and the Middle East, increasingly more reliable and convenient, and the European Union more self-sufficient by creating its southern energy hub in Italy.
On the subject of immigration, the document suggested to establish a common EU policy on visas, asylum, repatriation and patrolling the Mediterranean Sea; to review the readmission agreements with Mediterranean countries and the domestic policies to curb migration flows. As for security, the intention was to complete the reform of Eurojust to ensure that this body grants priority to the fight against cross-border criminal organisations and reinforce the existing judicial cooperation structures to counter crime in the Mediterranean region.
The document also contained a chapter on culture, with proposals to develop the relationship with Mediterranean civil society organisations with unity of purpose post-20011, by tracing the most dynamic and receptive interlocutors with diplomatic assistance and the involvement of Italian embassies abroad and cultural institutions in Middle East countries. Other suggestions included strengthening the EU’s Euro-Mediterranean programme; reinforcing Italy’s role in attracting investments; supervision of the stances held by international and European development to ensure they conform with Italy’s geopolitical interests; the creation of a coalition between the countries in Southern Europe interested in reclaiming the centrality of the Mediterranean region; the adoption of a policy for the Balkans in the wake of the Adriatic Euroregion established in Pula in 2006.
A programmatic declaration, open to contributions, focused also on women’s difficulty in accessing employment in many Mediterranean countries, was issued during the conference ‘Women in the New Area of the Mediterranean’ held in Valencia in May 2015.
Perhaps I should mention the projects implemented directly in the Mediterranean region, such as the restoration of the Basilica of Saint Augustine of Hippo in Annaba, Algeria; the reconstruction of the Mar Musa al-Habashi Monastery in Syria; the irrigation of semi-desert areas of Nabeul, Tunisia; the construction of a football field in Jaramana, Damascus; the support provided to the International Festivals of Symphonic Music in El Jem, Tunisia. In the field of education, we accomplised projects such as the peace education programme Aqaba-Eliat which involved exchange projects between Arab and Israeli high school students; the Financial Education in the Socio-economic Culture of the Mediterranean project, promoted by the Associazione Nazionale per lo Studio dei Problemi del Credito – ANSPC and supported by Fondazione Terzo Pilastro; the Intercultural Mediation and Interpreting master’s degree course open to students from the Mediterranean region held in the University of Reggio Calabria; the project tiled ‘LUISS Mediterraneo’ that aims to hold Bachelor’s and Master’s degree course for students from the Mediterranean region who, having completed the University course may return to their homes and hold managerial roles; the specialisation course, held – in collaboration with Rotary Club Roma Cassia promoted by Franz Martinelli, who I wish to thank for his valuable assistance – in the LUMSA university, titled ‘The Mediterranean and the Middle East today: Issues and Prospects’ for the purpose of training experts in juridical, economic, political and cultural relations between Mediterranean and Middle East countries.
Although we have achieved a lot, it is still not enough to permanently raise the level of education and the employment rate (especially youth). However, I believe that the Western World and this soulless Europe intent on budgetary compliance should follow the example set by this small non-profit Foundation. Above all poor old Italy, where the politicians who have sat in Parliament for over forty years still discuss trivial, uninteresting matters, should follow this path. We are sick and tired of listening to these politicians’ nebulous oratory (regardless of the incumbent government) who, in the best of cases, only know Sharm El Sheik on the southern coast of the Mediterranean.
Throughout the years we have indicated a road built with conferences of international stature and punctuated with tangible works implemented on the site in order to offer youths employment opportunities, higher education and training. Everyone must follow this road now, in order to prevent Rome from ending up like Constantinople in the near future.