With the recent departure of my friend and colleague Adrian Lahoud from UTS, I have been thinking about the incredible couple of years I have spent dreaming up projects and articles with Adrian. From a background in architecture, but also from Lebanese heritage, Adrian had become interested in the idea of architecture in the aftermath of conflict. His thinking has developed quite a bit on this subject as he comes closer to finalising his PhD thesis and I won't pretend I can do it justice in a mere blog post, but I will encourage those of you who have an interest in conflict cities to either read his blog Post Traumatic Urbanism (something weird is happening with it at the moment but this link seems to work) or to listen to a lecture when he comes to a theatre near you. He's moving to London so I suspect he'll be much more accessible to the larger proportion of humanity than he was when he was in Australia. Adrian and I met through Richard Goodwin, a dear friend of mine. I was having dinner with Richard in my early days as a Sydneysider. I had just moved from New York City, a recent graduate from Columbia University and in search of cultural connection and relevance in this new land down under. I know it is a bit harsh, but from the perspective of a new-comer, Australia seemed to be a bit of a cultural desert. Luckily, the ensuing months and years proved me wrong (to some extent) and other factors helped me establish quite a comfortable and enjoyable life down here.
As I was putting Richard through the mill of my undergrad thesis 'Berlin and Beirut as Laboratories for a Postmodern Renaissance', Richard gasped for air to say: 'I know who you should meet, Adrian'. It was not long before Adrian and I were discussing post-civil war Beirut and our respective experiences there. I had been stuck in the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, so much of these conversations conjured up quite vivid and emotion-ridden memories for me. I was fascinated at how Adrian's research had zoomed all the way out from an architectural proposition to a geopolitical strategy exercise by roping in Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal for a Mediterranean Union as the ideological trojan horse to discuss a post-national arab world.
We decided about a year ago that I would write an article for a book that Adrian was editing on the Mediterranean Union. The book would comprise a series of essays about the implications of a transnational governance structure and its associated infrastructure that would encompass southern Europe, the Maghreb and the Mashrek into a political union. I was tasked with exploring the spatial impacts of a political union in terms of the flow of people, capital and energy.
So I laboured on this article, just as the first signs of the so-called Arab Spring were starting to surface in the media. I was interested in unpacking how speculation on the idea of a Mediterranean Union had been a productive process in terms of rearranging the nature of the exchanges (in goods, capital and energy) between southern Europe and the rest of the littoral states of the Mediterranean basin. You can download the full article here if you'd like to have a look at the argument in more detail.
The irony of this exercise was that as I was bringing my final touches to the article, adding references and proof-reading, the whole premise of the Mediterranean Union as a practical objective fell apart in front of me. Within weeks, Mubarak had fallen, Ben Ali was gone and a couple months later, the war on Libya had well and truly started. I suppose my mistake was to consider that these elements of the region's geopolitical landscape were immutable to some extent but I defend myself humbly by suggesting that no-one could have possibly predicted the scale and speed of change that occurred in that part of the world in early to mid 2011.
In addition, the looming debt crisis in Europe was also a severe blow to my argument. As conditions toughened and the Greek debt situation worsened, it seemed like the appetite, or rather the appropriateness, for a pan-Mediterranean discourse had completely vanished. I suppose it is only natural, if Greece, a relatively peaceful and 'reliable' country had not been doing its part in the European Union, how could we expect better from the conflict-ridden countries of the Maghreb? The conversation refocused on the credibility of the European rescue plan for Greece but also on strategies for the sustainability of the common currency. The whole model of a transnational union had been irreversibly damaged by the European debt crisis. Talk of disbanding the union (at least the monetary union) had come to the fore. How could this ever be fertile ground to dream another laborious union up, laden with bureaucracy and political jostling?
The third force that came to damage my argument is the upcoming French election and a hardening stance on immigration in France. As Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, gains popularity with 'middle-France', the message of creeping xenophobia and more controlled borders has come out on top. Sarkozy is interested in attracting the National Front votes, at least those of the voters who are casting a protest vote but don't really have the guts to go through with Le Pen on the second round of the presidential election. I can imagine that we'll see Sarkozy lean further to the right, as well as capitalise more and more on his role as the 'saviour' of the Euro in close (and exclusive) collaboration with Mrs. Merkel.
In short, I fear that the space for speculation about the Mediterranean has disappeared. The new order post Arab spring and post Euro crisis leaves no room for productive speculation, and has therefore abandoned a productive, wealth generating, mutually reinforcing relationship with the Arab world as a practical project. Instead, France and the rest of the EU is focusing on rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. As John Grey wrote for the BBC (and cityofsound tweeted today) “it seems clear that no solution to Europe's problems can be found within existing institutions". I'll leave you with that.