The red carpets were rolled out in Paris this summer as a dazzling line-up of 42 leaders from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa gathered to sign up to the Union for the Mediterranean. Immaculate presidential guards in white gloves stood by as Syria’s leader came unusually close to his Israeli counterpart, who managed to smile while shaking hands with the president of the Palestinian territories. Promises were made to work together on trade agreements and practical things such as keeping the Med clean.
Ambitious eyes sparkled at the thought that this brave new union – orchestrated by President Sarkozy – could one day help resolve the conflicts of the Middle East. Meanwhile, over the same weekend in a tiny town in Slovenia, the first attempt to turn the pomp into a practical reality was already underway.
In Portorož, a picturesque spot on Slovenia’s minuscule coast, students from countries all round the Mediterranean were sitting together for the first summer sessions at the Euro-Mediterranean University (EMUNI), one of the projects considered to embody the ideals of Sarkozy’s political “Club Med”.
While sun-worshipping German tourists sizzled on the beach, 10 minutes away in the modest new EMUNI building a Bulgarian professor was lecturing to a group of students, which included a Lithuanian, an Albanian and a Moroccan, on the rights and wrongs of giving financial aid to failing countries. When EMUNI launches properly this October, at participating colleges all over Europe, Palestinians will study with Israelis, Syrians, Turks and Greeks for Masters degrees in all things Mediterranean. The grand project, which has taken over a decade to come to fruition, aims to produce a new generation of high-powered postgraduates more able to understand and work with each other than any previous generation.
“This is the first time that there will be a real transfer of knowledge across the Mediterranean,” says Nada Trunk Širca, EMUNI’s director, as she fields calls on her two mobiles from Brussels, Ljubljana and Cairo. In her small office on the fourth floor of one of EMUNI’s modest buildings, she and a dozen employees are putting the finishing touches to the plans for the academic year when Monocle visits.
The project has the backing of some of the biggest political heavyweights in the region and beyond. Kuwait was so enthusiastic it added €1m to the €3m pledged by Slovenia and €1m by the EU. The university brings together around 163 partners in 46 countries and offers fully funded scholarships for students from non-EU countries.
Until now, the closest equivalent has been the ERASMUS programme, which allows students to complete part of their undergraduate degree in another European Union university. EMUNI will coordinate Masters programmes in inter-cultural dialogue, environmental studies, entrepreneurship and tourism. Students will take part of their course at their home university, part in Slovenia and part in a third country. During the course, they must be taught by professors from at least three different countries. The institution aims, within five years, to offer 15 Masters programmes each year involving about 500 students.
“Instead of an Egyptian student studying in an Egyptian university with an Egyptian teacher,” explains Trunk, “we will have constant mobility of highly skilled, capable people who can pull our region ahead.”
As Trunk puts it, “Higher education can and should be a tool for better cooperation and mutual understanding in this region with a history of conflict.” The roots of the EMUNI can be traced back to the European Union’s Barcelona Process launched in 1995, bringing together the European Union and 12 southern Mediterranean states. In the hopeful days just after the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Europe was anxious to create an alliance that would enhance dialogue and cooperation. As the Barcelona Process has stalled, Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean is supposed to bring the EU closer to its southern and eastern neighbours.
Many are sceptical that the new initiative is more of a PR exercise for the French president, hungry to be noticed on the international stage, than a breakthrough that is likely to produce concrete results.
It is not by chance that the academic attempt to unite the countries of the Mediterranean has materialised in a small country that is so little known that people frequently confuse it with Slovakia, and even send post to the wrong country.
Dušan Lesjak, state secretary of the Slovenian Ministry of Higher Education, believes that being a small, overlooked country is actually an advantage. “Slovenia comes without historical baggage,” says Lesjak, who was appointed in 2006 to assess the feasibility of a Euro-Mediterranean University. “We have no colonial experience, and we have good relations with both the Arab world and Israel. When I travelled in the region over the last couple of years, I discovered that everybody was in favour of such a university in Slovenia.”
Vice-president of the European Parliament, Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaropoulou, who is monitoring the progress of the university on behalf of the EU, believes EMUNI has the potential to help ease ongoing territorial disputes in the region. There is no question that the kind of inter-cultural academic dialogue that the university will foster can make progress where politicians fail, says Abdouli Touhami, president of Mediterranean Organisation for Promotion and Science (MOPS) and ex-president of Kadmous University in Syria. Touhami, an advocate of EMUNI in the Arab world, believes that open-minded Arab scholars will welcome the idea.
“The effectiveness of ministers and decision-makers is doubtful,” says Touhami. “Higher education is the ultimate tool for unity among human beings. We don’t need Bush, Mubarak or Berlusconi. We need Habermas, Popper and Chomsky.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether EMUNI will live up to expectations. The project will have just a few years within which to establish itself or sink into the annals of failed European dreams.
1. Emanuel Varela-Choucino
Varela-Choucino studies law at the University of La Coruña. He loves the sea, and wants to specialise in maritime law. Being in Slovenia for him is a chance to see what the Mediterranean countries have in common, but also what the differences are.
2. Marija Gila
Gila did her first degree in psychology, and is now on her second degree, in judicial linguistics, in Riga. She came to EMUNI’s summer school for the “crime, security and social order” course. “Nowadays the best universities are not necessarily the oldest ones,” she says.
3. Nikoletta Bouga
Bouga says she feels more Mediterranean than European. After completing her BA in economic policy at the University of Athens, she is preparing a thesis on sustainable development. She hopes that the experiences she had and people she met in Slovenia will help her in her job as an economic consultant in a private company in Athens.
4. Mohamed Amine Haji
Haji wants to be the finance minister of his country. After completing a BA and an MA in economics at the University of Rabat, he heard about the new university in Slovenia. “I had to Google Slovenia first, because I had no idea about the place,” he says, “but now I’m so glad to be here.” For him, higher education is a good starting point for cooperation between countries and peoples. “I have already seen what my country has to offer, now it’s time to see other places.”
5. Joseph Mifsud
Mifsud will teach international relations in EMUNI. An ex-diplomat for Malta, he has worked on educational programmes in conflict areas such as Northern Ireland. “I feel at home in Tunisia, Italy, Israel, Syria and Slovenia. They are much more similar than one thinks.”
6. Maja Dimc
Dimc works as an IT analyst at the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Slovenia. She teaches at the Faculty of Management of the University of Primorska, and was a guest lecturer at EMUNI this summer. “Networking for me is everything,” she says, “especially in my field, which is technology.”