Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Empire Of The Western Mediterranean

Malta is a curious island. Its population is roughly equivalent to that of Palma, yet in size it is less than one-tenth of Mallorca. Such shoe-horning of humanity into such a small area makes it one of the most densely populated countries of all. And it is of course a country, unlike Mallorca.

There was a time when there was a common link between the two islands, namely Aragon. Indeed, there was a common link between Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Mallorca. All of them in centuries past were united under Aragonese rule. In addition to parts of Spain, southern France, southern Italy and even Greece, the Crown of Aragon at one time ruled as a thalassocracy - rule of the sea, a state with principally maritime realms. It was, if you like, a Mediterranean empire.

It was the lot of Mediterranean islands that they were to pass into the control of others. Being generally of strategic importance, they were tempting to any wannabe imperialists. Malta, like Mallorca, had its share of Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs. Malta was to also, somewhat bizarrely but importantly, to come under the ownership of the Knights Hospitaller in the mid-sixteenth century, and they remained in situ until Napoleon took a fancy to the island. The outcome of the latter's interest was to bring the British Empire into the story. In 1814, under the Treaty of Paris, Malta became part of the empire.

Apart from some protection from the old Kingdom of Sicily, of which it was a part, Malta was never integrated into a Mediterranean country. The rule of the Knights of Malta was a key ingredient in establishing a form of insular independence, which was finally and definitively established in 1964. Under British control, its protector was a long way distant, so it was quite unlike the other western Mediterranean islands with their geographical proximity to Spain, France and Italy. This very distance and membership of empire, as opposed to membership of a nearby nation, were factors in it becoming its own country.

The Malta story is an intriguing one in the context of current Mediterranean politics. Here is a tiny island, a country in its own right, a member of the European Union, with a GDP around a third of that of the Balearics as a whole, with Mallorca providing the lion's share of this. If Malta can do it, then why not other islands?

The circumstances were, on the face of it, quite different, but there are those who will maintain that Mediterranean islands were every bit as much brought under the control of an empire as Malta was. In Mallorca the narrative is one that concerns the Bourbon dynasty. The destruction of the Crown of Aragon brought the island within the Castile sphere: 300 years of hurt and all that.

Earlier this year there was a landmark agreement reached between Corsica and Sardinia. Corsica, more so than any other of the western Mediterranean islands, has long had independence agitation. It has at times been violent. Now, it has come together with its neighbour in not just strengthening inter-island relations but in also establishing a cooperation framework that would include the Balearics. Practical aspects of this relate to transport and energy, but there is an undoubted political dimension. Corsica has a new governing alliance of pro-independence parties. Sardinia has for some time had greater autonomy with real law-making powers.

Biel Barceló, the Balearic vice-president from Més, the Mallorcan (Balearic) nationalist party, made a speech to mark Europe Day earlier this week. He spoke of there being a Europe of shared sovereignties, in which Mediterranean islands are demanding recognition of their own specific needs. "We are working towards specific formulas that will allow there to be effective recognition of our island situation." The islands, with the possible exception of Sicily because of its very much closer location to the mainland, have similar issues in common, ones caused by being islands (connectivity, increased costs, and the like), and varying levels of desire for independence from some quasi-imperialist master.

Jaume Font, leader of the more moderate nationalist El Pi, said recently - apropos travel discounts for residents - that "Madrid never learns anything or knows anything about how things are in the Balearics". They probably say the same about Paris and Rome. It is this perception of being ignored, the consequence of being on the national periphery, that helps breed resentment and desire for greater autonomy if not independence.

And that, independence, is a remote, not to say fanciful notion. Malta might provide  a clue, but Malta was and is different. So if not independence, then what about a union? One between the islands. They have much in common and much which, together, they can present at a European table. The Corsica-Sardinia agreement may well be the first step: a new Aragonese empire.

No comments: