Europe and the sea, a relationship to rethink

Roundtable organised by German-French Young Leaders

, by Théo Boucart, Translated by Juuso Järviniemi

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English] [français]

Europe and the sea, a relationship to rethink
Héraklion Port in Crete

“Europe is the cities”, one often hears from those describing our ‘continent’. One could just as well say that “Europe is the sea”, such is the extent to which the open water has shaped our cultures. Given this, should we analyse our relationship to the sea from a geopolitical perspective?

From 31 May to 3 June, the German-French Young Leaders event took place in Paris, aiming for exchange and sharing of ideas on Europe and its political construction in a changing world. Around a hundred French and German participants, from all professional backgrounds, participated in thematic roundtable discussions. An occasion to develop a common vision on the European project, but also to discover new perspectives on analysing European integration.

This precisely was the objective of the presentation, “European maritime values in an interconnected world”, by Georges Prévélakis, Professor of Geography at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University, hailing from Crete. According to the professor, the values of a society are connected with the presence or otherwise of the sea. Liberty, openness and risk-taking would characterise the maritime way of life, whereas continental societies would be more conservative and stable.

Europe, a maritime land by nature

From a geographical point of view, Europe is everything but a continent. In fact, it constitutes the Western peninsula of the Eurasian continent. And when one says peninsula, one inevitably talks about land surrounded by water. As it happens, Europe has tens of thousands of kilometres of coastline, from Icelandic and Norwegian fjords to Greek islands and the long beaches of the Bay of Biscay or the Baltic Sea. As such, Europe is strongly influenced by the ocean.

In Georges Prévélakis’s view, Europe began to dominate the world once it became the master of the seas in the 16th century, at the time when the Chinese empire was in decline due to its will to turn inwards, towards its vast continental possessions. This is all the more significant as the opposite is happening today: Europe is curling up towards its continental mass (a process accelerated by Brexit), whilst China is progressively recapturing economic and military possession of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Following the impulse given by populism, is Europe turning its back on its origins? After all, the great founding civilisations of Europe (the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs) were resolutely oriented towards “Mare Nostrum”, the Mediterranean, much more central than what one might think.

How to find a good balance between continental and maritime values?

Since everything is about balance (and geopolitics is by no means an exception), how should Europe combine its continental and maritime visions? Should Europe become a continental empire with a centre (the Franco-German “axis”), and a periphery (Mediterranean countries)? An alternative would be a networking of European territories, “connecting” the “marginal” maritime territories with continental ones. The economic and social development would only be more durable and balanced.

What’s important in Georges Prévélakis’s view is not giving answers (he even admitted that his speech posed more questions than it gave answers), but contributing to the renewal of debate and European thought. Mediterranean countries have suffered too much from policy made in Brussels, without knowledge of social realities in different areas. Therefore, it is necessary to go beyond these different models of thought. Nothing is unchanging, not even the nation-state. This analysis of the European project through the prism of maritime values amply deserves to be deepened, so that the ideas presented are appropriate, like a bottle that one casts to the sea in the hope that the message inside will one day be found and read.

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