Collaboration Among Mediterranean Islands

Collaboration Among Mediterranean Islands

by Thymio Papayannis

Thymio Papayannis (Greek, born 1934) is an architect-planner. A graduate of MIT, he has been involved for the past thirty years in the conservation of natural and cultural heritage in the framework of the Ramsar Convention and its Mediterranean Wetlands Initiative (MedWet), WWF International, IUCN, and the Mount Athos Holy Community. He is president of the Society for the Protection of Prespa.

 The Mediterranean Basin has always been a tumultuous region of the world. At present, at the beginning of the third millennium, it is being subjected once more to severe stresses. European countries in the North – mainly Greece, Portugal and Spain– are facing financial collapse within the general malaise that threatens the Eurozone. In North Africa and the Middle East, political unrest, leading to armed conflict, is prevalent and hopes for a peaceful and democratic ‘Arab Spring’ have dissipated.

These economic and political stresses, combined with deep poverty in certain countries of Africa and Asia, have fuelled population movements from the South and East to the North, creating humanitarian and social problems, while tourist flows towards the Mediterranean are for the moment on the increase. Throughout the Basin, there is a growing mixing of populations and cultures, while traditional social and family structures are weakening. Demographic increases and unsustainable development pressures lead to coastal artificialisation and environmental degradation. The impacts of climate change are becoming visible, with desertification already clearly observed in Cyprus.

The Mediterranean is rich in islands with great diversity in size, natural resources and history. Two of them (Cyprus and Malta) are already states and members of the European Union. They are joined in size by Corsica, Crete, Euboea, Majorca, Rhodes, Sardinia and Sicily, with populations ranging from 100 thousand to 5 million, among which autonomy trends are growing. There are 12 other medium-size islands with populations of 30 000 to 100 000 (Lesbos, Chios, Zakynthos, Salamis, Kefallonia, Samos and Kos in Greece, Ischia and Elba in Italy, Gozo in Malta, Minorca in Spain and Djerba in Tunisia)[1], and various archipelagos with a multitude of small islands, some uninhabited.

Tourism and leisure are the major economic and social activities in the Mediterranean Islands and have had a serious impact in various sectors and at many levels. Resort housing, addressed to affluent Northern Europeans, but also wealthy Middle Easterners, has been increasing. This is being supplemented by small-scale, quality agriculture, as well as declining fisheries and increasing aquaculture. Industry exists in some of the larger islands, such as Sicily and Corsica. Transport and illegal immigration constitute key problems, along with the provision of satisfactory social and technical services, particularly to the smaller islands.

Contacts and commerce among the islands has been pronounced, especially under the great Empires (Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman), with various degrees of political unity. Conflict has been continuous and piracy has played a significant role[2]. In the modern world, national frontiers have fractured the Mediterranean and rendered contacts difficult. However, the benefits of joint actions to face challenges and to cultivate economic synergies are evident. Immigration and tourism are two areas in which inter-island communication might produce positive results. A creative mix of populations and cultures, carrying their particular heritage, skills and capacities, could magnify these.

A first step in furthering cooperation – focusing on specific sectors of common interest, such as tourism, public health and higher education – would be a loose organisation between Cyprus and Malta, perhaps in the framework of the Union for the Mediterranean, which could eventually evolve into a formal treaty. Other large islands could be encouraged to join this treaty, initially in an informal but substantial manner, while maintaining their national linkages. Gradually smaller islands would decide to join this cooperation network.

Architect Stefano Boeri and others have proposed the utopian idea of a ‘Free Confederation of the Mediterranean Islands’ a few years ago, focusing on the Aegean Sea[1]. A gradual process might have more chances of success, proceeding by small steps in various sectors and levels. It might take half a century before the Mediterranean Island Federation becomes a reality, but it is these first positive and promising steps that are important. They must be taken now.

Further information: Mediterranean Institute for Nature and Anthropos (Med-INA) at