Since the mid-1990s, the Mediterranean sea has become the most dangerous border crossing of the world. The physical fortification of this border has been matched by the rise of ethnocentric nationalisms throughout Europe, that cast this sea as a fault line in a 'clash of civilizations' between Europe and North Africa, and are thus strongly opposed to North African and Muslim immigration to Europe. In contrast to this vision, a series of actors throughout Europe, ranging from immigration activists to local and national politicians, have embraced a Mediterraneanist vision that casts the Mediterranean sea as an area with a rich history of exchange between North Africa and Europe.
I argue, however, that Mediterraneanist projects, by focusing on a-historical and depoliticized notions of cultural exchange, ignore and reproduce longstanding structural inequalities between people of European and of North African descent, and reify ideas of difference between these two populations. I make this argument by analyzing Mediterraneanist projects that have emerged since the early 2000s in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily – commonly known as 'the most Arab city' in Italy, thanks to its long-established Tunisian community and to its long history of economic and political relations with Tunisia. Through an analysis of two types of Mediterraneanist projects – ones focused on regional development and ones focused on migrant integration – I argue that, while Mediterraneanist projects formally celebrate the presence and contribution of people of Tunisian descent to the city, they ignore and reproduce longstanding material inequalities and symbolic hierarchies between these two populations. Far from being unique to Mazara del Vallo, similar tensions characterize other cities and regions in Southern Europe that have embraced Mediterraneanist politics, but that continue to be sites of racialized tension between people of European and of North African descent.
Mediterraneanist projects, however, do not only reproduce inequality, but also reify difference. By framing the challenges of immigration to be ones of 'cultural difference', in fact, both municipal and Catholic proponents of Mediterraneanist projects in Mazara del Vallo assume a long-standing difference between Sicilians and Tunisians, who – in the right context – may be coexist. In particular, they point to turn-of-20th Century colonial Tunisia, a French Protectorate that was host to a large Sicilian population, as a 'model' of coexistence to be reproduced in the present.
In the second part of the dissertation, however, I provide a very different reading of colonial Tunisia. I show that rather than a model of coexistence between Sicilians and Tunisians, French Protectorate Tunisia was a site of differentiation between these two populations – a differentiation that served to define the boundaries of Europeanness. In addition, I show that while, in this context, French colonial authorities celebrated Mediterranean coexistence, this was an assimilatory understanding of coexistence that was perfectly compatible with notions of hierarchy between different populations.
This reading of colonial Tunisia shows that the celebration of Mediterranean interconnection alongside the production of hierarchies and inequalities is not unique to contemporary Southern Europe, but has a long history of defining relations between people of European and of North African descent. Thus, it points to the limits of a celebration of Mediterranean interconnection to create just and equal relations in the Mediterranean region. In addition, this reading of colonial Tunisia shows the fallacies of an assumption of 'cultural difference' between Sicilians and Tunisians. By reframing colonial Tunisia not as a site of coexistence, but as one of differentiation between Sicilians and Tunisians, I show how these two populations are not primarily distinguished by their different 'cultures', but by racialized inequalities produced through long histories of cross-Mediterranean Mediterranean exchange.
By pointing to the uneven power relations perpetuated by notions of Mediterranean mixing, the aim of the dissertation is not to disregard Mediterraneanism as a platform for cross-Mediterranean social justice. Instead, it aims to show under what conditions Mediterraneanist projects may challenge hierarchies and uneven power relations between people of European and North African descent. I argue that in order to do so, Mediterraneanist projects must advocate for equity and redistribution, both within Europe and across the Mediterranean; explicitly reject a politics of assimilation; and shed light on the contingency, and thus possibility of change, of the boundaries of Europe, carefully guarded by the fortified Mediterranean sea.