“When we dream of human accomplishment, of the pride and joy in being man, our gaze turns to the Mediterranean,” wrote French historian Georges Duby long ago. Well, that era is over. Today, many in the north of Europe would prefer to be rid of the PIGS, as Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (Spain) have been mockingly labelled, as soon as possible. In the South, where a similar mood reigns, they want to “cut ties with Brussels.”

The periphery of Europe, from Portugal to Greece and passing through North Africa, is considered a focus of threats almost as worrisome as the Eastern bloc was during the Cold War. Today it is in the South – a cardinal map point that once upon a time had positive associations – where politicians and public opinion perceive the gravest security risks, from Islamist terrorism, the crash of the euro and waves of refugees.

To bring meaning back to the term “Mare Nostrum”, or “Our Sea”, the South should regain its place at the historic heart of Europe – but freed from imperialist attitudes and the desire to exploit that is the hallmark of short-term thinking. And there, in the South, we can build a project of peace and development that will be both contemporary and sustainable.

Four areas of action and competence seem, to me, to take priority, and they can be coordinated with each other. They would start with a “energy union” that would take in the north-west of Europe, the Mediterranean basin and sub-Saharan Africa – a “European Coal and Steel Community” for a new era, which would also help integrate the entire region in the way that the ECSC helped core Europe come together in the 1950s. The energy oligopolies of the North would become as obsolete as the pension regimes in the South.

An alternative development path

For this to happen, the economic division of labour and migration between the North and the South should be revised. For many decades, trade has been dominated by the flow of agricultural commodities and minerals from the South to the North, in return for consumer durables and capital goods with high added value. At the same time, transnational migration streams have carried Southern “immigrant workers” in search of work and refugees in search of protection into the North, where they cross paths with Northerners – tourists, early retirees and businessmen – heading to the South for a little sunshine.

Fair trade, decent work for all and social justice that does not stop at national borders should replace this insidious dispossession of the South, from which, ultimately, very few have benefited. To begin with, it the inhumane refugee policy implemented by Frontex [the European Union Agency that monitors the external borders of the Union] for purposes of deterrence, and to which hundreds of boat people and illegal immigrants fall victim each year, should be overhauled from top to bottom. Northern Europe needs immigrants and should be greeting them with open arms. The Berlin Wall did not fall in 1989 to be rebuilt in the Mediterranean.

The transition to a mass tourism that is economically viable, socially acceptable and that does not despoil the natural environment can finally be made, while oblivious sun-worshipping vacations in a deckchair can be transformed into respectful intercultural exchanges.

European public opinion has so far largely ignored prospects of this kind and has drawn up no scenarios beyond Grexit – the ejection of Greece and the other PIGS states from the eurozone. The caricature that we paint of the Mediterranean basin – a bad learner, hotbed of threats and candidate for expulsion from the Union – is deep-rooted. The North neither desired nor actively supported the “Arab Spring” of 2011. As Islamist governments came to power in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the idea was reinforced in fortress Europe, as it was in Israel, that the “Arab Winter” is a threat to our security. Stability still handily trumps freedom.

The areas mentioned above by way of example – the energy union, fair trade, eco-tourism and mutual intercultural learning (others may be contemplated) – can be joined up to give birth to an alternative development path that the North could profit from as well.

This “Herculean project” must be accompanied by the constitutional evolution of the entire EU. The “problem countries” would lose some of their national sovereignty, but they would not be alone: Germany will also in the future be just one province of a “United Europe”. Germany can no longer, with or without the complicity of France, enjoy hegemony over the Union.

A political alternative to Chinese imperialism

Such contemplations would no doubt be hard to swallow in Paris and Berlin, as in London and Warsaw, were the nation states and their popular sovereignty to be weakened without creating a new kind of space for them at the same time in a flexible and original form of federalism and subsidiarity. The United Europe must be built of its strong core countries and vital peripheries, bound to one another via subregional federal cooperation.

The Baltic Union – an informal grouping of the Baltic States and Scandinavia, Poland and Germany – the Alps-Adria-Union (joining Austria, Italy, and Slovenia), the union of the Balkans, and even the privileged partnership between the EU and Russia and Turkey are the beginnings of such regional groupings – like the Mediterranean Union, which, recast, can serve as a model for a federal and trans-boundary order within Europe and even beyond the borders of the current European Union.

Today, the “Europe of regions”, till now an expression of the linguistic and cultural diversity of the continent and the defence of the rights of ethnic minorities in the various nation-states, must leave behind its provincialism and take the form of a loosely bound association for “cross-border cooperation” which, alongside the parliaments and civil society organisations, will be able to stand up to the “super-state” rooted in Brussels and confer democratic legitimacy on supranational decisions.

Only on these new roads opening up in the tumult of the crisis can there emerge a diverse European society and public opinion, a European citizenship worthy of the name, and supranational democracy. Only by taking these new roads can Europe once more be a player on the international scene. A Europe that offers a political alternative to Chinese imperialism in the commodity trade, to the ideological self-destruction of superpowers in decline – the United States and Russia – to the disastrous domination of out-of-control global financiers, and to the growing threat of political violence exported from failed states.