Insights

The Mediterranean challenge

The Mediterranean represents one of the main focus areas towards which Italian foreign policy gravitates. Over the last few years, this region straddling three continents has become increasingly important in geopolitical terms, as the scene of confrontation between all the major global powers.

For millennia, the Mediterranean has been a crossroads of peoples, religions, cultures, trades and ideas. At the same time, since ancient times, it has been a place of confrontation and clash between civilisations, empires and states that have fought over its control. Although, in the last five centuries, its importance has been declining – first, in favor of the Atlantic and, today, of the Indo-Pacific – it remains a key area in the global context, where the interests and ambitions of all major international players intersect.

Due to its shape, the Mediterranean has been defined by British historian David Abulafia a “sea between lands”[1] – a narrow stretch of water that connects three different continents and, at the same time, a region that goes beyond its coasts to include Europe (to the north), North Africa (to the South), Anatolia and the Levant as far as Mesopotamia (to the East); and beyond, through its straits, the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula (to the South-East); and the Black Sea (to the North-East). These interconnected inland seas are of key importance. Around a fifth of global maritime traffic and a large proportion of the world's most important hydrocarbon producers are concentrated there. From a historical-political perspective, the region is the place of origin and worship of the three great monotheistic religions and is where some of the fundamental games for the future of the planet and global security play out.

Italy lies geographically at the heart of the Mediterranean – a natural platform projected onto its waters – and it remains an important reference in the region, also because of its history. It was its political and economic centre in at least two different historical periods - during the Roman Empire and in the Middle Ages, until the 16th century, when transoceanic colonisation changed European and global balances, favouring the rise of the great European nation-states such as Portugal, Spain, France, England and the Netherlands. However, the Mediterranean continued to play a leading role, so much so that it stayed relevant in every historical era. For example, during World War II, it was one of the hotspots of conflict and even during the Cold War it maintained a high level of importance, especially due to the many conflicts and tensions that occurred within it over the years.

After the end of the Cold War, the global rearrangement following the fall of the bipolar system, and, later, the upheavals following 9/11, the two Gulf Wars and the 2011 Arab Spring, opened a phase of profound change in the region’s political and economic balances. This produced a series of turbulent crises, from the war in Syria to Libya, from the economic crisis in Lebanon to the rise of the Islamic State. These in turn generated a considerable increase in instability, but also led to the emergence of new actors and ambitions. Europe, which had long stood by and watched the changes taking place, was progressively marginalized – apart from the initiatives of a few individual countries such as Italy and France – as the regional picture grew increasingly complicated. The United States reorganised its presence – without necessarily reducing it – keeping a firm focus, and even favouring initiatives such as the Abraham Accords, which gave further impetus to the ongoing process of change.

The emergence of a number of critical issues and often interlinked crises, which affect both individual countries and the region as a whole, not only complicates the picture further, but also threatens Europe’s security, posing serious, undeferrable questions for the future of the Mediterranean and Europe, on the environmental, energy, economic, humanitarian, health and even military fronts.

From an environmental and climatic perspective, the problems that have emerged in the region – which is chronically exposed to extreme weather-related phenomena such as droughts, fires and desertification – are evident. The ecological and environmental balances in the Mediterranean are fragile and at risk. If they are compromised, the effects can be catastrophic. Environmental problems can have repercussions on health – Covid-19 already exposed the fragility of many health systems throughout the region – as well as economic and social impacts. The risk of new famines breaking out, or of existing ones worsening, in vulnerable contexts such as the Horn of Africa, is a case in point.

Some countries today are experiencing dramatic economic crises, aggravated by the war, but often originating from pre-existing causes of a different nature. From Tunisia to Lebanon, the risk of an economic domino effect throughout the southern shore of the Mediterranean is enormous, with the possibility of detrimental social and humanitarian repercussions. The cumulative effect of hunger crises precipitated by climate change and the war in Ukraine could further worsen food insecurity in the poorest countries. Moreover, ten years of unresolved wars and crises have forced millions of refugees and displaced persons to abandon their homes to seek refuge in Europe or other countries. This should be added to the thousands of economic migrants who move across the Broader Mediterranean in search for a better life, a large proportion of whom cross into Europe every year. Should the economic crisis or political instability worsen in some coastal countries in the Mediterranean, new waves of migrants may spill over onto Europe through the sea.

Finally, the war in Ukraine has especially heightened energy and military challenges. The increasing militarisation of the Mediterranean, like the rise of tensions between certain countries, does not stem from the Ukraine war only, but in some cases transcends and precedes it. This is the case with the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria, tensions between Greece and Turkey, or the unresolved Libyan crisis. The Ukraine war has worsened the picture and triggered a more heated rivalry between an increasingly proactive Russia and NATO countries, which had already emerged since the start of the Syrian crisis, in the 2010s.

All these different crises ladder up to a larger and more general geopolitical game that has its focus in the Mediterranean and involves global powers – Russia, China, India, the United States and Europe – as well as emerging regional players. This game is particularly important for Europe and Italy, as it goes beyond individual internal crises or cyclically resurfacing tensions between countries. Given the political and strategic importance of the region for world balances, this has a global relevance. Despite the growing importance of Asia and the Pacific, the “small” Mediterranean Sea and its neighbouring lands always remain at the centre of contention and, as in the past, they are not losing importance. On the contrary, in recent years they have regained relevance, with an increasing number of players wishing to claim a stake in the Mediterranean Great Game.

In an increasingly multipolar and disorderly world, where the Great Powers contend for spaces of influence in the various regions of the globe, if the Indo-Pacific remains at the core of Chinese and US interests, the Mediterranean has grown in importance in relation to six key factors: 1) the growing importance of Africa, a continent of great contradictions and infinite potential, bordering and directly connected to the Mediterranean (many of Africa’s problems spill over to the Mediterranean and its coastal countries), which has increasingly become an object of interest for global great powers; 2) the war in Ukraine, which has led to a clear political break-up between Russia and the West, and - above all - has had serious repercussions in the area; 3) the overbearing return of Russia as a protagonist, especially on the diplomatic and military level, in certain countries in the region, often in opposition to European interests and presence; 4) the energy issue, with producing countries in the area becoming increasingly more important and influential not only because of the war in Ukraine, but also because of growing demand for energy from developing countries and the need for many large European countries to diversify their supplies; 5) China’s economic and political influence, which has grown over the years from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Balkans and the Gulf and is consolidated by numerous economic interests spreading across many countries and often at odds with those of the West; 6) the rise of strong regional players, from Turkey to the Gulf countries, which intend to assert themselves in an increasingly multipolar world with their own autonomous profile through a pragmatic foreign policy, in which partners or interlocutors can change on a case-by-case basis, depending on specific objectives and national interests.

These factors have restored the Mediterranean’s central role, but at the same time represent a cause of instability that often adds to, or connects with, existing crises or critical situations, increasing security risks and threats. It is also for these reasons that – given the complexity of the current situation, further complicated by the ongoing war in Ukraine – the challenge of security and stability in the Broader Mediterranean becomes a global issue and a great geopolitical game that concerns above all Europe. The United States, while remaining interested in the Mediterranean equilibrium, is strongly engaged in the confrontation with China in the Pacific. While it cannot give up supporting Europe in the clash with Russia or in maintaining a presence in the Near East and Africa, it may increasingly delegate the management of certain issues in the Broader Mediterranean to Europe, without however giving up a presence of its own. On the other hand, Europe – whether on its own or with its allies, particularly NATO – will not be able to avoid dealing with these issues, especially when they directly affect its own security.

Instability and insecurity have been a constant throughout the region for more than a decade. Competition between powers and economic, climate and health crises have created conditions which might exacerbate the situation and cause spillovers into Europe. However, the complexity of the challenges in the Mediterranean, the risks involved and the priorities of its various protagonists do not always appear to be fully understood in Europe. The approach to these problems has often been superficial or marginal, even though some countries, such as Italy, have called for a greater sharing of objectives and responsibilities vis-à-vis the main problems afflicting the region, such as migration. Too often, especially when it comes to security, there has been an over-reliance on American presence and protection. While this will still be the case in the future, Europe and NATO, and in particular the European NATO member countries, are bound to take on an increasingly important role.

The war in Ukraine has put the Mediterranean, like the whole Euro-Atlantic area, back at the center of the global dispute: it has relaunched the role of NATO as a champion of its security. But it is also causing an acceleration in the global confrontation, precisely between the United States and China, increasingly intent on promoting an alternative vision of the international system to the Western (and democratic) one.

On the European level, the war in Ukraine has attracted a great deal of attention to the eastern front, often at the expense of the southern one, where symmetrical or asymmetrical threats derived from the conflict could be exploited to strike Europe. While the growing Russian presence in the area should make the Mediterranean an increasing area of focus, the opposite seems to be the case, with growing risks for Europe itself. Such risks are currently largely underestimated by many European Governments – but not by Italy.

For Italy, the Mediterranean – and relations with major players in the area, from North Africa to the Gulf – are key priorities, not least because of what has happened since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and the consequent energy crisis, which has further highlighted the region’s importance. for our country. As important as it is, the issue of energy must not be the exclusive focus of the debate on the Mediterranean’s future – other critical issues and decisive challenges should be addressed within the European and Atlantic frameworks, in collaboration with some of the main players in the region.

Historically, the Mediterranean has represented one of the main areas of focus towards which Italian foreign policy has gravitated. In recent years, reflecting what has happened at a global level, the geopolitical balances of this region have been undergoing a phase of sudden transformation, presenting great risks but also important opportunities. Italy can seize these by also placing the Mediterranean increasingly at the core of the European agenda, so that Europe can be more active in strengthening ties with the countries of the Mediterranean’s southern shore and mitigating the risks of new crises. Climate, migration, demography, economics and security are as important as energy and must be tackled in a shared way, at the European level and with an overall strategic vision.

Ad hoc emergency interventions may no longer be enough. There is a need for a real European initiative aimed at the Mediterranean, which, taking into account the changes underway, can restore the prominence of European countries, including Italy, for whom the Mediterranean has been one of the main areas foreign policy focus since the inception of its “First Republic”, immediately after WWII. In spite of the crises and problems of this historical phase, there is still room for political movement in the region. However, if not adequately supported by a real political initiative, this space could be filled by other actors’ hostile agendas, which might lead to Europe paying a high price, in political and economic terms, adding insult to injury.


[1] D. Abulafia, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, Oxford University Press, 2011

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