Insights

The Mediterranean: an area of global strategic relevance

In an increasingly polarized world, the Mediterranean holds the key to world security

Over the past few months, the illusion that the Mediterranean region had a secondary role in world stability – and could as such be disregarded at the global level – was finally dispelled. The reality check was brutal: if you do not take care of the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean will take care of you. In 1949, French historian Ferdinand Braudel put forward a vision which repudiated the 16th-century notion of the Mediterranean as an inland, closed sea and foresaw the region emerging as the key actor of a new globally relevant civilization. True to this vision, and having undergone momentous changes which would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, the Mediterranean is now more strategic than ever.

The main driving forces behind these changes are Turkey and Russia. Both countries are pursuing old imperial dreams. Both are playing an important role in the central Mediterranean through their military presence in Libya. As a consequence, the area has become one of the most sensitive, divided and conflict-prone on earth. The Mediterranean Sea is less and less a 'Mare Nostrum', and increasingly the object of external ambitions.

So, how did this newly found central position of the Mediterranean come about? The answer lies in its role as a bridge between Europe and Africa, two continents whose destinies are inevitably bound to cross.

There are three main issues at stake.

First, the Mediterranean region is where key energy and raw material issues play out. In the case of raw materials, there is a tight connection between some less-developed but resource-rich parts of Africa and the most advanced innovation hubs on the planet. The thread that runs from the heart of Africa all the way to Cupertino highlights the demise of another false narrative: Africa is not a poor continent, it has the potential to be rich.

The second strategic issue lies in global demographic trends. Europe's population is hardly growing – if at all, while Africa's is booming. This imbalance must be managed: it cannot be borne passively, nor can it be left to the heinous, unacceptable rules of human traffickers. Not only because humanity is a universal value, but also because failing to manage this demographic asymmetry would spell catastrophe for both continents.

Then, there is the war on terrorism. Today, Africa is both the scene and the target of countless terrorist attacks. At the same time, it has become the main breeding ground for a new kind of international terrorism, from al-Qaeda to Daesh, through a myriad local variants. This becomes clear if we zoom in on what is happening today in the Sahel or the Horn of Africa. Europe’s realisation that this is its real southern front has probably come too late. That very southern front is now shaken by dramatic instability, with coups d’état in Chad and Mali, tensions in Niger, and the conflict in Ethiopia. Instability is spreading like wildfire from country to country: we could soon be watching the Sahel and Horn of Africa go up in flames, providing fertile ground for terrorism.

In this scenario, the strategic position of the Mediterranean region comes to the fore once again. A piece of global security is at stake here. As the world becomes increasingly polarised between two hotspots – namely the Far East and the Mediterranean – the notion that the Pacific is the most tension-ridden area on the planet no longer holds true. We now know that there is another one which is probably just as complex – if not more. Given the strength of the players involved, the stakes in the Mediterranean go well beyond its regional boundaries: they are global in scale.

Based on this analysis we can draw four conclusions.

First, this new geopolitical dimension of the Mediterranean poses a direct challenge to Europe. This calls for strong cooperation among the three most influential players in the region: Germany, France and Italy. None of them will be able to cope on its own, and the idea that these three countries can still have separate Mediterranean policies is no longer viable. No individual country can make it alone. We need a change of direction. We need the whole of Europe to come together to face this challenge, which goes well beyond migratory flows and requires a geopolitical approach.

Second, the abandonment of the America First approach by the US means that Europe can look at its Mediterranean challenge through the lens of transatlantic relations. This was not a foregone conclusion. However, there is one thing Europe needs to be clear about: while US support will be needed in key moments and scenarios, its primary focus will continue to be on the Pacific. It will be up to Europeans to shoulder most of the responsibility. This is particularly true now that the issues left unresolved by the Arab springs are coming to a head, after we shifted too quickly from the illusion of exporting democracy to sweeping those historic mass movements under the carpet.

Third, the coastline that runs from the Middle East to Northern Africa (through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria) represents a line of instability. At its heart, the conflict between Israel and Palestine has flared up again, and is now being held in check thanks to a ceasefire that saw Egypt play a crucial role. This role – much more relevant than that of any European country and of Europe as a whole – highlights how geopolitics can be more complex than we think, at times.

Finally, the Sunni world is fragile, split between the countries that signed the ‘Abraham Accords’ with Israel – first among them the United Arab Emirates – on one side, and Hamas supporters Qatar and Turkey on the other. These divisions are masterminded by the main Shia power, Iran, which is trying to bring the Israel-Palestine conflict into the realm of nuclear negotiations. This goes to show how world tensions are reflected in the Mediterranean, and how this region holds the key to world security.

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