The Mediterranean Sea has been referred to as the “barometer of world politics.” This description is quite apt since it is often in the centre stage of conflict. The disputes unfolding in the Mediterranean littoral often prompt responses in the international centres of power – New York, London, Geneva, and lately, Brussels.
Three continents meet on the Mediterranean basin: Africa, Asia and Europe. Diverse political systems, socio-economic conditions and the three great monotheistic religions collide making this one of the most tense areas around the globe.
Security, Europe and the Mediterranean
Establishing security in the Mediterranean has always been a great challenge. Solutions may seem impossible and containment seems to be the only viable and pragmatic policy option.
In the 1970s, the then European Economic Community sought to strengthen ties with the Mediterranean region. Two littoral states, France and Italy, are founding members of the European Union. Moreover, events in the Mediterranean Sea would inevitably have a bearing on events in the EEC.
The Mediterranean is the major shipping route for oil originating in the Middle East.
Oil tanker routes in the Mediterranean
Moreover, former colonial links established different economic and personal interests in a number of non-EEC Mediterranean states.
Mediterranean countries were economically dependent on the EEC. An estimated 50% of their exports were destined to EEC countries. Stronger and lasting links were beneficial for both parties.
The end of the Cold War signified a change in policy and attitude. The fear of expansionary and belligerent Soviet Communism faded. The emerging democratic states of Eastern Europe expressed a willingness to open up their markets, strengthen the rule of law and engage with a wider European project.
More Mediterranean states joined the European Community, and later, the European Union. Greece joined in 1981, Spain in 1986 and Malta and Cyprus in 2004.
However, there is no sign that tension and conflict in the Mediterranean would ebb. Security threats evolve in nature and scope.
The Financial Crisis
The effects of the world-wide financial crisis and the subsequent Eurozone crisis have been acutely felt in the Mediterranean. Greece, Italy, Spain, and Cyprus had to implement substantial reforms and austerity measures to avoid defaulting from their international financial commitments.
These measures led to rising unemployment and widespread discontent. Political instability and popular protests which, in some cases, turned violent were reported in the capitals of various states. The crisis is changing the political, economic and social interface of a number of Mediterranean nations.
The political establishment in Italy was shaken by a strong protest vote which left the country in political deadlock for a number of weeks whilst Greece saw a rise in votes for the extreme right. The political class is often accused of forfeiting its economic sovereignty to the troika – the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
Tensions are rife and the long-term consequences are yet unknown. What is certain is that the wider European landscape will be changed by this crisis.
This map was created by Wall Str. market observer and journalist Barry Ritholtz, who specializes in political and economic analysis, advice and "tips"
The Mediterranean is located at the heart of a main migration route. Migrants leave Sub-Saharan Africa and proceed to North African ports. Lutterbeck (2009) estimates that between 100,000 and 120,000 migrants attempt to cross the Mediterranean annually. This humanitarian phenomenon poses new policy challenges including “overburdened social welfare systems, rising crime rates and international terrorism.”
Organisations, such as FRONTEX, are largely perceived to be ineffective in bringing lasting solutions. Immigration is a problem rooted in the volatile countries of sub-Saharan Africa and the horn of Africa. Engagement with out-of-area players is a pre-requisite to this humanitarian, political and social challenge.
The Mediterranean is a major international seaway which permits the exchange of goods and services across different maritime borders. This geopolitical reality encouraged the establishment of thriving ports across the Mediterranean basin.
The exchange of goods and services is not without its challenges. Effective maritime policing is required to minimize potential terrorist movements, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering and piracy.
The European Union and the Schengen Area provide frameworks which allow for the exchange of information and the enforcement of EU-wide arrest warrants. These links provide a scope for Europe-wide collaboration. Nonetheless, engaging with the southern shores of the Mediterranean is necessary to minimize any security weak links.
The Situation in North Africa
The events which unfolded in North Africa and the Arab World in 2011 present a challenge to policy makers. The media described these mass protests as an “Arab Spring.” Unfortunately, this label fails to highlight the different divisions and the motivations behind the protests in the individual countries.
Due to the historical and ideological difference, the events in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia need to be analysed on their own merits. Also worthy of analysis are the wave of protests in Algeria and the democratic reforms in Morocco over the past decade.
Nonetheless, there are some similarities shared by all countries. All countries are trying to come to terms with the reality and the challenge of a pluralist liberal democracy. To a varying degree, the threat of extremism may hinder or delay this process. Instability is still rife and regional partners are aware of the dangers this may pose.
Euromed survey on "Prospects of sustainable democracy" and "The EU in the Arab Spring"
Institutions and Dialogue
The situation in the Mediterranean may be best summed up in Heraclitus' aphorism: “ever newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers.” The dynamics in the Northern and the Southern shores of the Mediterranean have always been in a state of flux.
There are a number of institutions which provide a platform for Mediterranean and European States to meet. Since 1995, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership brings together 44 states to discuss a number of issues including long-term cooperation, security and stability, good governance, and cultural exchange.
The Euro-Med partnership is the antecedent of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM).
The UfM provides institutions which may promote dialogue in the region. These include a permanent secretariat, a Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly, an assembly for local and regional authorities in the Euro-Mediterranean region and the Anna Lindh Foundation which promotes dialogue between cultures.
The European Union is a major regional player. The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) is a foreign policy framework which facilitates bilateral relations between the EU and 16 of its non-member neighbouring states. The ENP provides for closer political association, a level of economic integration and increased mobility.
These developments are positive. They indicate a willingness to embrace dialogue and provide a platform for the multiple regional partners. However, institutions are ineffective if they are not perceived to have the capabilities to meet challenges. Care must be taken to optimize the institutional architecture of such institutions and ensure effective delivery.
"The Union for the Mediterranean is a multilateral partnership with a view to increasing the potential for regional integration and cohesion among Euro-Mediterranean partners.
The Union for the Mediterranean is inspired by the shared political will to revitalize efforts to transform the Mediterranean into an area of peace, democracy, cooperation and prosperity."
At the 1975 Helsinki Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the late Maltese Prime Minister Dom Mintoff stated that security in the world depends on security in the Mediterranean.
Prof Guido de Marco, President-Emeritus of Malta, held similar views: “there can be no security in Europe unless there's security in the Mediterranean and there can be no security in the Mediterranean unless there is security in Europe.”
Thus, the Mediterranean dimension should be at the heart of debate and decision making.
The aforementioned challenges are not isolated regional issues; they are a cause for concern which could have wider implications.
De Marco, G. (2009)
Reflections on the Euro-Mediterranean Process, Mediterranean Perspective on International Relations: a Collection of Paper’s on the Occasion of MEDAC’s 20 th Anniversary (ed. Calleya S.), pp. 1 – 8
Lutterbeck, D. (2009)
Irregular migration and immigration control in the Mediterranean, Mediterranean Perspective on International Relations: a Collection of Paper’s on the Occasion of MEDAC’s 20
Tsoukalis, L. (1977)
The EEC and the Mediterranean: is ‘Global’ policy a misnomer?, International Affairs, 53 (3), pp. 422 – 438 th Anniversary (ed. Calleya S.), pp. 61 – 83