Europe must adapt to the changing geopolitical importance of the Mediterranean
Many states surrounding the Mediterranean have experienced intense periods of instability over the past two decades. This instability, combined with the region’s importance for world trade, has made it a central focus of international politics. Ricardo Redaelli argues that in light of the changing geopolitical importance of the Mediterranean, it is time for Europe to develop a new strategy for engagement with states in the region.
Perhaps surprisingly, with the new century, the Mediterranean basin has acquired a sort of “new centrality” in global international dynamics, after a prolonged period of perceived marginality. However, this centrality has often been the result of political and military crises and proxy wars between competing powers rather than a coherent attempt by regional and international actors to strategically refocus on the region. In other words, the Mediterranean has experienced a “negative” and unintended increase in its geopolitical importance.
Indeed, throughout the basin, multiple centrifugal forces have operated that have undermined its state structures, particularly (but not exclusively) along the southern shore. Over the past two decades, the outbreak of particularly violent civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, rising tensions following the disappointing results of the 2011-12 Arab uprisings, the growing power and visibility non-state jihadist movements, the return of Russian activism, and a violent polarization between Shiites and Sunnis have further destabilized the Greater Middle East.
Furthermore, European citizens have been made to focus obsessively on the problem of migrants coming from the African continent or from crisis hotspots: a factor that has profoundly influenced European domestic politics and the European vision of the Mediterranean. All of these factors have contributed to a marked destabilization of the security matrix of the Middle East region, thus reinforcing the greater geopolitical entropy of the globalization process and triggering a significant redistribution of power within a changing international system.
The most obvious result was a marked dismantling of the balances, perhaps precarious, which existed in the various Mediterranean sub-regions. At the same time, the perception of the Mediterranean as an “American lake”, in place since the 1960s, came to an end. The basin has once again become “contestable” due to the perceived decline of American power (or at least a decline in its interest in the region), which has encouraged bolder initiatives by regional or external actors.
All these conflicts and crises have, in their own way, overshadowed the evolution of economic and commercial trends within the basin, such as the role of the Mediterranean in world trade or the creation of new trade corridors (such as the Chinese Belt and Road) that have given the region a new centrality in geoeconomic and maritime economic perspectives.
Indeed, this sea, although it represents only one percent of the world’s oceans, generates about 15% of the world’s maritime traffic and 20% of the associated economic value, which makes it a fundamental global socio-economic crossroads. Even from an energy point of view, the basin is playing a more important role thanks to the discovery of giant deposits of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. For example, the United States Geological Survey has valued that the Levant Basin contains about 122 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas.
Europe has effectively tried to withdraw from the Mediterranean, renouncing the creation of an overall political strategy for the region, despite its crucial importance.
The lack of European determination and the weakness of its foreign policy have aggravated Mediterranean instability. Europe’s divergences in political priorities and in the perception of challenges within the Union’s enlarged borders, combined with the economic crises of the past decade and the effects of the pandemic, have weakened any attempt to coherently articulate a European regional security project.
This has given rise to national logics that have exposed the EU to diverging policies, unilateral initiatives and a slowing down of the traditional focus on engagement and support launched shortly after the end of the Cold War with the supposedly Barcelona process. Europe has effectively tried to withdraw from the Mediterranean, renouncing the creation of an overall political strategy for the region, despite its crucial importance. This is a strategic error and a failure, well beyond the political sphere, which threatens the ability of Europeans to adapt to the seismic changes and redistributions of power affecting the international system.
This attitude is all the more surprising since the Mediterranean has historically been considered by Europeans as a “liminal” space – despite the tensions and differences that exist at all levels in the Mediterranean States. Europe’s perception of the Mediterranean basin as a “barrier” has only relatively recently taken root, largely as a result of the traumatic events that have plagued it since the turn of the century.
At the end of the George W. Bush administration, the United States tried to extricate itself from the chaos of the Middle East. In one famous book, Kenneth M. Pollack has summed up this political aspiration as “coming out of the desert”. However, despite this aspiration, the United States remains inextricably involved in the crises of the Middle East. The same is true for Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Indeed, the situation is even more perilous for Europe because of its proximity.
Paradoxically, this approach marginalizes the Euro-Mediterranean dimension of the basin itself. We are moving towards a global but more fragmented reality, where regional state actors interact with non-state actors, proxies and external powers, without any effective multilateral framework.
Despite its geography, the Mediterranean, from a geopolitical and geoeconomic point of view, is becoming a “global sea”. This global dimension has created new geopolitical spaces for emerging or returning powers, whether in the region or outside it. However, these actors – including Turkey, Russia and several Arab states – lack a coherent vision of the Mediterranean as a security system, with the basin tending to be viewed as a mere chessboard for their activities.
For better or for worse, the Mediterranean is today totally intertwined with world history. This is something that Europe is compelled to recognize as it seeks to engage with neighboring states. Given the new centrality of the Mediterranean in international politics, there is a clear need for Europe to adopt a long-term strategy capable of addressing the persistent imbalances and instability present in the region. Indeed, the only rational response to epochal seismic changes is to adapt to them, not ignore them.
For more information, see the author’s new edited volume (co-edited with Francesca Maria Corrao), States, actors and geopolitical drivers in the Mediterranean: perspectives on the new centrality of a changing region (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021)