EU needs new approach to ensure Mediterranean Sea security

"Europe should carry out more and better-organised search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean to save human lives," said Raphael Shilhav on behalf of OXFAM. [EPA/KAY NIETFELD]

Threats in the wider Mediterranean region and ongoing tensions between Rome and Paris are threatening Italy’s geostrategic role in European and global defence in the region, experts have said in a report, also warning that climate change could further destabilise the region.

“The EU, whose approaches have produced only limited successes thus far, has concluded that a comprehensive strategy is needed to avoid a further spillover of conflicts,” Jamie Shea, former deputy assistant Secretary General at NATO, wrote in a recent Friends of Europe report.

“It has come to the realisation that national actors cannot, on their own, cope with the multiple threats and challenges they are forced to overcome,” he added.

The refugee crisis, which particularly affected Southern Europe as the first port of entry, went hand in hand with the rise of populist parties in Europe and Italy was no exception because its citizens felt neglected by the EU.

Italy’s security interests include open European and international markets, safe sea routes, stability in the southern and eastern Mediterranean, secure energy supplies, control migration and peace in the Western Balkans.

The report highlights great powers competing for influence in the Mediterranean, stability undermined by fragmented or fragile states and migration flows, almost daily struggles over land or resources, persisting ethnic and religious tensions, as well as Islamist radicalisation and terrorism.

Moreover, energy security could become another potential breaking point. Italy is a major corridor for oil and gas pipelines from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Eastern Europe.

“We see climate change, population growth and desertification, which can drive the conflict and migration flow. Putting a lid on these problems can be short-sighted,” said Paul Taylor, who authored the report.

As heat waves will increase, drought will be exacerbated, and existing stress on water availability will be amplified, the experts raised concerns that the Mediterranean region will suffer multiple shocks that could destabilise its security environment.

“There will be 2.5 billion Africans by 2050. The population of Africa will surpass China. 60% of them will be under the age of 24. Either we get involved in development and help those young people go to school and get jobs or they’re going to pick up an AK-47,” US Admiral James Foggo is quoted as saying in the report.

Antonio Missiroli, NATO Assistant Secretary General, also characterised the Italian political behaviour as based on three things.

The first is Italy’s engagement. Italy has always been heavily engaged and has never used a veto. The second feature is the degree of frustration, in response to the lack of ambition of others, fear of exclusion and lack of sovereignty. And the last one is inconsistency.

A key factor is also the tension between Italy and France due to the migration issue and clash of interests in the Mediterranean, especially in Libya.

Here, the EU should focus more on giving priority to the domestic discussion among Libyans themselves, Libya analyst Mary Fitzgerald warned.

“They are so less in charge of their own destiny. It is a European game, more specifically French and Italian game. There is a need to move beyond the short-term solution,” she added.

It is apparent, that security in the southern Mediterranean cannot be ensured while France and Italy are playing on different sides. As long as this proxy war lasts, it has destabilising consequences, fuels problems of radicalisation, terrorism, arms trafficking, uncontrolled migration and energy insecurity.

“If the competition between France and Italy in Libya continues, we will play second fiddle to al-Qaeda,“ Stefano Stefanini, former Permanent Representative of Italy to NATO, commented the situation.

According to Taylor, a new approach of the EU is needed, in terms of taking better account of the needs of young people in the region for education, travel opportunities and jobs. There is also a need for creating a new division of labour between the EU and NATO  so as to maximise each organisation’s toolbox for projecting stability.

The report suggests several steps Italy needs to take, from reforming its armed forces to adapt to the 21st century challenges to making the defence budget more transparent and efficient.

[Edited by Alexandra Brzozowski/Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters