The Flare of the Med

By Cleopatra Kitti, founder of the Mediterranean Growth Initiative

Crisis Group
Feb 4, 2016 · 6 min read
Outskirts of Misrata (Libya) taken from a commercial airplane. MAGNUM/Michael Christopher Brown
Cleopatra Kitti

The Mediterranean is the cradle of civilization. Today, a rich maritime history, culture and economy are being threatened by the tentacles of deadly conflict spreading across the region.

Redrawn borders, proxy fighters, political and economic inequality, instability and corruption, are at the root of uprisings, wars, protests, and forced migration.

Unless Europe combines diplomacy with economics, matches peace making with governance-conditional aid, and embraces cultural and ethnic diversity on its Mediterranean flank, the region will become utterly engulfed by the crisis. The Mediterranean will move into Europe.

The twenty countries lining the shores of the Mediterranean are diverse, with about 500 million people spread out over the region. Numbers tell a story. The European Union (EU) Med countries account for close to 80 per cent of the region’s GDP but only 40 per cent of its population. However, for the years to 2020, GDP growth among the region’s EU member states is expected to remain sluggish at around 2 per cent, while in the countries of North Africa and the Levant growth is forecast to be above 4 per cent. It is also indicative that on average, European youth along the Mediterranean currently have more than ten years of formal education, while Mediterranean youth outside Europe have less than seven years of schooling.

Mediterranean migration has been a chronic issue, but now it is an acute crisis. In 2013, the last year for which definitive data is available, there were 30 million migrants living in the Mediterranean. Nine million of this total originated from another Mediterranean country. More than 15 per cent of the people living in Croatia, Lebanon, Cyprus and Israel are immigrants. Immigrants also make up between 10 to 15 per cent of the population of France, Spain and Italy, three of the largest and richest countries of the Mediterranean.

However, deteriorating situations in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and the Sahel have resulted in an unprecedented flow of refugees and migrants. The crisis affects the Mediterranean region and beyond, rocking the foundations of the EU.

Responsibility for solutions lies with those of us in the Mediterranean region, with international actors and in particular with Europe. It requires bold leadership, using economics as an enabler for politics. More importantly it necessitates tolerance of “otherness” to foster collaboration and trust.

Classicist Nicholas Purcell, in his studies on the Mediterranean, used the term “thalassography” to describe the kind of history in which the sea serves as a “stage” for humanity. “Thalassographies,” Purcell argues, do not have to be about seas themselves but about the movement and connections between people that characterise life on and around the waters. Now, tragically, the Mediterranean Sea serves as a deathbed for those seeking to escape conflict and find sanctuary on the southern shores of Europe.

From Marseille to Efessos, from Piraeus and Split to Benghazi, Sousse and Tangiers, nomads, crusaders, traders, and artists, all have defined the Mediterranean trajectory and generated links across the world.

It is in the same pattern — but this time overlaid with the paradigm of conflict — that beliefs and assimilation spread today from the Mediterranean to global communities.

The international order and nation-state system, in Westphalian terms, are being tested. The Mediterranean — which includes and borders Europe, the Middle East and North Africa — is challenged by holy and sectarian wars. A hundred years on from the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, the map of borders and influence is unravelling. It remains to be seen if and how the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African states will be able to reach a settled concept of international order, how the maps of tribal and political influence will be redrawn, and how any reconfiguration will be accommodated by the world community.

War fatigue may eventually lead to peace, which weak statesmanship so far has failed to deliver. It is this lack of statesmanship that is shaking Europe, rattles NATO and may draw the U.S. into more Middle Eastern wars.

Strategies that worked in the past — such as the purchase of tribal loyalties and Western favouritism based primarily on security interests — will not work now in an interconnected world. The emphasis on identity, based on religious and political power, meets the lack of opportunity and crushed dignity of millions of youth around the Mediterranean. Heightened frustration permeates across Arab and Levantine communities as the internet and social media have opened windows to a world that is unattainable for them because of bad politics, tribal ambitions and war.

Europe and the international community can begin by bolstering economic bright spots in the region, such as Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and Lebanon. This is the only way to counter the ongoing recruitment of youth by extremists, and to offer a ray of hope.

It is five years since the Arab uprisings. Nothing much has improved. This January, Tunisian youth again took to the streets to protest the lack of jobs. Egyptian youth, terrorised and disengaged, have lost hope of securing reforms. Syrian children are spending their formative years out of school in camps spread from Jordan to Lebanon and Turkey.

While traditional diplomacy walks a tight rope to end the conflict in Syria and combat the Islamic State, it is missing a broader strategy to strengthen fragile societies. A range of actions are needed in order to contain extremism, dent radicalism and pave a way for peace making and stability.

Support from the U.S. and Europe to invest in the private sector in North Africa and the Levant would create jobs, spread skills and expertise, and strengthen capacity in key sectors of new economies. Building infrastructure to connect urban and rural centers would boost Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. It is essential to address the need for health care, access to water, sanitation, housing, and telecommunications. Investments in technology to grow food, cultivate fisheries, process olive oil, and expand citrus groves would support the traditional Mediterranean staples cherished around the world.

Access to capital and financing must be conditional on good governance, institution building and more equitable sharing of wealth.

European politicians struggling with sluggish economies as well as migrant flows must see this opportunity as the only future solution for resolving the crisis and opening the door to growth for their big and small corporates.

From my visits to rural Tunisia and Egypt, the to-do list is simple: bright young people are in need of work, families are in need of basic welfare, local governments are in need of institution building and governance rules that would help deliver jobs. Connecting rural to urban centers allows for access to education and health care. Combine this with European expertise, U.S. and Asian capital structures, and there’s a win-win situation.

In this new political reality, where no single society has overwhelming power, no leadership is perfectly resilient and no one faith imposes absolute authority, Mediterranean citizenry struggles for survival in varying degrees. South European Mediterranean citizens have redefined survival under the austere circumstances of failing economic policies. North African and Levantine Mediterranean citizens seek to escape war, brutality and poverty. The lack of moral authority and leadership only prolongs the crisis.

Conflict resolution formulas must be re-engineered. There needs to be a rethink of economics, private sector empowerment, and financing that is conditional on governance and institution-building. There is a need to contextualise risk and redefine opportunity, and a need to focus on the bright spots. Support forces for good, don’t just fight evil. The Mediterranean can demonstrate Europe’s political and economic flair, or it risks flaring up across Europe.

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This article represents the view of the individual writer, not that of International Crisis Group or of its Board.

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