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Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) to Mare Vestrum (Your Sea): Transatlantic Insecurity in the Mediterranean

By Fabio Capano, Transatlantic Security Analyst

"The Mediterranean, by its profound influence over southern Europe, has contributed in no small measure to prevent the unity of that Europe, which it has attracted towards its shores and then divided to its own advantage."

With these words French historian Fernand Braudel highlighted the porosity of the Mediterranean’s borders as well as competition among multiple social, political and economic systems. Although Braudel was writing of the 16th century, the Mediterranean today is just as divisive. The Arab Spring, which brought protests, civil wars and dramatic sociopolitical changes in the Middle East and North Africa, also led to massive waves of migration from the Libyan coast toward Europe. This vast movement of people, which continues today, undermines geopolitical stability and poses major challenges for transatlantic security.

The Mediterranean, which in the past was perceived as “the lake of Europe,” is now transformed into a no-man’s land. The impressive flow of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa represents not only an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy at Europe’s southern border, but it is also offering terrorist groups a unique opportunity to “export” terror to Europe’s mainland. Indeed, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that “one of the problems is that there might be foreign fighters; there might be terrorists trying to hide, trying to blend in among the migrants.”

In an attempt to respond to what was originally understood as a refugee crisis, the Italian government led a massive rescue operation that became known as “Mare Nostrum,” or “Our Sea” in October 2013.  In November 2014, the EU agreed to remove the financial and logistical burden from Italy and began Operation Triton. Despite its promise to replace Mare Nostrum, the number of deaths of migrants crossing the Mediterranean increased exponentially under the new program, mostly due to its smaller search and rescue capabilities and minimal budget. Also troubling were findings that incoming migrants rescued by Operation Triton’s vessels often entered the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, about 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia, without having their fingerprints recorded or identification documents requested. This lapse in security due to insufficient resources and poor planning has left Europe potentially exposed to radicalized migrants whose recruitment by terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda is facilitated by instability in the Middle East and North Africa.

This potential threat has been overshadowed by the human cost of the crisis. Media attention to the humanitarian dimension of this challenge placed increasing pressure on Europe to propose a more effective strategy. In May, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced three new proposals: A European naval operation to better tackle this human emergency; stronger coordination with African governments that control the shores from which smugglers arrange the mass departures of refugees; and, aware of the immense desperation of refugees to escape violent conflict in their home countries, the  use of military force to destroy the smugglers’ network. NATO confirmed its support for this last European initiative and expressed its willingness to send training forces to Libya and provide intelligence on smugglers’ vessels crossing the Mediterranean. 

Following up on Mogherini’s proposals, on June 22nd the European Council launched a naval operation against human smugglers and traffickers in the Mediterranean called “EUNAVFOR Med.” This operation consists of three phases: The surveillance and assessment of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean; search and, if necessary, seizure of suspicious vessels; and the disposal of vessels and related assets. It is too early to assess the effectiveness of this strategy, but it will greatly depend  on the agreement among EU members to move beyond this first encouraging step. Although a UN Security Council resolution would further legitimize the European plan, an EU planning paper obtained by EU Observer stated that intelligence gathering and the seizure of ships can begin without it.  

This plan responds to the criticism that Europe’s inaction has turned the Mediterranean into a graveyard rather than the cradle of European civilization. Indeed, the long stalemate inside the EU over the redistribution of incoming migrants entering the Italian peninsula greatly undermines Europe’s claims to serve as a haven of democracy and freedom for its neighboring countries. Not only did its prolonged indifference weaken its exterior image as an indefatigable promoter of human rights, but it also became a pretext for egoistic avarice and nationalistic populism, ultimately leading to calls for a more comprehensive approach to support political stability, economic development and the strengthening of local governance in its Mediterranean neighbors.

While this strategy was formed to curb illegal immigration in the Mediterranean, it also advances the fight against international terrorism. As argued above, the potential facilitation of terrorist activities in Europe under the cloak of refugees escaping bloody civil, political and religious wars has not received enough media attention. Only recently has there been some recognition that terrorist groups operating in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan are using the displacement of millions of people as a strategic weapon against international coalitions. This threat further forces Europe to reconsider its short-term strategic approach to the Mediterranean. Although the EUNAVFOR Med holds great promise, its multi-phased nature may significantly impede a rapid response to infiltration by terrorists.

A more prompt and comprehensive strategy would focus on migration at its sources. It would first consider reinforcing the stability of the Turkish-Syrian border by directly negotiating with the Turkish and Syrian government to facilitate the deployment of UN ground troops in both Turkey and Syria. However, this strategic move cannot be achieved without Russia’s support inside the UN and therefore calls for negotiations with Moscow despite the recent deterioration in diplomatic relations. This consideration further proves the interconnected nature of current crises on the eastern and southern flanks of the European Union. As a result, the EU should consider losing rather than strengthening economic sanctions against Moscow in exchange for Russian support for a UN Security Council resolution under Chapter VII in Syria (allowing the deployment of blue helmets in the country) and the enforcement of the Minsk agreements in eastern Ukraine. By no means should this be interpreted as recognition of Russian sovereignty over the Crimean region; rather, it should serve as a temporary instrument to re-launch dialogue while involving the Kremlin in a broader and more rapid response to the Mediterranean crisis.

Second, the EU and the U.S. should promptly provide tangible and financial rewards such as greater shares in potential revenue from innovation, energy and natural resources-related projects to Tunisian and Moroccan governments. This could enhance broader Mediterranean governance in exchange for the international patrolling of smugglers’ routes. Similar incentives could be extended to the Libyan government, but would only possible with successful mediation in the current civil war, which is not only devastating the country but also strengthening the position of jihadist tribes. In this case, it also appears necessary to resolve differences with both Russia and China in order to pass a UN Security Council resolution to legitimize an international intervention that establishes a truce between the opposing factions. 

Implementing these practical steps toward the creation of a safer and freer Mediterranean represents a unique test not only to the unity of intent of European countries but also to that of the transatlantic partners in the Mediterranean. After the dramatic split over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and varying degrees of disunity over intervention in Libya and proposed action in Syria, the Mediterranean crisis represents a unique opportunity for Europe to prove its willingness to act with a single voice in international affairs and deepen integration in the military sphere. Due to the global nature of the terrorist threat, Europe also needs to further deepen transatlantic ties with its American ally. Only a combined response from the main bearers of Western values and ideals can transform the Mediterranean into a crossing point of civilizations and a borderland of hope and opportunity.


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