Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


The dynamics of the Mediterranean region are increasingly affected by the interplay of the US, Russian, and Chinese efforts to strengthen their respective regional positions. The US disengagement has led to a greater Russian and Chinese presence and to the growth of their influence at political, economic, and military levels.

As opposed to the early 1990s, the EU today is no longer the dominant or key actor in the Mediterranean and it now has to balance its policies and interests in the Mediterranean against the perceptible influence of not only Russia and China but also of a range of regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Turkey, and Israel.

The potential for major inter-state conflict, after having been low in recent years, has increased since the Hamas attack in Israel on 7 October 2023 while lower-intensity internal conflicts elsewhere are likely to continue and to erupt intermittently. The Eastern Mediterranean is fraught with conflicts, whether frozen or active, direct or proxy, internal or regional. At present, they all appear to be intractable.

Geo-economic competition is in full swing as Eastern Mediterranean countries seek to embed themselves in major connectivity and energy projects which are expected to transform the geo-economics of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Migration is the main consequences of Eastern Mediterranean instability against which European countries shape their approaches. After the migration peak of 2015–16 from the Eastern Mediterranean into Europe,  the number of refugees remains very high and there are prospects for an increase of attempted departures to Europe.

The climate is no longer simply an environmental issue: it is now a key factor in international relations and has become a major diplomatic challenge. Environmental issues are now an integral part of geopolitics, and all the more so in the Mediterranean region.

The Mediterranean Sea

From the Greek-Persian and Punic Wars of Antiquity  to  the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and to the Mediterranean Campaign (1940-1945),  the Mediterranean Sea has, throughout history, been the scene of conflict and tension between coastal civilisations and empires. A commercial and cultural crossroads, it is the regional basin where, since time immemorial, varied cultures, agricultural crops, religions and political regimes have rubbed shoulders, envied one another and competed with each other…

From a natural frontier, the sea nevertheless quickly became a maritime roadway and a link between nations. Exchanges of knowledge, goods and know-how were able to cross borders via the sea to spread throughout the region.  The Mare Nostrum has thus separated countries as much as it has brought them closer together.

Mediterranean is an intercontinental sea that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to Asia on the east and separates Europe from Africa. It has often been called the incubator of Western civilization. Its west-east extent - from the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco to the shores of the Gulf of Iskenderun on the southwestern coast of Turkey- is  approximately 4,000 km and its average north-south extent, between Croatia's southernmost shores and Libya,  is about 800 km. The Mediterranean Sea occupies an area of approximately  2,510,000 square km.

The western extremity of the Mediterranean Sea connects with the Atlantic Ocean by the narrow and shallow channel of the Strait of Gibraltar, which is roughly 13 km wide at its narrowest point. To the northeast the Mediterranean is connected with the Black Sea through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the strait of the Bosporus.  To the southeast it is connected with the Red Sea by the Suez Canal.

The Mediterranean Sea holds therefore unparalleled strategic importance for several states in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Serving as the natural connection between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans through Gibraltar, Suez, and Bāb el-Mandeb, this maritime space is of inescapable centrality for the global trade system, with 90% of trade still concentrated at sea. Consequently, states highly dependent on the import of natural resources and the export of high-value goods, mainly European countries, consider the overall stability of this sea essential for their economic well-being and national security.

Although it accounts for a mere 1.1% of the planet’s total water surface, the Mediterranean supports a full 15% of maritime traffic and 20% of its value, in addition to 30-35% of strategic gas and oil routes for the furnishment up to 65% of Europe’s energy supplies and telecommunications networks.

Additionally, the Mediterranean’s relevance has increased due to recent discoveries of large offshore oil and gas fields in its Eastern quadrant, between the territorial waters of Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt.

Current situation

With the new century, the Mediterranean basin has gained a sort of “new centrality” within 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 among competing powers rather than a coherent attempt by regional and international actors to refocus strategically on the area. In other words, the Mediterranean has experienced a “negative” and unintended increase in geopolitical importance.

According to the World Bank, by 2050, climate change is likely to force 216 million people around the world to leave their homes, many of them in the Mediterranean. People have always migrated, whether for economic, social or political reasons, but climate change has now become a major new factor, particularly in the Mediterranean. Exposure to climatic upheaval means that some of the region’s populations can no longer live decently (extreme temperatures, droughts, floods, storms, fires, etc.).

As a result, some inhabitants are forced to migrate to areas with a milder climate. In North Africa, the availability of water remains the main driver of internal climate migration. This affects people living in coastal and inland regions where water is becoming increasingly scarce.

At the same time, a number of other regions where water is more readily available are likely to become hotbeds of climate immigration, including major urban centres such as Cairo, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, the Casablanca-Rabat corridor and several European countries.

Mediterranean geopolitics

Besides EU, US and Israel, current stakeholders in the Med Area are Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.  Their policies are often conflicting with Western policies.  The erosion of the Washington Consensus model is having political and policy implications for the West's engagement with the Global South in a world dominated by Western international instruments of finance and developments such as  IMF and World Bank.

As a matter of fact, the past limited interest on the American side to shape Mediterranean dynamics, and the incapacity of the European Union (EU) to fill in the gap, has created a vacuum that is being inevitably filled by other powers. Since the end of the Cold War, the US was the unchallenged dominant military power in the area. The Unipolar Moment in the Mediterranean translated into a sort of dominance by default because of the lack of competitors. Europe was the leading economic partner for southern Mediterranean countries but has never been a geopolitical competitor.

The EU will  anyway need a strategy that can deal with the influence of the emerging regional powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel), and those with greater influence and major power ambitions (China and Russia). But the EU cannot develop a wholly independent strategy to deal with the challenges and opportunities arising from systemic shift, without having “renegotiated” its relationship with the United States as well.

Security continues to drive the US' interests in the Mediterranean area, which it sees as a main strategic route to other associated regions such as EU, Middle East and North Africa. Russia has reappeared in the Mediterranean theater seeking to create spheres of influence and recovering alliances with the Southern Mediterranean countries. China, the more distant influential actor, has developing interests in the Mediterranean largely based on energy and  the enhancement of trade and investment relationships through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the new Land and Maritime Silk Roads.   

Non-Mediterranean Middle East states are increasingly influential in the East Mediterranean and the Maghreb, and are acting more assertively and independently of the West than ever before. In so doing, they are importing into the Mediterranean region their own disputes, worldview prejudices, and tensions.

Typical of this trend is the role that such Persian Gulf states as Iran,  Saudi Arabia and Qatar   have come to play in the Mediterranean since the Arab Spring.   Yet, the persistence of old problems, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, act as “open wounds” to challenge the EU’s efforts to create the conditions for peace and security in the Southern Mediterranean, and efforts at region building.

Security outlook

After  the Hamas attack in Israel on 7 October 2023, the most probable source of conflict involves an out-of-region power – Iran – whose reach into Lebanon, Syria and Gaza now poses an immediate and potent threat to Israel. An uptick in the conflict in the Palestinian Territories could affect other regional dynamics and draw in state as well as non-state actors. A cascade effect into Lebanon and Syria, where other drivers of violence are at play, is an enduring possibility.

A fair settlement of the Palestinian question remains unlikely, fueling risks of regional war. Israel’s hardening occupation, deep divisions and dysfunction among Palestinian factions, and the current war between Hamas and Israel preclude any move towards Palestinian statehood in the near term. Only a significant renewed US diplomatic effort could yield substantive benefits for the Palestinian Authority. Conversely, the conflict remains ripe for manipulation by Iran, which has invested considerably in shoring up Hamas and stands to benefit from conflict that remains under the threshold of a regional war.

Turkey’s muscular power projection and ambitions are seen as an existential threat by Cyprus and as an overriding one by Greece, and have defined a decade of frenetic geopolitical competition in the region.  Turkey has successfully intervened, however, in Libya and Syria, checking powerful foes and making itself central to any diplomatic resolution of these crises.

Thanks to its geographic location, size, military power and aggressive policies, Turkey has been the only country of the region that has managed to shape its immediate environment, namely through power projection into Syria and Libya.

The conflict in Libya, which appears intractable, has entangled key regional players. The domestic competition over authority, territory and resources in Libya guarantees lasting external interference in its internal affairs. Turkey, but also Russia and Egypt, have emerged as the most influential foreign players. Turkish's military intervention during the 2019-20 round of fighting and the delimitation of maritime boundaries between Ankara and Tripoli in 2019 established an enduring linkage between the Libyan crisis and the disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Europe's failed approach to the Mediterranean

After more than 50 years of European cooperation, agreements, declarations and plans with the southern Mediterranean and the Arab countries, only one new democratic state (Tunisia) has emerged.

The EU has failed to meet each and every one of the objectives announced in the 1995 Barcelona Declaration. The Mediterranean is today far from being “a common area of peace, stability and shared prosperity”.

By supporting short-term stability at any cost, the EU has de facto geared towards preserving the status quo through backing “illiberal autocracies”. Those regimes cultivate crony capitalism, rely on corruption and nepotism, have a very unequal distribution of power and wealth and, ultimately, generate frustration and resentment among their populations.

The EU has missed many opportunities and made itself less relevant as a driver of positive transformation in its immediate neighborhood to the south.

It is clear that neither the EU nor its member states can democratise those countries by themselves; however, they have enough leverage to play a crucial role in advancing good governance and democracy, which they are not using. 

This should be the moment to start a long-awaited course correction in its relations with the Mediterranean. The risk of not doing so is that it may have to deal soon with a more fractured, conflictual and unstable neighborhood.


The return of multipolarity in the Mediterranean is one of the most remarkable ongoing trends in global politics.  These old and new presences are structurally altering the Mediterranean security equation, triggering a notable, yet worrisome, trends: an ongoing militarisation of the basin, a greater competition for the EU economic influence over neighboring countries, and the rise of authoritarian powers promoting alternative governance models. All these factors will contribute to broaden even further the structural cleavages characterizing the Mediterranean, a sea that too often is united only in the myth and rhetoric, but polarised and fragmented in its tragic, daily reality.

However, 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.

The lack of European determination and weakness in its foreign policy has worsened Mediterranean instability. European divergences in political priorities and in the perception of challenges within the enlarged borders of the Union, allied with the economic crises of the last decade and the effects of the pandemic, have weakened any attempt to consistently articulate a European regional security project.

For better or worse, the Mediterranean is now fully entangled in global history. This is something that Europe is obliged to recognise as it seeks to engage with the states in its neighborhood. Given the Mediterranean’s new centrality in international politics, there is a clear need for Europe to adopt a long-term strategy that is capable of addressing the continued imbalances and instability present in the region. Indeed, the only rational answer to seismic, epochal changes is to adapt to them, not to ignore them.

Whether it is true or not that Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, it does not take a genius to realise that constantly acting based on wrong assumptions ends up producing undesired and self-defeating outcomes.