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The new agenda for the Mediterranean: Building peace and resilience through dialogue and cooperation

Written by Mathilde BETANT-RASMUSSEN and Branislav STANICEK.

Twenty-five years after the establishment of the Barcelona Declaration, the Mediterranean region remains characterised by major security, political, economic and humanitarian challenges, both long-standing and of recent concern. The new EU agenda for the Mediterranean, presented by the European Commission in February 2021 and approved by the Council in April 2021, addressed both internal and external determinants, such as the pandemic, with the aim of relaunching the Barcelona process. The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) roundtable on ‘The new agenda for the Mediterranean: Building peace and resilience through dialogue and cooperation’, held on 12 May 2021, discussed strategies and challenges to overcoming the multifaceted challenges of the Mediterranean and achieving lasting regional stability. Etienne Bassot, Director of the Members’ Research Service introduced the event, which was moderated by Elena Lazarou, Acting Head of the External Policies Unit.

In her keynote speech, Roberta Metsola (EPP, Malta), First Vice-President of the European Parliament, emphasised the strategic importance of the Mediterranean region at the convergence between three continents and several global powers. Vice‑President Metsola outlined key priorities for the EU in the region, namely addressing climate change, migration, the division of Cyprus, Turkey’s increasingly aggressive unilateral actions and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Furthermore, she highlighted the EU’s potential to become a catalyst for peace processes in the Mediterranean, recalling that such involvement could only be successful if the EU managed to speak with one voice as an actor fostering a common foreign policy.

Olivier Roy, Professor and Chair of Mediterranean Studies at the European University Institute in Florence, opened the discussion, declaring that migration is the most pressing challenge in the Mediterranean. Professor Roy highlighted the importance of addressing the needs of second-and third-generation immigrants in the EU through integrating Islam as a European religion. He also touched upon the increasing ‘gatekeeper’ role EU migration policy played by transit countries and the urgent need for tailored migration policies that address different types of migration, including labour force migration, political refugees and irregular migration.

Pierre Mirel, an Associate Professor at Sciences Po Paris and Honorary Director-General of the European Commission, followed with a pertinent critical analysis of the EU’s new agenda for the Mediterranean. He outlined the ‘genealogy’ of the new communication and its relations with previously adopted EU strategies for the region. He echoed Professor Roy in highlighting migration as a central point of the new agenda and welcomed the inclusion of new priority elements, such as climate change, post‑coronavirus recovery and digital policy. However, Professor Mirel regretted the omission of some crucial aspects, including trade, regional economic cooperation, demographic challenges and the discrimination of minority groups from the new agenda, as well as a relatively low budget of €7 billion for the Economic and Investment Plan for the Southern Neighbours covering all Southern Neighbourhood countries for 2021‑2027.

Daniel Fiott, Security and Defence Editor at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, delved into the security and defence situation in the Mediterranean. He pointed out that eastern and southern security challenges are often interrelated and involve major regional and external players. He listed examples, including the Russian presence in Libya, Turkish troops in Libya and Syria, and Chinese investment in strategic Mediterranean ports. Any EU action must take account of the threat of external powers and the spillover effects of conflicts in providing a comprehensive and effective approach to regional security challenges.

Branislav Stanicek, Policy Analyst with the EPRS External Policies Unit, continued with an analysis of the geopolitical dimension of the new agenda, highlighting contested claims on eastern Mediterranean exclusive maritime zones. In facing the presence of global and regional powers, such as Russia, China and Turkey, the EU needs to secure its maritime presence in the Mediterranean. In the words of Paul Valéry, if the EU were lose its influence in the Mediterranean, its ‘Atlantic facade’ would be its only remaining maritime sphere and Europe would risk being reduced to ‘a small cape of the Asian continent’. On a cautionary yet optimistic note, he concluded by pointing to several upcoming elections in the region that could open up opportunities for political change, and potentially, peace. However, for successful EU action in the Mediterranean, increased cooperation and dialogue with civil society actors, including mayors and representatives of regions and cities is suggested. Furthermore, he recommended deeper engagement with religious actors and churches, which remain important anchors of peace and resilience.

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