Towards the Militarization of the Mediterranean Sea

Dimitris Sotirchos

HMS Queen leaving Malta

HMS Queen, Flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Edward Rich Owen, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet, leaving Malta. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A series of events in the broader region surrounding the Mediterranean basin are suggesting towards an unprecedented increase in military presence. The old adage of the Mediterranean Sea being Our Sea (Mare Nostrum) is slowly being eroded. There are three compelling arguments pointing towards this arguably negative development.

1.The EU is willing to conduct a military-like operation against illegal migration

On the 23rd of April the decision was taken by the European Council that the EU is to become more active in the fight against illegal migration following the tragedies in the Mediterranean SeaThe EU has given a rapid response with plans presented by the President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the Head of the European External Action Service. The Commission’s plan attempts to address some of the pressing issues faced by some Member States (especially Greece and Italy) by introducing a distribution mechanism for asylum-seekers. However, the main focus has been on the launch of EUNAVFOR Med, a military operation aiming at countering traffickers, mainly located at the shores of Libya. The goals and actions of this operation remain obscure and it officially still needs approval by the UN Security Council and the Libyan authorities. The UK has been very active in the drafting of the resolution to be submitted for a vote in the Security Council. Italy, which will play a central role to a possible operation, also supports it, due to its proximity with Libya and of its previous experience of the Mare Nostrum operation. As German Chancellor Merkel stated on Monday in a press conference, the German navy has started destroying boats already used by migrants in the sea. This is still far from a military operation but it demonstrates willingness to act.

This rapidity of actions is one among many indicators in support of the argument that a number of EU Member States would prefer a militarized solution rather than addressing the root of the problem. The previous decision of replacing the Italian Navy’s impressive Search and Rescue operation Mare Nostrum with operation Triton has shifted the focus away from the humanitarian aspect. The planned possible re-distribution of refugees is a politically sensitive issue and some leaders such as the UK’s newly re-elected David Cameron or France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls have already stated their stark opposition to accept any changes in the current asylum policies. Additionally, overblown claims by often politically motivated actors on jihadi fighters reaching the shores of Europe on migrant boats, nonetheless backed up in a highly hypothetical manner by NATO, further strengthen the supporters of a hard line rather than a more rounded approach. Hence NATO’s willingness to participate in a possible mission in the Mediterranean and “do more” than just helping people in distress, according to officials.

These are strong indicators that in the next summit of EU Foreign Affairs in June there will be a strong support for renewed military presence in order to “protect” the EU’s sea borders but no concrete changes in asylum policies. The protection of borders is a political action easier to “sell” to internal audiences compared to refugee redistribution. Nevertheless, support from Libya to operate on its ground and approval by the UN Security Council remain highly unlikely. The issue will thus remain for the EU alone to solve. This in turn will keep the operation under an unclear mandate since it will probably reproduce Member States divergences on the subject. As a consequence, it will all come to the lowest common denominator, the action everyone seems to agree upon, which is an increased military presence in the Mediterranean.

2.Russia and China are making their presence felt again in the Med

As the effectiveness of sanctions is still debated, Russia has seemed to acquire an even more assertive policy to justify internal shortcomings. While it has encountered economic problems due to falling oil and gas prices, its projection of power seems to have become more noticeable. Russia wishes to slowly establish its military presence again in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea. With the annexation of Crimea and the Sebastopol naval base Russia has strengthened its naval access towards the South. Furthermore, Russia renewed its deal with Cyprus, providing financial help to the crisis-stricken island in exchange of privileged access for the Russian navy for “refuelling and humanitarian purposes”. This deal offers the important strategic link in the East Mediterranean which was missing because of the shrinking importance of the naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia’s revived interest in the MENA region further explains its diplomatic actions in Southeast Europe and in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as its recent quest for the growth of commercial transactions with Iraq.

China on the other hand, has been shifting closer to the broader region through increased foreign direct investment in Africa, cooperation with the Gulf region in the energy sector and generally growing economic interests. It has already established an important and effective naval presence in the Gulf of Aden, even cooperating with US or European forces for the sake of counter-piracy. The wish for a presence in the Mediterranean Sea, an area considered as Mare Nostrum by NATO, coincides with China’s western end of the “New Silk Road”. The Greek port of Piraeus is of crucial interest for China since Cosco, the Chinese shipping company, is bidding for a majority stake in a possible privatisation.

The latest joint naval drills together with China in the Mediterranean Sea from the 17th to 21st of May under the code name “Joint Sea 2015” demonstrate  a willingness by both states to enhance their military presence in the region and put into effect their renewed partnership in an additional sector, defence. The fact that their interests in the region seem to coincide is further supporting the argument that their military presence in the Mediterraean Sea will increase in the future.

3.Turkey and its growing isolation: a possible increase in military presence

Turkey has always been an important player in the Eastern Mediterranean and has always been acting on its interests. A number of present and future developments might be indicating that Turkey will play a major role adding to this sudden militarization of the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey, with Mr Erdogan as Prime Minister and then as President, has sought an active regional foreign policy which has nevertheless been based on rather shaky premises despite the so-called    “zero-problems” with neighbours strategy professed by Mr Davutoglu. There are some new policy developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, with Turkey’s internal political tensions supporting the argument that renewed military presence could soon be observed. The latest agreement between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus on enhanced cooperation in many different fields and more crucially in the energy sector is clearly upsetting Turkey. Another factor adding to Turkey’s isolation and lack of allies is the result of the last elections in the Turkish part of the divided island of Cyprus, with the new leader Mustafa Akinci adopting a very conciliatory stance towards a viable solution. As Burak Bekdil from Hurriyet Daily News bluntly puts it, Turkey’s school bully attitude of treating Turkish Cypriots as a “babyland” creates a new and unexpected spat in the region. On another front, Erdogan has further deepened the rift with Egypt by declaring he does not recognize Al-Sissi as Egypt’s president but rather the imprisoned and recently sentenced to death former president Morsi, of whom he had been a strong supporter after the “Arab Spring”.

Turkey’s internal political tensions, albeit often linked with its foreign policy failures, exacerbated by negative economic figures, rising unemployment and corruption  add to this climate of instability. As the legislative elections of the 7th of June are coming closer, recent polls indicate that Erdogan’s AKP party may probably lose its majority and that the HDP Kurdish party could therefore enter the parliament. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule suggests that he will seek a diversion through increased foreign policy activity. His highly politicized and symbolic public appearances and disturbingly intrusive demands , from Albania more specifically, during a tour in the Balkan region indicates that an assertive foreign policy is his plan for reaffirming Turkey’s position as a regional power. Turkey will most probably adopt a similar proactive attitude in the Eastern Mediterranean region where it has found itself in isolation. These abovementioned arguments consequently lead to a possible additional actor in the seemingly expanding militarization of the Mediterranean Sea.

The current circumstances are demonstrating that through a series of events and converging interests a number of global or regional actors are choosing to increase their military presence in the Mediterranean Sea. These developments together with the volatile context in the surrounding shores of the Middle East and North Africa leads to a high probability of rising tensions in a sea basin which has, until recently been known for its geopolitical predictability, at least compared to other more inhospitable geographic areas.

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