Mediterranean a Region of Complex, Often Poorly Understood Dynamics

The concluding session of the Young BSF and simultaneously the prelude to the main BSF event was opened by Italian Ambassador to Slovenia H.E. Paolo Trichilo, who was happy to see that the Mediterranean-focused session, organised in partnership with the Italian International Affairs instituted (IAI) and already held under the auspices of the Italian Embassy last year, was preserved in what was in fact an upgraded manner this year. “I’m convinced that foreign policy is not only the prerogative of governments and diplomats but needs to be enriched by the contribution of think tanks, NGOs and civil society at large, of which the youth constitutes the essential and most promising element,” Trichilo noted.

Opening remarks were also delivered by Ambassador at Large at the Slovenian Foreign Ministry Andrej Logar, who focused on migration and highlighted his conviction that empowering the young helps address one of the key reasons for migration. Logar highlighted Slovenia’s contributions to sharing the burdens and finding solutions to migration, as well as its initiatives connected to the Mediterranean, notably the Slovenia-based Euro-Mediterranean University (EMUNI).

Taking the floor after Logar was the moderator of the first panel Dr Ettore Greco, IAI Executive Vice-President, who presented the work of the IAI-led New-Med research network, which also involves the OSCE and has been examining the complex social, political, cultural and security-related dynamics that are unfolding in the Mediterranean region, which has so far seen failed attempts at regional cooperation.

“Of course the EU and US remain key actors in the region, but we must recognise that other external actors such as China and Russia have become increasingly influential, which requires discussing convergence and possibly joint action between players which indeed have quite different geopolitical interests, to help address the main destabilising conflicts in the region” Mr Greco noted.

The first segment of the session, entitled A Region in Turmoil: Geopolitical Dynamics and Social Change in the Mediterranean, focused on recent developments in North Africa and the Middle East and the Gulf, with Dr Djallil Lounnas, Professor of International Relations at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, outlining the security situation in North Africa.

While speaking of “important security issues” in the region, including human trafficking, Mr. Lounna highlighted Libya as a failed state with a number of security concerns, pointing out that Al-Qaeda and ISIS had managed to regroup due to government infighting in the country, while there is even speculation the two groups could start cooperating. He spoke of Tunisia having been able to contain Al-Qaeda and ISIS, of a relatively stable but uncertain future situation in Algeria. He also touched on the return of foreign fighters to the three countries, which has been facilitated by partial-amnesty programmes.

Turning to the Middle East and the Gulf, Dr Neil Quilliam of Chatham House, Royal Institute of International Affairs in the UK, outlined the emergence of two different visions in the region.

He spoke of a close alliance that emerged after the Arab Spring between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, between their crown princes, who have started to pursue a path toward more secularisation that is pushing aside political Islam. This is leading to a potential alliance that could also include Egypt, Israel and Libya. Qatar, which projected itself as a sponsor of democratic change “before overreaching”, is on the other side of the fence, also forming an important axis with Turkey. “Iran kind of sits somewhere in there, it’s not an ally of either, but sits in the axis”. “Those are two competing visions and they play out in North Africa,” Quilliam said.

The second segment, entitled Prospect of regional cooperation in the Mediterranean and the role of international organisations was opened by Mr Emiliano Alessandri, Senior External Cooperation Officer at the OSCE Secretariat-General, who pointed to the OSCE’s conviction debates on the Mediterranean needed to happen “in an inclusive context of multi-plurality … in a situation where some of us forgot that geopolitics was still a factor”.

Dr Ekaterina Stepanova, Head of Peace and Conflict Studies Unit at National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Russia, took the floor first to note that the Mediterranean was a very European concept that however hardly existed as a geopolitical space. She noted that Europe and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) were totally different regions, experiencing completely different developmental periods and issues. What is more, two of the major conflicts, Iraq and Syria, are not taking place in the Mediterranean, while Stepanova also noted that the current centre of gravity of the biggest tensions lies in the Gulf, featuring Iran on one side and the Saudi Arab-led coalition on the other.

Stepanova meanwhile identified the issue of the international agenda against terrorism being driven by regions whose populations suffer only a fraction of global terrorism-deaths – 6% compared to 94% in only three regions – MENA, South Asia and Africa. Terrorism issues are over-represented there, while attacks in societies that truly suffer get no attention, said Stepanova. She stressed that the real problem that is also breeding international terrorism is terrorism in weak states and that the conflicts there is what would need to be addressed as a priority, ideally at the regional level as a UN approach that would be needed for an international solution does not seem feasible.

Prof. Dr Musa Shteiwi, Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at University of Jordan, said the region had been experiencing profound change, with regional as well as international players competing to reshape it in line with their interests. International organisations have taken a backseat, as have debates on less obviously violent issues. Along with refugees, the region is experiencing serious economic issues, with high youth employment in particular harbouring potential for all kinds of future issues, including additional radicalisation. One phenomenon already visible is a drug epidemic, Shteiwi pointed out, warning that a very bleak future lies ahead if these issues are not addressed.

Meanwhile, Ms Sibelle El Labbanon of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the American University of Beirut spoke about another major global issue, malnutrition, which has also been affecting the Mediterranean, a region traditionally known for its healthy cuisine.

“The future of food depends on our food system and business as usual is no longer an option if we want to move forward and achieve sustainable development targets,” Ms El Labbanon stressed, pointing out that food was a common thread that linked all the sustainable development goals given the interconnectedness of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of the food system.

Some of the main points of the extensive discussion were summarised in the concluding remarks by Mr Gregor Perič, head of the Slovenian National Assembly’s delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, while Ms Meliha Muherina, Programme Director of Young BSF wrapped up the event by looking back at another successful Young BSF, packed with over 20 panels and over 40 speakers.