Mediterranean, a sea of ​​growing opportunities and tensions

(To Renato Scarfi)
22/11/22

The Mediterranean is at the center of the main global strategic games. Geographically it is the place where three continents meet, militarily it represents the southern front of the Atlantic Alliance, politically it is the area where Europe (and therefore the West) interfaces with the Black Sea, the Middle East, the Red, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Guinea and, more generally, with the Indian Ocean and Africa. A geopolitical area now known as the "wider Mediterranean" and always animated by complex dynamics, by different cultures, by competing economic interests, by antagonistic political visions.

It is a sea that offers great opportunities, linked to the complementarity of the countries bordering its waters but, at the same time, it is also the site of important local and global tensions. A sea that separates worlds that continue to confront each other on every issue, be it political, economic, social, cultural, demographic and which are marked by an evident distance regarding the overall values ​​on which to base coexistence. A distance that also fuels misunderstandings and resentment and which seems to have grown further due to the effects of global warming, the war in Ukraine, the Covid pandemic.

For Italy it has always been astrategic area of ​​primary importance, not only because the national territory stretches out in the center of this Sea, which it ideally divides into two parts, but also because the fundamental maritime commercial lines develop on its surface, indispensable for our well-being, while the lines of energy supply together with communication lines, which keep us connected to the rest of the world. Furthermore, immense energy resources are still hidden beneath its seabed, for the collection of which new alliances have been formed and the old ones have weakened.

It is therefore worth analyzing once more which are the main factors which make the Mediterranean, in its broadest sense, an area of ​​great opportunities but which prevent it from being a sea of ​​stability and shared peace.

The economy

History teaches us that seaways are fundamental for the economy and, starting from the XNUMXth century, indispensable for supporting the industrial capacity of every country. However, by their very nature, they are susceptible to aggressive actions by those who wish to profit illicitly from such actions or by elements intending to disrupt normal international trade. In this framework, the military and commercial fleets are of vital importance for the security and prosperity of nations, especially when, due to the scarcity of the country's resources, production capacity is subordinated to imports by sea.

For Italy, the vital need for imports from the sea is evident, in particular due to the decision to base our economy on strong industrialisation. Even if it is geographically defined as a peninsula, Italy can in fact be assimilated to an island when it comes to its accentuated dependence on imports and, therefore, on the free usability of maritime lines of communication. The sea therefore has a central role for our country because the scarcity of raw materials forces us to go far for the supply. In essence, Italy depends on foreign countries to keep its economic system alive. From the Roman Empire onwards, when it had fleets at its disposal to protect its interests on the sea it prospered, when it didn't have ships at its disposal to counter the will of the adversary of the moment its economy regressed.

To ensure that the raw materials necessary for the industrial process arrive in Italy and that the processed product can be sold, it is therefore essential that free navigation is guaranteed along the maritime trade routes, which are still the cheapest system for transporting goods. To underline the importance of global maritime commercial traffic, it is enough to point out that 90% of goods travel on ships that sail the world's seas. It is about 12 billion tons of products that contribute to economically connect all the coastal countries of the Earth, but whose beneficial effects extend deep inside all the continents.

In this context, the Mediterranean Sea occupies an important place both as a water basin import Export trade, mainly through Italian ports but also through Greek, French and Spanish ports, and as a body of water for the passage of goods, in transit towards the large northern European ports.

To underline the economic importance of transit from the Mediterranean via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, it is enough to think that merchant ships coming from the Persian Gulf or from the Far East and directed towards northern Europe, should they wish to avoid the two obligatory passages of Bab-el -Mandeb and Suez, should lengthen the route by a good 3.500 nautical miles (about 6.500 km), passing south of the Cape of Good Hope and going up the Gulf of Guinea. This would mean between 7 and 10 days of navigation more, with all the related costs and delays.

Italy must therefore be ready, as the most advanced countries already are, to guarantee freedom of navigation and the protection of its legitimate national interests, guaranteeing compliance with international law. History teaches us that when ships move the economy moves. A teaching that must not be forgotten, especially by those who have the political and military responsibility to provide the right tools to protect national interests at sea.

The energy supply

The country's modernization process, desired by many and supported by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, passes through the inevitable phase of energy and ecological transition. A period full of opportunities but also of risks.

In this area gas will continue to play an important role in the transition period because, once the progressive growth of consumption from renewable sources has been established, in the medium/long term it will in any case represent the support resource of the electricity system. In the particular sector, therefore, it is it is essential to guarantee both the flow of fuel and the availability of gas production which, together with the increase in production from renewable sources, should guarantee the necessary flexibility of the energy supply system.

A need that has accentuated the national dependence on external supplies. Our country, mainly due to political choice, has always been dependent on foreign countries for its natural gas needs. Therefore, access to energy resources and the security of supply lines are our precise strategic objectives.

In this context, the depths of the Mediterranean are home to a vast ramification of gas pipelines which, from the supplier countries, bring the precious fuel to Europe, which is indispensable for facilitating the transition carbon free. Not only that, recent research has shown that there are huge deposits of natural gas in the marine subsoil, just waiting to be exploited with all due respect for the surrounding environment. Also in the name of energy interests, the hoped-for agreement between Israel and Lebanon was recently found for the division of maritime borders (and the related submarine energy reserves, including natural gas). An agreement that allows us to start thinking about the exploitation of the huge deposits off the coasts of the two countries, with significant positive effects that will also affect Italy and Europe.

In the current historical period, in which there are various critical elements, energy in fact represents a strategic factor at the basis of industrial, economic, social growth and, therefore, of national well-being. Added to this is the fact that the long Supply lines are subjected to various threats by those who want to block supplies or want to enter the gas transit business, often using their military ships aggressively (see Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean) or with sabotage actions (see gas pipeline events North Stream of September 2022).

This makes the maritime question not only a fundamental economic and commercial question but, given that the prosperity and very survival of our country depend to a very large extent on it, also a prominent political and military subject.

Communication and data transmission

The network of submarine cables represents the backbone of the cybernetic space. About 90% of the information we download from the internet travel along the fiber optic highways laid on the seabed. Highways that generally follow commercial sea lines of communication.

When with a "simple" click we reach a site located on the other side of the world, in fact, we are using a very small part of the submarine cable network, extending several tens of thousands of kilometres, which ensures our data connection. In an increasingly interconnected world, economies, financial flows (about 10.000 billion USD in transactions in 2015 alone), information in general and even many military communications depend on the proper functioning of this network.

It is understandable, therefore, how such digital "highways" are of great importance for the performance of human activities in technological societies.

In this context, the Straits of the enlarged Mediterranean (Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandeb, Gibraltar, Suez) not only represent an obligatory passage of the maritime trade routes, but also the routes along which the cables are laid. Passages along which, however, the threat of sabotage is more present. Precisely for this reason, they can be the target of disturbance and interception actions by those who intend to create interruptions in the service or fraudulently acquire information. Therefore, the reasons why become apparent their integrity and functionality must be absolutely protected. A very delicate and important task that belongs to the fleets of the various countries, which must be in possession of all the most modern instruments to carry out the assigned mission.

Geopolitics of the Mediterranean

In the 90s we witnessed a great effervescence of political initiatives aimed at bringing the two shores of the Mediterranean closer together. We are talking about the European Union's “Barcelona Process”, NATO's “Mediterranean Dialogue”, the OSCE's “Partnership for the Mediterranean”. From a security point of view, the initiative called "5 + 5" in Defense format, launched on an Italian proposal in 2004, should also be highlighted.

Nonetheless, a real rapprochement towards the European liberal democratic model has not occurred, mainly as a result of the old and new "rusts", which have greatly slowed down the reduction of distances between the two banks. Indeed, France and Great Britain made the shore in front of us more unstable, with a devastating action that led to the destabilization of Libya, allowing Turkey and Russia to establish themselves on a territory rich in energy resources (oil and natural gas) and to also ensure solid naval bases and military airports from which to control the Central Mediterranean. It is a central Mediterranean country, relatively close to our coasts, which has been struggling to find a stable equilibrium for over eleven years.

In this context, the US disengagement from the area has not been compensated for by a greater European presence and this has allowed other players to recover political and strategic space. Not only Russia in Syria and Libya, or Turkey with its assertiveness in the Levant Sea and Libya, (read article "The aggressive Turkish maritime policy destabilizes the Mediterranean”) but the effervescence of initiatives along the southern bank has also seen the already mentioned end of friction between Israel and Lebanon, after decades of hard confrontation, and a renewed collaboration between Israel, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Added to this is Egypt, which has accentuated its strategic projection in the Mediterranean, with a view to firmly contrasting Turkish aggressiveness and protecting its national interests.

Algeria also fits into this picture which, for example, is renewing its fleet and which presented itself on the Mediterranean theater with a strong declaration, which was immediately countered by Italy and Spain, regarding its Exclusive Economic Zone (read the article "Exclusive Economic Zone and maritime power"). An Algeria which is playing its geopolitical cards and which is gaining weight in the Maghreb area and in Europe, also due to the availability of natural gas, which allows it to respond to the new European demand, which is rapidly reducing its dependence on Russian gas. An Algeria, however, still socially fragile which, among other things, has a marked and worrying instability on its southern borders (Mali and Sahel / read article "African instability and its geopolitical consequences"). This should favor less rough relations with Morocco (historic territorial adversary, supported with great discretion by the USA and Israel) and contain Algerian exuberance in the Western Mediterranean, also because Algiers would have many difficulties (understatement) in obtaining concrete support from Moscow , especially in this period.

Not to mention the now historic rivalry between Turkey and Greece, of which I have already written previously (read article "Turkey increasingly aggressive. Italian interests in the Eastern Mediterranean").

In this context, in 2014 the European Council approved the document on the "Strategy for European Maritime Security". Despite the different positions of its more "rough" members, who mistakenly underestimate the strategic and economic value of this area, this has allowed the European Union to be present in the main crisis theaters of the enlarged Mediterranean. These are Operation SOPHIA (from 2015 against the smuggling of migrants), replaced in 2020 by IRINI (against the smuggling of weapons to Libya) and Operation ATALANTA which, since 2008, has been fighting piracy in the Red Sea and in the 'Indian Ocean. To these must be added the European multinational operation EMASOH-AGENOR which, since 2021, has been working to ensure freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz. In addition to those just mentioned, in which Italy participates with its own naval unitsi, alternating in the Command with the other participants, our country has units engaged in national operations integrated into a multinational device, such as Operation GABINIA (since 2019 for the surveillance and protection of national interests in the Gulf of Guinea).

Conclusions

From what has been said so far, it is clear that the Mediterranean is an essential connection for world trade and a nerve center of the Italian economy and that the maintaining freedom of navigation along the world's maritime trade routes is a primary interest of our country.

In this sense, to ensure growth and national well-being, it is essential that the political world understands the strategic role of the sea for our economy. A discourse that should not be the alternating current heritage of a variable part of Parliament (sic!) but, instead, should constitute the line of continuity of Italian geopolitics (read article "The need for a smart national maritime strategy").

And in parallel with a maritime strategy that has a continuity character, it is also essential to ensure that the Navy has the most modern tools to be able to effectively protect national interests at sea, ensuring a significant return to its international image and contributing to increasing the country's prestige. In addition to guaranteeing links with the countries with which we have commercial relations, in fact, our military ships are effective instruments of foreign policy, through what is commonly known as "naval diplomacy", a form of relationship with foreign countries which has lost its traditional importance, also thanks to what has been made available by technological progress. Large ships, capable of navigating for a long time away from home waters, well armed, with well trained and well motivated crews therefore constitute the best guarantee for the country's economy and security.

Their presence on the waters of the Mediterranean and, in a broader sense, of the world, has indisputable positive returns for the country, because without a credible deterrence against threats of any kind, without being able to ensure compliance with international law, without the practicability of routes traveled by our commercial maritime traffic, without telephone or internet connections (guaranteed by underwater lines), without continuity of energy supply (via underwater pipelines), our economic system crashes, putting all the national industrial districts in crisis (read the article "The protection of national interests on the sea").

The recent intelligent and timely innovative attempt to create a Ministry of the Sea, which would reaffirm the centrality of the maritime system for our economic system, similarly to countries that have long made maritime their main economic and political goal, however, seems to be failing before yet to see the light, due to the usual internal jealousies and lust for power, whose strategic horizon does not go beyond the fence of one's own courtyard. Instead of a single direction towards an enhancement of the national maritime heritage and an accentuation of our maritime nature, also from a cultural point of view, the various divisions that deal with maritime issues (5 Ministries, 15 Regions and 3 universities) seem to continue to be managed in a fragmented, disjointed and personalistic way, always keeping in mind the next electoral result or the maintenance of the slice of power rather than the protection of national interests. A blind approach which has nothing strategic but which is exclusively opportunistic, in terms of survival and personal gratification (comfortable armchair) in the short term. We'll see.

A blind geopolitical approach that prefers to enhance the 1.200 km of the Alps rather than enhance the more than 7.000 km of our coasts, forgetting (or ignoring) that the sea has played a fundamental and irreplaceable role in the growth of our economy, culture and civilization. In a word, in our millennial history and progress. Forgetting this fact is unjustifiable, just as other countries, with less history than ours, look insistently and with conviction to the sea.

For some time, France, for example, has been pushing for the approval of a common European strategy that is much more incisive than the current one, which recognize the importance that the Mediterranean has for all of Europe, overcoming the perplexities and heated opposition of the frugal Northern European countries which, however, obtain a substantial gain in terms of time and money from the free use of the Mediterranean trade routes.

One thing is certain. A strong return of Italian and European politics to the Mediterranean is essential, understood as a wide-ranging geopolitical and economic area, which will relaunch collaboration between willing countries and render harmless all actors (internal and external) hostile to the stabilization of the area.

As we have seen, with the current geopolitical situation, only a few feeble bilateral collaborations are concretely possible, largely insufficient to guarantee the framework of stability essential for the peaceful flow of goods and for the supply of energy.

For Italy, the Mediterranean represents a real economic heritage of inestimable value. In fact, all the main articulations of our economy, energy, communications, security pass through the sea. Accordingly, it is clear how it is essential to project ourselves onto the sea to protect our national economic interests mainly through the safety of marine mining activities and maritime traffic.

As we understand very well, therefore, our overall interests today go far beyond the Pillars of Hercules and extend throughout the world. They are global interests and this requires a presence everywhere. Italy, being a medium regional power with global interests, cannot afford to underestimate the geopolitical implications of the current situation, extremely fluid and fragmented, characterized by a latent, multifaceted, asymmetrical and from threat widespread unbalance and insecurity, on the one hand growing competition and always more numerous voltages of very low intensity, but of high disabling power. In particular, for the purposes of maritime safety, the peculiarities of the Navy are relevant, not only in relation to the multidimensionality, i.e. the ability to operate on the sea, above the sea and under the sea, but above all from the ability to operate normally in projection (expeditionary) and permanently on the sea (sea ​​based).

In this context, today more than ever it becomes of absolute importance to guarantee the protection of the complex production and maritime transport system, of maritime communication lines, of submarine oil and gas pipelines, of telecommunications cables, of ports, dry ports, ships and oil platforms. Challenges they have to become priorities for our policy, in order to allow the continuity of the necessary supplies, essential for the harmonious development of the country, and without which industrial production, recovery, our international prestige and social well-being would be penalised.

Will politics be able to face these great challenges or will it continue to take care of small cabotage interests?

i For EMASOH-AGENOR the maximum annual consistency of the Italian contingent also includes 193 units and 2 air assets.

Photo: Navy / web

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