The EU needs a commissioner for the Mediterranean

The EU must adopt a new policy and new structures to deal with the worrying events across its southern border.

The conflicts and tensions in Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine are worrying from many points of view. Security, oil supply, and migration are just some of the concerns they raise for the European Union. The EU’s role in the Mediterranean is too weak and inspires little confidence that these challenges will be met effectively.

A new, complex world, with currents and events that are of real relevance for Europe, is just a few hundred miles from home. In spite of the situation in Ukraine, the EU should shift its attention to its southern border of the Mediterranean. And we need a radically new approach in the region.

After spending the last few months analysing the situation in different countries of the Maghreb and the Mashreq, I believe that we need to take note of the failure of our past policy vis-à-vis this region. We could spend months discussing what went wrong, but we do not have the time for lengthy reviews. The new and the older events in the region must prompt us to take a fresh political start.

The EU needs to adopt a new Mediterranean policy.  And if the situation requires a new policy, it also calls for a new structure. The EU should appoint a Commissioner for the Mediterranean. This post should not be that of a simple representative, but instead that of a minister for all the 28 member states, with a proper structure and staff. This commissioner should develop a new relationship with the countries of the Southern Mediterranean and untangle the maze of the EU’s legal instruments and budget to support this vision.

Since the beginning of the Arab Awakening in 2011, we have witnessed a deadly fight within the Sunni community. This fight is not only nor even mainly about faith. At stake is geostrategic, economic, and geopolitical dominance of the broader region, Libya included.

The more traditional conflict between Sunni and Shia (such as that involving Iran) is particularly evident in Syria and Iraq. But a war of succession among the Saud family members further complicates the tensions in the region. An intra-Sunni dispute consumes Libya and Egypt. The main supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are Hamas in Palestine, Ennahda in Tunisia, ousted president Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, and the administrations of Turkey and Qatar. They oppose the major allies of the Salafists: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The friction in Bahrain involves both Sunni and Shia. Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon are in between the two dynamics. This makes the conflict even sharper and makes every attempt to mediate ineffective.

Looking at the other states on the map, Tunisia is in the middle of a difficult transition. Algeria remains for the moment in an unstable status quo. And the dramatic extension of neighbouring conflicts threatens Jordan and Lebanon.

Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have gained unprecedented financial and media power. In Egypt the Salafists, along with their powerful allies, are so far coming out on top. And all these new regional actors show disrespect for international humanitarian law.

Forced and irregular migration is a natural consequence of the upheaval, and the current migrations are just the tip of the iceberg. How can we ever think of retaining millions of people who are trying to avoid war, famine, and dictatorship?

I am convinced that Europe must abandon its present system of spheres of influence. At the moment, East European countries deal with our eastern neighbours and southern EU members are in charge of the Mediterranean. France oversees the francophone African countries. The 2008 Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), which is made up of the 28 EU member states along with 15 Mediterranean partner states, reproduces this system. In addition, it only involves governments, and frequently authoritarian ones, rather than also including representatives of civil society.

At the same time, the EU cannot have one single policy for all its eastern and southern neighbours – not even for the Western Balkans and the South and East Mediterranean.

The EU should also abandon its silo structure. Migration from the south and the east is now among the principal concerns of many heads of government. However, they need to create a portfolio with a specific geographic remit: that of Commissioner for the Mediterranean. The new post’s competences should include trade, humanitarian assistance, development, migration, asylum, and even foreign policy. The EU’s 2011 promise of money, market access, and mobility has so far remained a dead letter. The Commissioner for the Mediterranean needs to return to this promise. He or she should also deal with co-operation, culture, education, infrastructure, and support to civil society. High-level politics would remain in the hands of the EU's High Representative.

A new approach can only be pursued through courageous choices, resolution, and perseverance. Europe needs a figure to be accountable for the Mediterranean. The new commissioner must have a regional vision but a mandate flexible enough to draw up policies appropriate to different countries. Migration is only a part – or a symptom – of our relationship with the Southern Mediterranean; it cannot be its only focus. A security-oriented migration commissioner cannot be the only face that Europe presents to our neighbours.

We must bolster and support those countries that are trying to save themselves: Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon. It is not true that they are of no concern to us. In these cases, setting up bilateral policies to sustain transition and economic development still makes sense. But this kind of policy should not extend throughout the region in a similar fashion to the European Neighbourhood Policy. Europe should also resume Turkey’s accession process.

Even if the EU is not a decisive actor in the region right now, we can still make an impact on many societies in the medium term. In Egypt as well as in Iran and elsewhere, Europe rather than Saudi Arabia is the point of reference for civil society. An Erasmus program for the Mediterranean could be a “smart” first step to strengthen ties and create mutual trust and confidence. The existence of the EU itself proves that peace and prosperity must rely on a progressive integration of markets as well as on the deepening of cultural and human ties.

Emma Bonino is a former European Commissioner for humanitarian aid, fisheries and consumer policy (1995-1999) and a former Foreign Minister of Italy. She has also served as a member of the Italian and European Parliaments and was a Chief Observer of EU electoral missions in Ecuador and Afghanistan. She is a Council member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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