Five questions for Andrea Mennillo: Italy’s opportunities in the new Mediterranean area. Just a country at the border?

1. Dr. Mennillo, we would like to address some of the discussion that took place at a meeting the Middle East Institute held in Washington in May. The meeting entitled “The Middle East in 2025: Long Term Scenarios and Strategies for Stability” analyzed the conflicts and continuing tensions across the Middle East that make long-term forecasts nearly impossible, and also prevent the establishment of effective policies that can create some stability. You certainly cannot say that Italy and Europe avoid the repercussions of instability in the Middle East as migrants flee across the Mediterranean. What do you think about the current situation?

When I think of the Mediterranean, I’m always reminded of the famous image evoked by French historian Fernand Braudel. He called it “not a sea, but a succession of seas. Not a civilization, but a series of civilizations stacked one upon the other. The Mediterranean is an ancient crossroads. For thousands of years everything has converged there, complicating and enriching the story.”

However, the tragic reality of today is far different from the past. In recent years, the Mediterranean, the cradle of civilization, has become the center of severe global crisis. Five years have passed since the beginning of the Arab Spring – the wave of protests that, starting from Tunisia, had a rapid domino effect into Egypt and on to other countries across the Arab and North Africa regions. This brought profound political and institutional upheaval in many countries; but today, the season of revolution that created hopes and promises of freedom seems to be over.
The southern shore of the Mediterranean is now one of the most unstable areas in the world. It is clear that the collapse of old autocratic regimes did not begin an evolution to countries’ structural identities. In some cases, it even led to the worsening of conditions. Above all there is Libya where, after the fall of the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, the scenario turned black. Daesh, taking advantage of the power vacuum there, has successfully penetrated the country, almost unimpeded. The radical jihadist organization has taken control of key cities and their unfortunate populations as well as important cultural and historical sites.

2. Daesh is now on our doorstep. Is it really a threat to us or to Europe in general?

Certainly this matter must be treated with a lot of caution, but also with the right kind of determination. Daesh troops are continuing their march towards oil fields that will be used to fund their operations. So the jihadists represent a serious threat to the whole geopolitical order, not only for to specific areas. Daesh’s terrorism is a thorny issue that has global consequences.
But there is not only Daesh… Every day hundreds, even thousands, of migrants cross travel by boat to our shores. Mare Nostrum is becoming Mare Mortis: countless migrants have already lost their lives trying to cross it. These “seekers of happiness,” as Pope Francis defined them, are the protagonists of the dramatic new history of the Mediterranean. Inevitably, the failure of the Arab Spring has opened an intense debate on issues connected to migration, particularly the practical and legal aspects. The situation has revealed it is profoundly difficult for Italy to find adequate tools and means to confront complex challenges in a context where cooperation among members of the international community is insufficient.

3. What about the ways that they can collaborate? At the Middle East Institute’s meeting in Washington, one of the points of discussion was the paper by Prof. Ross Harrison¹ entitled, “Defying Gravity: Working Toward a Regional Strategy for a Stable Middle East.” He concludes that international efforts should be directed at creating conditions that generate collaboration at the regional level. We often talk about cooperation as a precondition for stability and eventual prosperity, in this case applying it to the Middle East. But cooperation is too often missing in the organizations that should embody it. Take, for example, the countries of European Union. The EU was founded to work towards both political and fiscal integration among its countries. Yet it is experiencing many difficulties achieving any kind of consensus. How, in your opinion, can Europe solve problems such as migration?

The massive migration flows to Europe’s coasts have heightened the contradictions in the European Union’s migration policy. It promotes mobility in ways that are often not in line with desires of member states, so the EU has great difficulty pursuing a consistent, shared strategy. This has led to confusion, which has certainly affected and limited interventions and decisions relating to the migrant crisis. These desperate migrants appear destined to be ignored by some of the most influential countries in the EU, including France, Germany, and Spain, who seem impervious to this tragedy of such an enormous dimension. The lack of EU solidarity on the Mediterranean gives Italy the difficult but necessary duty of trying to raise awareness of this delicate issue by providing an example of hospitality and tolerance based on a strict vision of Europe’s role in the world.
The absence of a clear and effective common European strategy in the Mediterranean has been, until now, the biggest obstacle to adequately addressing the migrant crisis. But the extraordinary meeting of the Council of Europe on April 23, which heard the presentation of the new political strategy on immigration, was a step forward. There are four pillars of the new European plan: first, assistance to the countries where migrants come from and transit of migrants; second, border controls in southern Libya and neighboring countries; third, security missions and defense missions against traffickers and smugglers; and fourth, the mandatory distribution of refugees on the basis of a quota mechanism. This last pillar sets the foundation for a revision of the Dublin Treaty, which imposed the stay of asylum seekers in the first EU country they enter.
But this last point is the most difficult to resolve. The 28 EU member states will be called on to welcome migrants according to a sharing mechanism based on several criteria, including GDP, unemployment rates, and the number of people already granted asylum. This was the focus of the European Commission meeting on May 13. Some countries, such as United Kingdom and Czech Republic, opposed refugee quotas, placing a further obstacle to the achievement of a common plan of action. The Commission also decided Italy will be exempt from new refugee quotas because our country has already exceeded the amount set out by redistribution criteria.
To those who think that our country does not do enough, I would say please consider that Italy has the third highest quota of redistributed migrants already in the EU, representing approximately 12 percent of asylum seekers who are in Europe or who will enter directly into European territory (Germany is first with 18.42 percent and France is second with 14.17 percent).

4. Daesh and migration are therefore linked issues that affect Italy directly, requiring a central role from our country. The feeling is that Italy is struggling to make its voice heard in Europe and to take the leading role that it deserves. Which opportunities, if there are any, do you think Italy could seize in the near future? Do we have the possibility to turn these difficult situations into an occasion to relaunch our foreign policy?

Yes, Italy has a fundamental strategic and political role in addressing with this difficult scenario. Or, it’s better to say, Italy continues to play a role. For almost three millennia, our country has had an important position in the Mediterranean. The port from which it sailed towards the “fourth shore” is now the door to Europe. Italy, we must not forget, has always considered itself a state that fosters Euro-Mediterranean dialogue, and has a proven ability in this difficult task.
Especially in the recent years of political instability in the southern Mediterranean, our country has remained committed to supporting the “southern dimension” of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), with the belief that the main political and economic risks to Europe come from that area. In regards to relations between the EU and the countries of that area, particularly Algeria and Egypt, Italy is considered a key partner for its role in Europe as a mediator. The renewed leadership position of Italy in the Centre for International Cooperation (CIC) further confirms our country has assumed a prominent role. The CIC operates FRONTEX, the EU agency that deals with migration and international cooperation against the exploitation of illegal immigration. Moreover, speaking of Daesh, Italy is on the forefront of defusing the Libyan crisis while continuing to provide its full support to UN mediation efforts. Our country offers to the UNSMIL² team all of its support, logistically and diplomatically; the Italian Embassy in Tripoli was, in fact, among the last remaining open as security worsened in Libya.

5. Regarding the migrant issue, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini recently said: “Sharing responsibility in Europe means gaining credibility, and cooperation with the United Nations is essential if we want to solve the problem.” She stressed that “finally a European response is coming, and it is a global response, that seizes all aspects of the problem. We proceeded in an integrated and coordinated way.” Do you think we are really at a turning point?

Federica Mogherini has accomplished effective and constructive work. Italy has stressed the need to begin and promote a joint policy among the major European countries. In the hopes of a real political dialogue, we have tried to find a convergence between different positions that would lead to a real and effective shared solution. But it’s hard to say if we’re at a turning point; no doubt there could be further surprises before a real common solution is reached.

1) http://www.mei.edu/content/article/defying-gravity-working-toward-regional-strategy-stable-middle-east
2) United Nations Support Mission in Libya

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