The Mediterranean

“All that concerns the Mediterranean is of the deepest interest to civilized man, for the history of its progress is the history of the development of the world; the memory of the great men who have lived and died around its banks…”— Edward Forbes


The name Mediterranean has its roots in the Latin word mediterraneus which refers to the ‘sea in the middle of the earth’ as well as to the ‘sea enclosed by land’. Its nomenclature undoubtedly emphasises the strategic location of the sea at the crossroads of three major continents, namely, Europe, Africa and Asia. With a surface area of 2,500,000 km2 and an average depth of around 1,460 meters, the Mediterranean is the world’s largest semi-enclosed sea and is well connected to other major water bodies like the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar, to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles Straits and to the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal. The Mediterranean basin spans across 3,8000 km from Portugal in the west to the Lebanon coast in the east and 1,000 km from Italy in the north to Morocco and Libya in the south. It stretches across 22 countries which share a coastline of 46,000 km and is inhabited by 480 million people.

As home to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece, the Mediterranean is the cradle of human civilisation. It is also the birthplace of both Christianity and Islam and later on the heart of the European Renaissance between the 14th and 17th centuries. This region has been the home of not only the Seven Wonders of the World, but also of great minds from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo and Michelangelo. Being one of the terminal points of the ancient Silk Route, it experienced a thriving trade network underpinned by regular interactions with the Far East, which resulted in the development of great economic centres that were also the hub of cultural exchanges, art and learning like Athens, Constantinople, Rome, Venice, Jerusalem, Cairo and others. Therefore, for centuries it has been the meeting ground of peoples, culminating in a mosaic of heritage.

Owing to its strategic location, historic significance and abundance of natural resources, the Mediterranean has always been a coveted prize. Throughout history, major powers have repeatedly sought to establish their dominance in the Mediterranean and emulate the success of the Roman Empire that at its peak encompassed nearly the entire region. During the First and Second World Wars, it became a major theatre of conflict as the traditional heavyweights of the region, namely the United Kingdom and France, sought to preserve their control to ensure smoother access to their colonies in Africa and Asia. Later, with the advent of the Cold War, the region came to be perceived as the ‘southern flank’ of Europe and was actively protected by the U.S. that sought to contain the influence of the erstwhile Soviet Union and safeguard the West Asian oil trail by turning the sea into an ‘American lake’. This further highlights the longstanding notion that the geographic proximity of the countries and the interconnected nature of the region causes instability in any one part of the Mediterranean to spill over to the entire region, making Europe and the European Union (EU), which has among its Member States several countries that share the Mediterranean coastline entirely (like France, Portugal, Italy and Spain) or partially (like Greece, Malta and Cyprus) particularly vulnerable. This is nowhere more evident than in the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War which resulted in a massive influx of refugees to Europe.

The Mediterranean continues to remain an important economic hub, representing the fifth largest economy in the region and accounting for approximately 15% of the global GDP. Over the years, the region has seen a rise in the demand for consumer goods along with robust growth in maritime trade both within the region and from across the globe, which makes it one of the world’s busiest routes. It is also marked by an increase in the market shares of the regional ports, agricultural growth and rapidly growing conurbations. While the North Mediterranean states are known for their industrialisation, the southern ones have established themselves as centres of renewable as well as non-renewable energy, catering to approximately 40% of Europe’s oil and natural gas requirements. The establishment of a network of energy infrastructure through projects like the Maghreb-Europe Gas pipeline has opened up a new horizon of economic growth. Nevertheless, differing levels of development between the northern and the southern littoral states have resulted in the heavy dependence of the latter on the former, subjecting them to market fluctuations of the north. Moreover, the maintenance of special trade relations with former colonial masters along with reliance on labour-intensive agriculture and lack of economic diversification have further contributed towards their backwardness. The Mediterranean is also noted for being a biodiversity hotspot which hosts 4 to 18% of all marine life. Around 10% of the earth’s known plant species are exclusive to the region. However, intensive economic activities, particularly tourism and over-fishing, have resulted in environmental degradation and led to additional stress on the natural resources.

This has been accompanied by transnational security concerns ranging from undocumented immigration, human trafficking, drug cartels, arms proliferation and rising organised crime to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. In fact, with rising Islamophobia in Europe, there has already emerged a cultural cleavage buttressed by a deep-seated belief of incompatibility between Christianity and Islam. The existence of authoritarian regimes and low-intensity conflicts along with the Lebanon war (2006) and the Gaza war (2008) has reintroduced the use of the military as a key player in national politics. Thus, while the northern states continue to emphasise arms control and disarmament, the south has come to invest heavily in the modernisation of the armed forces. The region has also witnessed the resurgence of an old power and the advent of a new one. With the Syrian Civil War, Russia has once again re-entered the Mediterranean as a major player, while China, with its penetrative Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has gradually increased European investments in transport and communication sectors and cultural centres like Confucius institutes. 

Notwithstanding the several challenges faced by the region, the Mediterranean continues to be Europe’s lifeline in terms of promoting growth and development. This has been recognised by the EU which emphasised the need for a region-wide multilateral dialogue to tackle the transnational issues plaguing the region. Its efforts culminated in the Barcelona process which created a framework for confidence-building measures and continuous engagement among the relevant stakeholders. It has become a platform for promoting lasting commitment to democracy and human rights to ensure greater regional unity, stability and peace.