Monday, 31 March 2014

The importance of the eastern Mediterranean for the EU

The end of the Cold War started a two decade long trend in Europe, namely the reduction of military hardware in the member states of the EU. As of current the powers the EU has to its disposal are in order of importance: economic power, political power and military power. One of the catchphrases in geopolitics has been that the EU is an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm. Indeed, after two decades of downsizing its military forces the EU has barely any military power available and what it does have available is almost never used as all 28 member states of the EU need to agree on a joint military mission.

The lack of military hardware brings with it security risks and these are now best seen in the eastern Mediterranean where several existing and potential conflicts pose challenges to the EU to maintain its influence as a global player, or at least being able to exercise influence in its own backyard. The conflicts mentioned just above are:

-          The Arab Israeli conflict
-          The Syrian war and Russia’s involvement.
-          Cyprus and EU tensions with Turkey over a solution
-          The instability of Lebanon
-          A potential conflict between Israel en Turkey over ownership of undersea gas fields
-          The presence of terrorist groups in the Sinai and earlier attempts to attack ships in the Suez       Canal

Even if the EU has no stomach for military interventions and existing conflicts it must at least be capable of protecting its economic interests. This means that the EU must be involved in the protection of the Suez Canal as it is the gateway of European trade with Asia. So far the Suez Canal appears to be safe but a failed attempt by a terrorist group operating in the Sinai to sink ships in the canal shows Europe’s trade routes are already under attack. The failed attack consisted of the firing of RPGs at a merchant ship. The ship barely suffered any damage but one cannot exclude a new attempt that might succeed, through the use of more appropriate tactics and could potentially block the Canal for several weeks.

Looking at the position of the maritime forces of the EU we see an unequal spreading within the Mediterranean. There is only the Greek navy in the eastern part to protect the EU’s interests. Greece however still suffers hard from its economic crisis and budget cuts have caused a reduction in military activities such as training and operations. In the western part however we see a very strong concentration of naval forces with the EU member states of Spain, France and Italy.  However, these navies operate in a secure and stable theater and apart from countering illegal immigration and smuggling there are few tasks that they can perform.

There is a need to re-balance the EU’s naval assets in the Mediterranean by shifting naval forces from the western part to the eastern part.  There are several ways to accomplish this. One way would be the creation of a EU naval task force in the Eastern Mediterranean. The organization of this task force would be modeled after the EU Atalanta mission set up to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The benefit of this system is that every EU member with a navy can contribute ships to this task force. However the downside would be that this task force would be composed of ships that are ill fitted to counter a particular situation.

Another way that this could be politically possible for the EU is by creating a joint command, one could even call it a headquarter for a Mediterranean fleet, that has direct control over the navies of Spain, France, Italy and Greece, or at least parts thereof. This joint command would then be capable of creating tailor made task forces composed of the ships needed and available from the above mentioned navies. These tailor made task forces could then be used to patrol or even intervene in the eastern Mediterranean.

One last remark would be the use of the Turkish Navy. Turkey has for long time sought membership of the EU and is a member of the NATO alliance together with several other EU members. Turkey is building a large navy so if it were to become an EU member the EU could use the Turkish navy to increase its presence in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Such a scenario is however wishful thinking. Opposition from Greece and Cyprus prevents the EU to accept Turkey as a member, and within Turkey, the desire to join the EU has greatly diminished, especially following the financial crisis in the EU. The closest level of ties between the EU and Turkey that could be foreseen  is an advanced economic trade regulation between Turkey and the EU but this falls short compared to full EU membership.

To summarize we can conclude that the eastern Mediterranean has the potential to become a very unstable theater that will demand the attention of the EU as this area is vital for its economic trade routes with Asia. The EU cannot afford to leave this area devoid of military presence. Doing so would leave the EU without the necessary hard power to back up its foreign policy in this region. In the current situation however the EU is facing an unequal balance of its naval assets in this region with only the Greek navy to show the flag. The creation of a joint command structure for the Mediterranean would provide the legal and political framework to shift naval assets from the western to the eastern part of the Mediterranean.

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