The Challenges of the Eastern Mediterranean

Defis Mediterranee Article published by Hellenic Studies, Volume 22. Autumm 2014

Writing on the Mediterranean at the beginning of the twenty-first century inevitably evokes memories of the many conflicts that still bedevil this region of the world and which unfortunately have not been solved yet. It also means highlighting the new challenges that loom on the horizon of this sea that has always conveyed hope and tragedy. This composite region, so perfectly defined and studied by Fernand Braudel, fully reflects the many contradictions of this global world at the crossroads of our destiny.

The Mediterranean has inspired thousands of works and studies, mainly focusing on its geographic, cultural, historical or socio-political aspects. Thus, except for the great work of the French scholar Fernand Braudel, there has been no recent comprehensive and complete study of the Mediterranean basin’s current realities and challenges. And yet, this task would deserve time and effort from a multidisciplinary and multi-Mediterranean team that, under the appropriate political direction, would give meaning to such a work, essential in the guidance of our future.

If this lack of interest in the Mediterranean issue is a fact, the indifference is even greater as regards the Eastern part of the region. Indeed, the Eastern Mediterranean is most often referred to as the “Near East” or “Middle East”, thus leaving out the Mediterranean nature and identity of this part of the world. It is true that the Arab-Israeli conflict has taken over the major interest of Western governments, thus relegating the Eastern Mediterranean to a secondary role.

However, this secondary role does not do justice to the position and importance of the Eastern Mediterranean all throughout history. Downgrading it means leaving out the very origin of our culture and our history. The Ancient Mediterranean, as it is described in the recent book Mediterranean: a story to share by Mostafa Hassani Idrissi, is rooted in “[…] Mesopotamia, the region of the great rivers which stretches at the East of the Mediterranean. […] The invention of writing and of the city, that is, the development of complex societies, occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean.”1

This historical reminder aids in highlighting the idea of the strategic importance of this region. This geographic space, “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean” in the words of historian David Abulafia2, is where Alexander the Great established his center of gravity with respect to Persia and Egypt. The geopolitical interest of the Eastern Mediterranean returned in force in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This “fifth Mediterranean” referred to by David Abulafia, began its journey from its Eastern side: it is the well-known “Eastern question”.


Turkey is indeed at the center of the strategic challenges across the region. “The Sick Man of Europe” did shake up the whole sub-region with its decadence and finally its demise at the end of the First World War. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire caused a succession of crises that stretched from the Balkans to the Middle East.

Both the Treaty of Versailles3 and the Treaty of Lausanne4 clearly illustrated the strategic importance of this area and the evolution of the new states that emerged. Cyprus deserves special mention due to its geographical location and as a platform for military bases. This island was in the grip of British ambition, and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 managed to confirm Britain’s position with the formal agreement of Turkey and Greece.

Since then, the main concerns focused on Middle East issues and the Greek-Turkish rivalry over Cyprus, thus overlooking a broader Mediterranean context. Consequently, the Mediterranean was not in the priority agenda of the countries in the region during those years.


Nevertheless, Greece returned to the forefront. The Hellenistic spirit regained momentum with the arrival of Eleftherios Venizelos. His leadership and political skills made way for Greek influence in the decisions of the Paris Conference, which were largely incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles. But apart from the personality and political and diplomatic capabilities of this Cretan nationalist, as Margaret Macmillan puts it in her book Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, “the First World War changed the landscape completely. The Ottomans had chosen the losing side in the war and Venizelos and Greece the winning side.”5 These circumstances facilitated the change of strategy of most of the major players, particularly the British. “The English, who for so long had supported Ottoman Turkey, were now in need of an alternative partner to keep the Eastern side of the Mediterranean safe for their ships. It was clear that the British did not wish the French Empire to expand there and equally, if possible, they did not want to spend their own money. This made a strong Greece attractive. Principles and interests conveniently overlapped. Greece was Western and civilized, while Asian Ottoman Turkey was barbaric. And Venizelos was admirable, ‘the greatest leader of Greece since the time of Pericles’ in the opinion of Lloyd George. A stronger Greece would then be a perfect ally.”

This British-Greek alliance was so strong that even on complicated subjects such as that of Cyprus, the Greek authorities and Venizelos himself agreed to give satisfaction to British interests. “If the English wanted to return Cyprus to the Greeks, it would be wonderful and of course Greece would let the British forces use bases there, if the British wanted to keep them, it was also very understandable…”6

All these historical references help us to better understand how the Eastern Mediterranean in the early twentieth century, but especially since the end of World War II, gradually reclaimed a central role, given the various strategic stakes raised. The fall of the Ottoman Empire, the shape taken by the Middle East and the various crises in the Balkans drew the attention of major powers to the sub-region again.

The end of the Second World War and the new balance of power on the region changed again the main geopolitical axes of the Eastern Mediterranean, establishing new counterbalances. Bipolar dialectics were thus imposed. The Cold War and the division into two blocs reflected in the position and interests of every country in the region. The East-West confrontation became apparent in the Balkans, the Middle East and especially Cyprus. The creation of NATO and the adherence of Turkey to this political and military alliance as the bulwark and policeman of US interests throughout this region weakened the Mediterranean resonance in national policies, replacing it with the distant concept of “Atlanticism” that is foreign to the region. The Mediterranean was thus left without its own policies, only with the hegemonic struggle to control navigation in the Mediterranean. This and the presence of the Russian fleet and the Sixth Fleet of the United States were the sole noticeable elements until the fall of the Berlin Wall.


It is in this context that we need to analyze the political developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, each with its limitations and constraints, as in the case of Cyprus.

The Case of Cyprus
Cyprus is significantly relevant in order to understand the realities of the Eastern Mediterranean. Throughout its history, this island continent, close to the East, received many incoming visitors and the influence of many different cultures and civilizations. Starting in the Neolithic period, about 3700 BC, the island was colonized by the Phoenicians and later by the Achaeans, who brought the Greek language and religion. Then came Assyrians, Macedonians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines and Saracens.

Cyprus has always been coveted by major powers and has thus directly suffered the confrontations between different actors wanting to enforce their hegemony through the domination or control of the island.
This “paradise island”, which fully justifies its mythical character, did not escape the fate of the Greek tragedy. As Jean-François Drevet notes in his book Chypre en Europe, “The recent history of Cyprus is tragic […] Being at the crossroads of varying interests that are larger than themselves, its inhabitants pay a heavy toll, without even being able to decide their fate.”7

This collective consciousness of national impotence has always been present in the history of this nation ­–a sense of injustice, conspiracy and sordid interests always looming large over the collective imagination of Cyprus–. Nevertheless, this article does not wish to reawaken the “conspiracy” theory8, but underscore the general feeling of the Cypriot population, who consider that they have always been mistreated by the superpowers.

The failure of negotiations to achieve the unification of the island after Cyprus’ accession to the European Union has not helped to change this mindset. Forty years after the occupation of the Northern part of the island by the Turkish army and eleven years after Cyprus’ entry into Europe, the situation seems frozen. As time passes, the status quo consolidates. The recent financial and economic crisis endured by Cyprus has not improved the overall attitude of Cypriot society. The serious mistakes in the European Union’s management of the Cypriot financial crisis9 have caused a great majority of Cyprus’ population to move away from their European vocation. And this comes at a time when the only hope and solution for the future of Cyprus rests on a greater and more intense involvement of Europe.


This new policy which should see the light in the coming years should take into consideration the new stakes and the new reality existing in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Cyprus is always the nerve center, as the witness of the development of events in this region.

Which are then the New Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean?

Nobody can deny the profound changes that the world is now facing, globally and consequently in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Away from globalization, the Mediterranean region is facing strategic changes that mark the end of history and the beginning of a paradigm shift. One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, this a region is tormented by multiple crises that are likely to change the political balance of the entire region.

A New Geopolitical Setting
We thought the Cold War to be completely buried, but it is now reappearing further to several territorial disputes (as in the case of Ukraine) and geopolitical disagreements. The Syrian crisis marks the beginning of the revival of Russian diplomacy in the region and the return of a more active foreign policy from Moscow. The financial crisis in Cyprus and the measures taken concerning Russian deposits in Cypriot banks signal the continuity in the lack of agreement between Russia and the West.

NATO is increasingly active, but more towards Central Europe and the Caucasus than towards the Mediterranean and the Balkans. In any case, we are heading towards a new East-West confrontation that is entirely unnecessary and costly for everyone, especially for Europe and the Russian Federation. This mutual suspicion and lack of trust will not contribute in the least to the development of this region.

Although it is true that the traditional context of geopolitics has changed and the influence of the East-West axis is again casting a shadow on the geopolitical landscape, the most significant changes in the Mediterranean are likely to take place in the East and South.

The Eastern Mediterranean is the closest region to all the changes taking place in the Arab-Muslim world. After all it is in this part of the Mediterranean that the major crises have taken place and also where the so-called “Arab Spring” started; although technically the origins of this political tsunami were in Tunisia, that is in the central Mediterranean region, and that it was Libya who then suffered the consequences of domestic revolts, it has been especially Egypt and Syria which have set the pace of all the events that followed.

Nothing will ever be the same, including the relationships between the different countries. The process of reform and political participation is irreversible. Even if there are ups and downs in this road to modernity, there is no turning back. This does not mean that political Islam will be the winner of this paradigm shift; not at all. We need to believe in the maturity of Arab societies that will allow them to gradually move towards their own modernity, different from the one that us Westerners wish to impose, but also away from Islamic theocracy, that has failed to find, and will have difficulty finding, legitimacy as a political alternative in all these countries.


This eruption of desire for change amongst Arab-Muslim societies should not frighten European and Western governments. Rather, all of Europe should mobilize urgently to support these societies and respond to the many challenges faced by each one of those countries.

The case of Egypt is crystal-clear. After the failure of an Islamic transition, the second authoritarian transition must be able to prepare the country for a genuine process towards democratization and bring out the principles and rules of modernity.

Syria and Libya are at the bottom of the abyss and it is difficult to say how these societies will evolve. This social and political upheavals present us with a Mediterranean region that is fragmented and difficult to unify, but it is also crying out for help; we should hasten to provide it.

This instability also prevails in the East. The Middle East still is unable to find a much deserved steadiness. Almost a century after the First World War, the region is still immersed in violence and suffering. It seems that the Promised Land remains an unfilled promise. Neither those directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict find a solution, nor the international community genuinely commits to force a settlement essential for everyone. Admittedly there is a certain “diplomatic fatigue” and exhaustion of ideas to bring the Arab-Israeli conflict to an end. Israel, the other major issue of the Eastern Mediterranean, is still unable to build a vision and a strategy for its future. The Mediterranean dimension is ignored; it is only the survival of the State of Israel that counts. Israel prioritizes a policy restricted to the defense of its state, which ought to be living in peace and security with its neighbors. The delay in adopting a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, does not contribute to building at last a prosperous and stable region. Regrettably, peace seems to draw away, while radicalism prevails, stifling the efforts of those that want peace and have worked for it for years. Fear, hatred, disparagement and exclusion are gaining ground while tolerance, coexistence and peace, increasingly considered part of a utopian project, are ruled out.

New Ideological Issues
New ideological goals find their way into the current geopolitical context of the region. Behind the political and military confrontations in the region hide different ways of living and visions.

A simplification would lead us towards the theory of what the American sociologist Samuel Huntington called the “Clash of Civilizations”, but without approving of his reasoning and even decrying it, we must inevitably admit that we are now facing a new reality that was not there forty, thirty or even ten years back. The US military intervention in Iraq opened Pandora’s Box, with all the myths and frustrations of the Muslim world that has been subjected to the double-standard policy finding expression in Islamic radicalism, now increasingly present throughout the region. We are now witnessing ideological struggles more exacerbated than ever before, Shiites against Sunnis, Christians against Moslems, confronted without meaning to. And yet, we see the use of religion as a means to seizing political power. We unfortunately witness manipulation and a lack of the vision that would be required to avoid these cultural and religious conflicts. The Alliance of Civilizations attempted to face up to this situation, but regrettably it lacks the necessary political momentum and determination to get this situation back on track.

The false dialectic of “Islam versus the West” has made inroads and extended in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, the Sahel and Central Africa as jihadist fighters multiply. The Eastern Mediterranean is at the core of these developments and at the vanguard of Western interests. It is this new geopolitical reality that should take center stage over old East-West theories, conveying a new geostrategic responsibility to the Eastern Mediterranean.

New Economic Challenges
The Eastern Mediterranean has never had any particular economic appeal. The region has always served mostly as transit point and passage to other economically appealing destinations, such as the Silk Road, the East Indies, the Suez Canal, etc. Adventurers and traders had to take the Eastern Mediterranean sea to gain access to their “Eldorado”. The big economic bounty was not in the Eastern Mediterranean but further away, in regions such as the Gulf, Asia and the Pacific. Moreover, the economies of the Mediterranean sub-region had always been directed towards meeting their national needs, without reaching a large production capacity. Agriculture and modest mineral resources were the only general economic outputs of the region. Due to this, the recent discovery of energy reserves, considered by experts as amongst the largest in the world, may well radically change the situation and the geostrategic interest of the region.

The agreement signed at the time between the Al-Saud family and the United States “Oil for Security” is well known. Today this reality, still ongoing, may be altered by the United States’ new production capacities, with shale gas through fracking, and the exploitation perspectives offered by the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus are all claiming their legitimate interest in these resources and demand control over their exploitation. In this regard, international law must prevail and grant sovereignty over these resources according to the law of the sea. But this shared ownership should not hinder a historic agreement for the region that can change the geopolitics of the whole area. For once, oil and gas can serve as a catalyst for uniting people and solving disputes, rather than creating confrontation and conflict, as has been very often the case unfortunately.
Despite the suspicion still existing between the relevant countries, it would be sensible for the countries in the Eastern Mediterranean to create a High Energy Authority. This could be modeled after the High Authority that was created in 1951 for coal and steel and which allowed the production and exploitation of these two resources by Germany and France. This helped avoid a new war and in the process created the beginnings of the European Union. In my opinion, Cyprus could play the leading role in this initiative, putting forward to its neighbors and partners, through a solemn statement, this new historical enterprise.


New Geostrategic Interests
All the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean need to examine and clearly identify the new geostrategic issues at stake. They need to come face to face with the new realities and challenges which they are now facing. The East-West axis is no longer the main challenge. The outcome of Russian-American relations does not affect them as much as it did. The countries in the region need to start acting in full independence and consider their geostrategic potential based on their own merits and interests, and not merely as subcontractors of the superpowers. Only through the formulation of sovereign and independent policies will they be able to set forth their future action.

It is clear that events in the Middle East and the evolution of the Arab world will be key to the agenda of the countries in the region, either as neighboring countries, that is, allowing quick access to emergencies and political or humanitarian crises, or as a logistics platform for the management of these crises. Apart from the economic potential which could arise from the recent discovery of hydrocarbons, all the countries in the region must also change the way they tackle their foreign policies. It is them and not outside agents foreign to the region who hold the leading position and must manage the new oil and gas resources.

The Eastern Mediterranean ideally integrates the multiple and heterogeneous qualities of the whole Mediterranean. The region includes in its ranks countries that are members of the European Union and others that are candidates for EU membership, such as the Balkan countries and Turkey, with Turkey representing a synthesis of the diversity of the region. Turkey has a Muslim majority but also wishes and is able to agree to and implement the Copenhagen criteria. This would open the door to the EU. The region also includes Arab countries and Israel, which sooner or later will have to take a stand on their mutual coexistence.

The time has come for all of the above countries to take responsibility and act accordingly. To date, the major Mediterranean initiatives have seen the light in Western Mediterranean countries. France, Spain and Italy have each launched their own initiative. No major Mediterranean initiative has come out of the Turkish or Greek Foreign Affairs Ministry. Only Egypt made an attempt to counteract the proposals from Western Mediterranean countries (5+5 Dialogue) through the creation of the Mediterranean Forum in Alexandria. Maybe now is the time for one of the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean to take over. Greece, Cyprus or Turkey could perhaps show the way forward.


Europe is the Solution
History teaches us that the golden age of the Eastern Mediterranean region came when it showed the willingness and capacity to decide for itself. Today most of the states in this sub-region are members of the European Union. The European Union has been quite active concerning the economic and social development, but, it must be said, not much concerning the solving of other disputes. All major problems which have conditioned the development of the area, such as the Turkey-Cyprus and Israel-Palestine conflicts, have been left to the responsibility of the great powers and especially the United States. The recent changes have evidenced the limitations of the superpowers in solving the region’s problems and demand a new strategy. A new approach needs to be developed and implemented and the new political personalities in Europe must also understand the new dimensions of the Eastern Mediterranean. But first, priority must be given to the solution of the two major ongoing conflicts.

The unification of Cyprus must clearly be a European affair and should not be managed and manipulated by former colonial powers. One fails to understand the reason why Britain should maintain military bases in Cyprus, occupying 5% of the territory, and equally why it should be impossible to establish a collective security system surpassing the constraints of NATO and implementing a new and more efficient European defense and security policy, ensuring peace and stability throughout the region.

Achieving lasting peace in the Middle East is also absolutely critical. This is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed immediately. The recognition of the two states of Palestine and Israel and the establishment of a regional economic integration process on the model of the European Union is inescapable for Europe.

On the initiative of the Mediterranean countries, Europe must put forward a major space of peace, stability and regional cooperation in the form of the Helsinki accords signed in 1975. We must put forward the establishment of a security and cooperation organization in the region, which should include Israel, Iran and all Arab and European countries, as well as the United States, Russia, China and Japan.
The above ideas may assist in claiming that the Mediterranean region must take back its leading part and its capacity to define its future. In this regard the European Union must take the role of coach and guide of this new endeavor. What is now needed is the will of one or several of the countries in the region to embark on this voyage. I do not think that the Phoenicians, the Cretans and the Byzantines had it any easier.


People of the East Mediterranean, row hard, row towards a new horizon of peace and prosperity. You can do it.






1 Hassani-Idrissi, Mostafa (dir.), Méditerranée : une histoire à partager, Marseille-Provence, Capitale Européenne de la Culture, Bayard éditions, 2013, p. 74.

2 Abulafia, David, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, London, Penguin Books, 2012.

3 Signed on 28 June 1919 between Germany and the Allies in the aftermath of the First World War. It announced the creation of a League of Nations.

4 Signed on 24 July 1923, it was the last treaty resulting from the First World War.

5 Macmillan, Margaret, Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, London, John Murray, 2001, p. 360.

6 Macmillan, op. cit., p. 364.

7 Drevet, Jean-François, Chypre en Europe, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2000, p. 13.

8 Concerning this read O’Malley, Brendan et Craig, Ian, The Cyprus Conspiracy: America, Espionage and the Turkish Invasion, London-New York, I.B.Tauris, 2001.

9 Concerning this, see the article “Défendre Chypre” published on 31 March 2013 on, ‹