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The Mediterranean region: America’s presence is fading, while China is investing heavily in the region (Photo above: Flavius Belisarius) with at its southeastern shore Lebanon: Time for a regional EU strategy.

By Shada Islam and Cleopatra Kitti from Brussels

The tragedy in Lebanon must spark a deeper European Union rethink of its engagement in the Mediterranean.

The focus at the moment is – quite correctly – on urgent assistance to help the people of Lebanon. The EU is also right to highlight the need for structural reforms and anti-corruption measures in the country.

But more, much more, is needed – and not just in Lebanon. Even before he rushed to Beirut following the devastating explosion, French President Emmanuel Macron had called for a stronger EU role in the Mediterranean, insisting that “Many crisis factors are coming together there: maritime disputes, destabilisation of Libya, migration, trafficking of arms and people, access to resources.”

A “real” European policy for the Mediterranean was an urgent necessity to resist the growing influence of other powers, Macron said, pointing to the high-stakes geopolitical game – involving Russia, Turkey, as well as Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – being played out in the region.

America’s presence is fading, while China is investing heavily in the region. The EU has been sidelined in its attempts to untangle the web of confrontation and violence in Syria and Libya.

The need for a strategic rethink of the EU’s out-dated and under-performing trade and aid-focused “neighbourhood policy” is truly urgent.

Years of development assistance and piecemeal trade benefits have done little to bring economic and political stability, security or peace to the region. The impact of COVID-19 and climate change are set to make an already-difficult economic environment even more precarious.

Viewing the Mediterranean solely through the distorted migration and security prism has led to an emphasis on restrictive border measures and controversial deals with Turkey and Libya.

But migration flows from the region are likely to continue. More favourable conditions at sea as well as the deteriorating situation in Libya have led to an increase in the number of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Life for the 1.6 million Syrian refugees sheltering in Lebanon is also expected to become harder in the wake of the explosion.

The short-term focus on building ever more migration barriers has blinded the EU to the Mediterranean’s economic potential and geopolitical importance.

But if Europe is to succeed in its Green Deal and the new One Africa strategy it must first bolster its southern neighborhood.

A revamp of Europe’s policies towards the Mediterranean must not be about re-engineering outdated perceptions, practices and policies.

Instead, the EU must think more long-term, focus on empowering women and, despite the challenges, create the conditions for real region-wide economic transformation.

First, this requires that EU works with governments and business leaders in the Mediterranean to invest in the power of regional trade and value chains.

China has its ASEAN markets embedded in its value chain and North America has Central and South America. The EU should be similarly co-producing in the Mediterranean.

If calculated to include the area from Spain to Cyprus, the Balkan rim of the Mediterranean, Turkey, and so-called MENA countries, (Middle East and North African) the region counts 500 million people who produce 10 percent of global GDP.

At the moment, global trade flows through the region with little national or regional impact and only a quarter of the trade is intra – regional.

Given the post-pandemic discussion on the need for proximity to value chains and production capacity, the EU should use the opportunity to build sustainable value chains in its Mediterranean rim with a focus on up-skilling and good governance.

Second, more attention must be paid to empowering women in the labour force.

Although most countries have made progress in girls’ enrollment in primary education, some of the world’s worst performers in women’s employment are in the region.

For example only 11 percent of women in Algeria and 24 percent in Morocco and Tunisia are in the work force, compared with a global average of 45.6 percent.

The poor performance can be attributed to lack of proper data collection in capturing women’s contribution in the economy – formal or informal – or because existing legal codes, and social services prevent women’s access to decent income and social safety nets including pensions.

In any case, it is a serious obstacle in achieving much-needed sustainable development, economic growth and equal rights.

Third, the EU and Mediterranean states must step up their cooperation to fight climate change.

With oil and oil products currently the main exported and imported items trading across the region, both Europe and Mediterranean countries need to reflect on what this means for the EU’s Green Deal and their climate change commitments.

Questions to be considered include just how capital is allocated for investments in the production and distribution of renewables.

European financial institutions in the region like the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development must work harder with national agencies and governments to ensure there is a significant reallocation of capital and skills from fossil fuel dependent economic models to a new modeling based on the EU Green Deal.

Finally, EU attempts to redefine its interaction with Africa by pulling the different regions into one and focusing on relations with the African Union, should go hand in hand with equally strong relations with the continent’s regions, including the Mediterranean.

This is critical given that culture, resources and priorities differ across regions. EU relations with the Mediterranean states therefore should not be sidelined in the pursuit of a policy focused on “One Africa”.

Past EU actions in the Mediterranean have under-performed for a variety of reasons. It is now time to change course.

The tragedy in Lebanon, conflicts in Libya and Syria and the region’s worsening economic situation should spur a serious EU reflection on crafting a strategic new “neighbourhood” policy which recognises the Mediterranean’s economic potential and geopolitical significance.

Shada Islam is an EU commentator who is also founder of New Horizons Project, a consultancy firm. Cleopatra Kitti is founder of The Mediterranean Growth Initiative, an economic think-tank