Covid in the Mediterranean: an accelerator of ruptures

Research team of the FMES institute

Click here to read the original (French) version of this article

 

It’s still too early to tell if the Covid-19 crisis is going to change the world. However, we can be assured that it will accelerate the changes already underway. Indeed, it acts as a catalyst which, because it highlights the differences between societies and between States, because it highlights dysfunctions and because it worsens imbalances and tensions, provokes points of inflection and ruptures.

The Mediterranean, which concentrates most of the challenges of globalisation, is, as it is often the case, an excellent laboratory of historical acceleration. Due to its particular situation, the Mediterranean brings together very diverse civilisational areas on which the impact of the pandemic, as well as its perception and consequences, remain very different. To update the summer 2019 issue of the RDN magazine devoted to the strategic Mediterranean[1], the FMES research team analyses the impact of the Covid crisis at this stage around this area in order to assess its strategic consequences for the security of France and Europe.

 

Global panorama: a single virus, different answers

Even if the measures to combat this virus are more or less identical in all countries (collective quarantine and social distancing), the reality of their application differs significantly. An analysis of responses to a common crisis gives a true picture of societies and their differences. The foreseeable consequences of this crisis, whether social or economic, will exacerbate the divergences and inequalities already at work in this region of frictions between two worlds. People’s perception of these differences is also a key point that will influence future representations, which will be a determining factor in the resulting frustrations and tensions.

 

Europe: transparency, heterogeneity and Latin states’ fragility

The first characteristic of the European continent has been, in accordance with its culture, to apply total transparency with regard to its sometimes critical health situation, which has placed it at a delicate stage in the global competition of narratives that has arisen over the pandemic.

While all States have set up quarantines, of varying degrees of magnitude, in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus, these measures have proved insufficient in the Mediterranean countries. The imperfect state of preparedness of health systems has proved to be an aggravating factor. The assessment of the pandemic’s management is therefore rather negative, especially in the Latin countries where the economic impact is likely to be considerable. The more or less strict containment measures have a strong impact on economic life and have imposed unprecedented public spending measures. This is particularly the case in France, Italy and Spain, which have been highly confined even though their public indebtedness exceeded 100%.

The crisis has thus exacerbated the divide that was already noticeable during the 2010 eurozone crisis, highlighting the cultural, political and economic differences between the countries of northern and southern Europe[2].

If the measures taken by the European Union have been deemed insufficient, weakening an image already tarnished by the management of the 2015 migration crisis and the Brexit, they are nevertheless consistent with the functioning of the EU health policy, which falls within the internal competence of the member states. Nevertheless, the European Union has taken a series of financial support measures since mid-March (purchase of government securities amounting to €750 billion), supplemented by a package of financial measures decided by the Eurogroup on April 9, 2020 amounting to €540 billion[3]; it has announced that it will invest more than €138 million in research on Covid-19, targeting vaccine, treatment and diagnostic projects through the “Horizon 2020” programme. While the economic recovery support plan and the loan pooling project (Coronabonds) are not the subject of agreements, it is difficult to deny the crucial role of the EU in its favourite sector, namely economic aid.

Thus, despite the imperfection and lack of unity in the responses of the countries on the northern shore, they could rely on functional health systems. The latter guaranteed them the availability of skills as well as operational means to provide an initial series of precautionary measures designed to make the influx of patients into their health systems bearable. The worst, i.e. the collapse of hospital systems, has been avoided and, even if emergency measures remain necessary, the EU can focus on finding therapeutic solutions (vaccines, treatment, etc.) and managing the post-Covid economic and social crisis, which will be significant, especially for the most affected European countries.

The situation is quite different on the other two shores of the Mediterranean.

 

Authoritarianism and economic revival outweigh health protection in the South and East

From the Maghreb to the Levant, with the exception of Israel, which applies the same type of health policy as European countries and to a lesser extent Turkey, which is close to it, data on Covid-19 seems incomplete or dissimulated. Situations of economic, social or security crisis largely explain this lack of reliable information. Authoritarian governments (or fragile governments such as Tunisia), are aware that they will indeed be judged rather on the absence of unrest than on the number of deaths. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify the broad outlines of the policies for managing this crisis, the main aim of which is to avoid the total collapse of the systems in place by maintaining, as far as possible, economic activity.

The first parameter common to the countries on the southern shore concerns a lower vulnerability to the pandemic, which is antithetical to the northern shore: a younger less fragile population despite a less efficient health organisation.

The second point to be stressed remains the mimetismof reactions. Governments have all taken more or less strict containment measures (for instance, in Egypt restaurants or cafés can remain open; in Turkey containment measures only apply to weekends and numerous countries tolerate their informal sector). These measures enable, it should be noted, increased social control (the Algerian Hirak has thus been suspended) and strengthen the lead weight effect sought by many leaders.

The more traditional social organization, centered around the family unit, is conducive to the mutual aid and community support that is essential to manage this health and economic crisis. It is certainly a shock absorber.

Finally, it is likely that the economic crisis that is now beginning will have a greater impact than the health crisis in the countries of the southern shore. The weakness of local economic activity combined with the global recession, the decline of tourism and the collapse of oil prices has created a situation that is particularly difficult to handle for governments subject to perennial social and political tensions, especially in Algeria which is highly dependent on oil and natural gas incomes.

Lastly, in a region shaped by chronic anti-Western postures the psychological impact of the closure of the borders with the North could, by removing the valve represented by the access to the diaspora, to the economy and to health care in Europe, reinforce the latent resentment towards the former colonial powers.

The level of tensions created by these frustrations will reinforce the impact of federating anti-Western or Islamist statements on the populations of the southern and eastern Mediterranean, unless Europe measures the extent of what is at stakes and considers the strengthening of ties with its southern shore as a priority.

 

A reinforced security challenge

The Covid-19, as much by the reactions it arouses as by its sanitary impacts, is a major factor of security destabilisation in an area that was already one of the most crisis-prone regions in the world.

The first security impact is linked to the consequences of the pandemic in the societies of the countries on the southern shore, already weakened by a malaise linked to economic difficulties, political blockages and societal destabilisation accelerated by Internet access. The tightening of security hide behind the the pandemic lockdown, the economic crisis caused by the Covid and the blocking of borders on the northern shore will reinforce internal tensions which will, as is customary, be channelled towards anti-European and anti-French resentment.

There is a different kind of impact, linked to the protective measures implemented by the armed forces engaged in this theatre, which have led to the punctual repatriation of military assets, starting with warships (even though France has maintained a permanent presence in the Eastern Mediterranean). This operational withdrawal, which is linked to the difficulty our societies have in accepting losses considered unjustified, is shared by Russia, which also seems to have reduced the activity of its forces deployed in the Mediterranean and Syria. Meanwhile, China, which is less present in the Mediterranean, does not seem to be making such operational withdrawals, as evidenced by the military activity it is deploying in the China Sea or near its Djibouti base.

Overall military activity is thus reduced in the Mediterranean, with a positive effect in Idlib where fighting has stopped, even if, conversely, fighting has resumed in Libya around Tripoli. The reduction in the size of the Western armed forces has other negative consequences when they participate in stabilisation operations (Sahel) or the preservation of international law (immigration, sovereignty).

The pandemic therefore favours the most resilient entities, those with the least to lose and who are able to benefit from the temporary withdrawal of powers. Turkey or the Syrian regime could thus take advantage of the situation to impose a fait accompli (drilling in the Cypriot EEZ for Erdogan, reduction of the Idlib pocket for Bashar). Terrorist groups and mafia organisations, for their part, can more easily develop their actions and trafficking (destabilisation, armaments, drugs, migrants).

We are thus entering a period in which traditional powers are retreating, societies are under stress, and the spoilers, who have less to lose, are unrestrained. It is important that this phase be as short as possible.

 

Geopolitical consequences

Thus, it must be noted that European countries have occasionally withdrawn, petrified by the management of the pandemic. It is not only a question of the civilian and military ships that have returned to their home ports, but also of the massive repatriation of expatriates and the reduction of cooperation. The Brussels authorities have indicated their willingness to increase aid to African countries, but have remained cautious with regard to the countries on the southern shore, from Morocco to Egypt.

This drawdown leaves the field open to global actors greedy for influence and propaganda, starting with China, which appears, for the time being, to be the main beneficiary of this crisis even though it is at its origin. Using an uninhibited softpower and a resolutely aggressive diplomacy[4], the Chinese authorities have scored points all around the Mediterranean (Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria) by delivering batches of sanitary equipment, even if some seem to be of poor quality, by affirming their unfailing support to the regimes in place and by openly denigrating the posture of European countries[5]. But it is in a second stage that China intends to prevail when these weakened countries, threatened by excessive debt, will be in search of liquidity and investments to revive their atonic economy, without having to carry out the painful reforms imposed by the traditional institutional donors. However, Beijing’s battle is not won, as China’s attitude is also generating criticism and frustration at the very heart of the regimes it intends to help. The very lively debates in Iran, a country increasingly dependent on China, between the municipality of Tehran and the Ministry of Health on one hand and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the other are the best example of this[6]. It is not unlikely that voices critical of Chinese opportunism will be heard in both Europe and North Africa. Moreover, it is not certain that the Middle Kingdom will not experience some internal setbacks that could limit its ambitions.[7]

Like China, Russia has also taken advantage of the pandemic to provide over-mediated health assistance to several Mediterranean countries (notably Italy). It has left its airlines open, allowing many Europeans to be repatriated, while holding its positions firmly. The subliminal message is clear: you can count on Moscow. A second implicit message, which lost its force after Russia was hit harder: thanks to its authoritarian regime, the Kremlin has managed to contain the pandemic while freeing up resources to assist you. These messages are intended both to reassure autocratic regimes and to divide European countries. It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin will be able to continue the effort in the long term, given the difficulties it is facing in Russia.[8]

Turkey appears as the third beneficiary of this crisis, which is taking advantage of the withdrawal of the Western navies to maintain a naval presence around Cyprus in order to support its offshore energy claims inside the Cypriot exclusive economic zone, facing the Aegean Sea in order to impress Greece and the European Union which are threatened by migratory waves from Turkey, and close to the Libyan coast in order to support an advanced base enabling Turkish leadership to spread the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood in the direction of the Maghreb and the Sahel.[9]

For their part, the United States are torn between their desire to reduce their involvement in the region in reaction to their over-involvement in the 2000s on the one hand, and the growing weight of Asian challenges on the other hand. As a matter of fact, their strategic lines of communication are of key importance in this area to continue to weigh on the world oil market and to counter Russia and China. It is therefore likely that Donald Trump or Joseph Biden will continue to be involved, more strongly than we think, in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

More worrying for the long term, the reactions of all sides underline the questioning of multilateralism (largely demonetised WHO, silent UN Security Council) and the lack of credibility of the European Union. They exacerbate the logic of the balance of power as well as the Sino-American rivalry.

But Covid-19 could also bring some good news.

The relocation of part of the value chain close to Europe is an opportunity to initiate a strengthened industrial partnership with the North African States, which could replace hydrocarbons, tourism and diasporas, areas that maintain complex psychological relations with the former colonising countries.

With a touch of optimism, there is reason to believe that once the stocks of ammunition have been exhausted, the effects of the pandemic will dry up rival camps in Libya, forcing them to agree on a negotiated way out of the conflict. Most of their sponsors seem to be ready for this. It remains to convince Turkey on one side, the United Arab Emirates on the other, which for the moment is maintaining its armament flow.

To conclude this geopolitical overview, it is possible that this pandemic will help facilitating the resumption of dialogue between the three most influential regional players in the Middle East: Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which have all strengthened their regional position and need to revive their economies after the triple punishment of the pandemic, the halt in economic activity and the collapse of oil prices. This is particularly true for Iran and Israel, which have an interest in easing tensions in the Levant so that they can serenely export their hydrocarbons (offshores for Israel) to the countries of the Mediterranean area, because they both know they have the military means to stop the flow of hydrocarbons from the other.

 

Consequences and proposals for France and the European Union

All these developments require France and the European Union not to sacrifice the geopolitical stakes of their southern shore to the health and economic emergency. The boomerang would return quickly and violently: terrorism, migration, destabilisation …

Therefore, a crucial question arises: on whom can we rely to stabilise a Mediterranean basin that has been greatly weakened by the pandemic?

On the riparian states? This would be the answer of common sense, but they are embroiled in their counterproductive rivalries. If nothing is done to mitigate them, Covid-19 will have fragmented the Mediterranean area even further.

What about China? This would make sense, because unlike the United States and Russia, China, like the European Union, has an objective interest in rapidly easing tensions around the Mediterranean area, even if for different reasons. Beijing needs to take advantage of the current floating situation to rapidly pursue its economic and geopolitical expansion towards the Atlantic Ocean. For Xi Jinping’s OBOR (One Belt, One Road) project is part of a global strategy. Conversely, Moscow and Washington have an interest in maintaining a certain level of tension in North Africa and the Middle East to justify their role as protector, arms supplier and diplomatic sponsor. But by playing the Chinese card, the European Union would be playing with an impressive competitor, adept at predation, and would give Beijing a considerable trending advantage in its arm wrestling with the White House, which Washington would make Brussels pay dearly for.

Russia then? After all, Europe and Russia share many common strategic interests in the Mediterranean, including holding back China and Iran, making Turkey listen to reason and stabilising Syria and Libya. But the Kremlin is today trapped in its vindictive spiral and is highly divisive : many do not want a rapprochement with an autocratic power accused of carrying computer viruses and fake news.

Should we then finally rely on the United States? This option, desired by those whom China and Russia frighten, remains inaudible in the era of Donald Trump. It can only be resurrected after the result of the November 2020 presidential election, if the New York real estate magnate were to slip away and his successor were to open up to a truly balanced cooperation. The geopolitical landscape should therefore become clearer next autumn, since many signals are converging by that time.

In the meantime, Paris and Brussels would benefit from reviving initiatives for naval cooperation between European navies in order to reinvest as soon as possible the central and eastern Mediterranean, so as to show all local and global players that this is a vital maritime area for Europe. Above all, they must strengthen the process of European integration, because this crisis will have proved that, at the end of the day, Europe can only count on itself and that it has a duty to project the image of a credible and responsible player.

France and the European Union must also tackle the field of perceptions that have been poisoning relations between the two shores for decades. The battle of the narrative related to the management of the pandemic and its consequences is an illustration and an opportunity. Active, preventive and straightforward communication is essential to counter the biased and propagandistic discourse of autocratic regimes that seek to discredit European states, France in the lead, and use them as scapegoats to camouflage their own shortcomings and structural weaknesses. This implies countering each fake news by demonstrating its inanity and the interest of those who propagate it. It also means forging an alternative narrative based on common sense and the crossed interests of the northern, eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. Universities, think tanks as well as politicians concerned with the future of the Mediterranean have a role to play in this area.

Two Mediterranean states are in a weak position and deserve the support of Europeans because of their strategic positioning: Cyprus, the eastern tip of the European Union in the Mediterranean, which is facing Turkey; Tunisia, the most open Maghreb state towards Europe, target of the Muslim Brotherhood who wants to promote an assertive political Islam.

A better understanding of the Arab-Muslim world is essential. This is why it seems essential to strengthen cooperation with the Moroccan, Egyptian and Lebanese intelligence services, i.e., those who best understand the strategies of infiltration of the Islamist movement around the Mediterranean, as Professor Pierre Vermeren suggests in an notable interview on the Diploweb website.[10]

Without appearing alarmist or wishing that such scenarios would occur, it would be prudent to anticipate the consequences of the resurgence of massive demonstrations in Algeria and Egypt, since these two countries, very much threatened by Covid-19, although they defend themselves against it, could very soon demonstrate their socio-economic and political fragility.

It is undoubtedly vis-à-vis Turkey that France and the European Union must act as a matter of priority. They must discreetly but firmly inform President Erdogan of the economic, political and diplomatic retaliatory measures that the European Union would take if he crossed the red lines of European interests; Washington, Moscow and Beijing, for their part, have not hesitated to draw their own red lines for him, demonstrating in practice the harmful consequences of crossing them. The aim is not to make him lose face, but to make him understand that the European Union does not intend to be the useful idiot of history, to paraphrase Lenin, and that it knows how to wield the stick as well as the carrot when its vital interests are at stake. Finally, at the sub-state level, multilateral dialogue between the regions of southern Europe and their counterparts on the eastern and southern shores should be stepped up, by invigorating academic exchanges and meetings between think tanks. This is why the FMES institute stands ready to assess the consequences of this crisis with all those of its partners who would like to do so.

 

**

[1]Special Issue of the RDN “The Mediterranean Laboratory of Globalization” Summer 2019.

[2] Maxime Lefebvre Thucyblog 33.

[3]SURE instrument proposed by the Commission to finance short-time working measures; European Investment Bank loans, guaranteed by the States, to companies; credit line from the European Stability Mechanism, created in 2012, to help States to meet expenditure linked to the coronavirus crisis. Maxime Lefebvre Thucyblog 33

[4] « La Chine aurait fait pression sur l’UE pour édulcorer un rapport sur la désinformation relative au covid-19 », Reuters, April 24, 2020.

[5]Benoît Delmas, « Maghreb : le hold-up sanitaire chinois », Le Point, April 5, 2020.

[6]Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner, « Frappée par la pandémie, l’Iran ménage la Chine »,La Croix, April 7, 2020.

[7]Minxin Pei, “Competition the Coronavirus and the weakness of Xi Jinping”, Foreign Affairs May/june 2020.

[8]Emil Avdaliani, « Coronavirus is hitting Russia on more than the economy », BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Perspective Paper n° 1534, April 17, 2020.

[9]Irina Tsukerman, « Turkey is building a geopolitical alliance between Sunni and Shiite Islamists », BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Perspectives Paper n° 1528, April 14, 2020.

[10]Pierre Vermeren, « Quelle est l’histoire secrète des liaisons franco-arabes ? » – Entretien avec Pierre Verluise, Diploweb, April 19, 2020.