Pierre Razoux, research director at the IRSEM (Strategic Research Institute of the French “École Militaire”), associated with the FMES institute, is the author of numerous works including “Which strategy(ies) for France in the Mediterranean?” (FMES institute, September 2019). Together with Pascal Ausseur, he co-directed the special issue of the Revue Défense Nationale devoted to the “Strategic Mediterranean, a laboratory of globalization” (summer 2019).
There is no point in hiding the fact that BREXIT, effective since 1 February 2020, will have harmful consequences in the Mediterranean. The three northern, Levantine and southern shores will be impacted, but probably not in the same way. It is advisable to prepare for this by anticipating the most predictable consequences so as to limit their negative impacts when they will arise. This will require dialogue, common sense, openness, but also firmness when necessary. The Research and Strategic Thinking Centres spread around the Mediterranean basin will have their role to play, starting with the FMES institute, which is in the front line from its outpost in Toulon.
The status of Gibraltar
A British Overseas Territory since 1704, the Rock of Gibraltar – ancient Hercules’ columns guarding the exit from the Mediterranean in antiquity – has been continuously claimed by Spain, to which it is physically attached. Since its accession to the European Union in 1986, the Spanish crown has been asking Brussels to support its request to recover this British enclave, considering it to be a colonial slag that no longer exists. Until now, the European authorities had always refused to take part in this dispute between two Member States, believing that the issue could only be resolved by the interested parties themselves. At the last consultation in October 2016, 96% of Gibraltar residents voted in favour of retaining the British Crown. During a courtesy visit the following summer (2017), King Philip VI of Spain confirmed the Spanish claims, but stressed that they would have to be met through diplomatic channels.
Now that the UK has left the EU, Spain is likely to come back to the fray and ask Brussels to support its position, putting the EU at odds between its principles of favouring member states and the many commercial interests that bind it to Britain. A fortiori if the Spanish government needs a unifying dossier to strengthen the sense of national unity and if trade negotiations between Brussels and London are lagging behind. In this hypothesis, there is no doubt that Madrid and London will ask the main European states to take sides, thereby increasing the risks of division within an already fragile EU. But France, for instance, needs to maintain excellent relations with both Madrid and London.
This issue could weaken Spain, which is in the grip of strong centrifugal tensions (Catalonia, Basque Country), especially as border workers who have hitherto been free to cross the boundaries of the Rock to work on either side could be stopped at the border crossing, as Gibraltar is no longer part of EU territory.
Digging up the Gibraltar dossier could have a knock-on effect on the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on Moroccan territory, themselves the sequelae of the Spanish colonial presence in Morocco, in a context of strong nationalist tensions affecting the entire southern shore of the Mediterranean basin. Tensions are strong enough between the Maghreb countries to add new ones.
Division and centrifugal forces
According to the most recent opinion polls in Scotland and Ireland, supported by demographic and religious changes in the local populations, it is possible – if not probable – that in the medium term we may see the peaceful unification of Ireland and the independence of Scotland (which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU) in the event of a deterioration of the British economy in a post-BREXIT context. This development could be accelerated in the event of a deterioration in the image of the Crown and a polarisation of British political life.
Such a development could only stimulate the desire for independence of Catalonia in Spain, of Corsica in France, of Sardinia in Italy, of Kabylia in Algeria, of minorities of the Western Balkans, or even of the self-proclaimed republic of Northern Cyprus.
There is also no doubt that future British governments will not miss any opportunity to divide the EU in order to create opportunities for economic and political rebound in the Mediterranean. Malta, an old British stronghold (including through language and culture), could suffer from this strategy in the sense that London could easily take advantage of the Maltese authorities’ perception of loneliness in the face of the EU’s delicate management of the migrant crisis to revive Commonwealth ties and further fragment Brussels’ Mediterranean policy.
On the southern shore, the United Kingdom could be tempted to stir up local rivalries, inter-European frictions and misunderstandings between the two shores of the Mediterranean basin to improve the positions of its energy and armaments industries. In this respect, the recent progress made by British Petroleum in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean (south of Cyprus) and even towards the Palestinian Authority with a perspective of future exploration of offshore gas fields off the Gaza Strip should be underlined. Playing on divisions would be all the easier for the British government as the Europeans show their divisions or lack of consensus on the most striking issues of the moment, whether it be their relations with Iran, Turkey, Israel and the so-called “White House Peace Plan of the Century to settle the Palestinian issue”, Egypt, Libya of course, but also Tunisia and Algeria.
Renewed tensions in Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean
However, it is in and around Cyprus that the evolution of the British post-BREXIT posture could have the most significant effects. Protectorate, then British colony from 1878 to 1960, the British armed forces have maintained a large garrison (currently 3 500 soldiers) on the island since Cyprus’s independence, at the two bases of Akrotiri (near Limassol) and Dhekelia (near Larnaca). This British contingent has been contributing since 1964 to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) through Operation Tosca. Since 1971, Cyprus has been the British military stronghold turned towards the Middle East; it is from there that the British air forces involved in all the post-Cold War external operations departed, including towards Libya (2011), Iraq and the Levant (2014) in the framework of the operation against the Islamic State (Daech), and towards Syria during Operation Hamilton (14 April 2018) targeting chemical weapon production sites of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Today, the Royal Air Force is deploying its 903rd Expeditionary Unit at the Akrotiri base, consisting of a dozen FGR4 Typhoon bomber-fighters, air-refueling tankers, an AWACS and electronic warfare aircraft; if necessary, it has declared its intention to deploy 5th generation F-35 fighter-bomber, which Turkey will not receive given its current favourable stance towards Russia, but above all because its relative mistrust of NATO. This posture, together with the occasional presence of a Royal Navy frigate or destroyer in the eastern Mediterranean, will undeniably help to stabilise Cyprus and dissuade Turkey from pushing its pawns further into the area. But what would happen if the British Ministry of Defence were to be forced to make drastic budget cuts if the Crown’s level of ambition were to be reduced, forcing it to reduce its military presence on the spot, or even to close its bases ? Or conversely, if the British government adopted a more favourable stance towards Turkey, as it used to do for twenty-five years in order to weaken EU cohesion?
Given the new Mediterranean ambitions claimed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (unilateral extension of the maritime economic zone under Turkish sovereignty towards Libya, demand for the withdrawal of military contingents stationed on the neighbouring Greek islands, recurrent violations of Greek territorial waters, shipments of arms and fighters to Libya), it is urgent for the EU to take a stand to contain the destabilising actions of the Turkish government. This is what Emmanuel Macron did on 29 January 2020 when he strongly denounced the provocations of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and announced the forthcoming conclusion of a strategic partnership with Greece and Cyprus, both members of the EU. In this increasingly tense context and after the line thrown by the President of the French Republic, London will have to take a stand.
British disengagement or more aggressive stance ?
Once the euphoria of the divorce is over and the sense of regained freedom has vanished, the British will have to face the shrinking of their market space and the attempts by the United States and China to dismember them economically and strategically. A fortiori if Her Majesty’s kingdom has meanwhile lost Scotland and Northern Ireland, and if Russia, like other ill-intentioned actors, has gone on a rampage through smear campaigns, propaganda and manipulation of public opinion to delegitimize the British political class and monarchy. For what ultimately makes the United Kingdom attractive to its partners as well as to its European neighbours is its liberal dimension in all fields: economic, political, societal and religious; the Muslim Brotherhood, which has massively invested in the City has understood this well. To isolate Britain, nothing is better than a brutal rise of populism and isolationism. The first signals are clearly perceptible, even against the Crown. Already, Americans and Chinese are well positioned to take control over key sectors of the economy, be it energy (including nuclear energy for China), communications infrastructure, defence industry, 5G and high technology.
Weakened and struggling to preserve their rank, the British will return to what they have been for centuries, a people of conquering sailors and privateers scouring the seas and oceans to win markets by any means possible, without the slightest prevention for their former European partners. The European rules that have hitherto limited the most questionable practices are no longer enforceable against them. As for the international regulatory bodies (UN, WTO, IMF…), they are increasingly weakened by the whims of Donald Trump, Chinese ambitions and the provocations of autocrats who seem to have the wind in their sails.
The problem for Europeans is that whatever the evolution of the British posture, its consequences are likely to be unfavourable to them: either the United Kingdom will weaken economically and strategically, and London will reduce its military presence and investment in development aid, thus reducing its stabilising presence in the Mediterranean; or it will become stronger and risks wanting to counter the stabilising actions of Europeans in order to win new markets and increase its own influence.
It is therefore crucial to maintain a close, frank and constructive dialogue with the United Kingdom – for the time being still united – in order to clearly express our expectations, our offers, but also the retaliatory measures that we might be led to take, which implies that the European Union and its most influential members in the Mediterranean should consult each other rapidly first, before discussing them with their partners on the southern and Levantine shores. This could be the priority agenda for a future Euro-Mediterranean summit.
It is equally crucial for the EU states bordering the Mediterranean basin to increase their defence effort, particularly in the aeromaritime field, in order to contribute more effectively, with or without the British, to securing the maritime axis linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean via the strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal and the straits of Bab el-Mandeb. The latter is more than ever a vital outpost for the defence of the Mediterranean.