View from a mountain on the Tunisian peninsula Cap Bon on parts of the peninsula and the Mediterranean Sea which surrounds it.

Our sea, our problems, our solutions

Relations between the EU and its southern neighbours are strained at present. The consequences of the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the high level of youth unemployment in Tunisia and Morocco are being clearly felt here too. It is time for the Europeans to revive their Mediterranean policy, argues our Middle East expert Christian Hanelt.

46,000 kilometres of coastline, 22 countries with 480 million inhabitants – 250 million of whom live in coastal regions: the area surrounding the Mediterranean consists of many sensitive ecosystems and is one of the busiest regions in the world, forming a melting pot of opportunities and challenges that connects Europe with its southern neighbours in North Africa and the Middle East.

Article 8 of the Treaty on European Union states that the EU should aim to establish special relations with its neighbouring states in order to create a region of prosperity predicated on European values and characterised by close, friendly relations based on cooperation.

The problems are accumulating in the Mediterranean region

However, the EU is lagging behind with this objective it has set for itself. There's more being endured than arranged in the Mediterranean region, which is provoking fear for all concerned. The list of problems and conflicts is lengthy: (civil) wars, battles for power and territories, terrorist attacks, poor governance, corruption, prosperity gaps, low innovation and stagnating economic development, high youth unemployment, flight and migration, mass tourism, overpopulation, urbanisation, global warming, water pollution, drinking water shortages, overfishing and the loss of arable land and forests.

Most of these conflicts are in the southern Mediterranean region. But as walls and fences can't keep the problems contained, the EU states bordering the northern Mediterranean are directly affected too.

Under Brussels' leadership, a regional association was founded – first as the Euro Mediterranean Partnership (EuroMed) from 1995 and then as the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) from 2008 – that is dedicated to solving some of these problems and dealing with the shared fate of the region.

It's in the EU's own interests to help

The EU, the UfM and other organisations have launched many meaningful multilateral and bilateral projects. Given the plethora of problems, which are often self-made, Europe cannot help everywhere and solve everything. But since it is in the EU's own interests and these problems exist on a large scale, additional, joint efforts need to be made to ensure peace, the rule of law and environmental protection in the Mediterranean region, and to create jobs.

Violent conflicts – such as the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the Cyprus question and the dispute between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara – are hampering the cooperation and the willingness to negotiate, which are important prerequisites if the huge social, economic and ecological problems are to be tackled more effectively.

Weapons exports to crisis regions must be stopped

As a result, the EU member states really need to develop their contractually agreed common foreign and security policy into a robust instrument that ensures peace or at least contains conflicts more effectively. To improve the EU's credibility, the sale of weapons to crisis regions in the south should be stopped. Even exporting small arms serves to strengthen conflicts – one need only look at Libya, where there are more such weapons than people.

In addition to peace, investments are needed. Investments require legal security. If EU projects promote the rule of law in the Mediterranean states, it will also mean that wealthy Mediterranean residents will invest their fortunes, some of which are kept in accounts overseas, in their homeland. European taxpayers cannot shoulder investment risks alone. To prevent this strategy from lacking credibility, European politicians and companies are well-advised to avoid contracts with dictators and corrupt elites.

Investments should create jobs, which are urgently needed in the Mediterranean region. The high youth unemployment of between 30 and 50 percent is not only a problem in North Africa, but also in countries where jobseekers first arrive in Europe, such as Spain, France, Italy and Greece.

Dual education projects can get people started

If the economy falters, it is not just jobs that are lacking. In many Mediterranean states, thousands of academics are unemployed. At the same time, there is a lack of tradesmen,
technicians, engineers, care workers and organic farmers. If we are to encourage young people to opt for technical and manual jobs, there need to be role models and incentives. Dual education projects like the ones in Spain and Tunisia can help here. Small loans, assistance navigating one's way through the jungle of bureaucracy and management training support the founders of SMEs and start-ups.

Agriculture is an important source of employment for the poorer countries bordering the Mediterranean. The EU must reduce their exports of subsidised agricultural products to these countries and enable the agricultural sectors of those countries to have improved market access for products on the European market.

Some job generators and investment fields are within reach

Job generators and investment fields in the Mediterranean states include climate/nature preservation and water/energy systems, as well as a comprehensive reforestation programme around the Mediterranean. Obtaining fresh water for flora, fauna and people from seawater desalination plants is one such example.

Israel operates the most modern facilities. A peace agreement between Arab governments would significantly facilitate cooperation in this area. In addition, sewage plants and wastewater treatment plants in the region need to be modernised or rebuilt. Others areas in which jobs could be created are organic farming, sustainable tourism and energy generation from wind and solar sources.

So the potential for more investment and jobs is there. Some companies are already forging ahead. This will provide both young inhabitants of the Mediterranean countries and migrants from neighbouring regions with opportunities for the future. Let's tackle the problems swiftly and systematically!

Our colleague's analysis first appeared in a similar form in the 2/2017 issue of the specialist magazine "zenith".