Transatlantic Unity Faces a Stress Test

Challenges emanating from the Mediterranean region, including those posed by failed states, terrorism, and a historic flow of migrants, have contributed to a surge in populism on both sides of the Atlantic that could imperil transatlantic unity and the European project itself, Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, said on February 1.  

Vershbow, who previously served as deputy secretary general of NATO from February 2012 to October 2016, said that these challenges “threaten to undermine the traditional values of openness and tolerance on both sides of the Atlantic.” Consequently, these conditions necessitate a fresh look at the security situation in the Mediterranean, focusing in particular on drivers of instability.

“The security interests of the transatlantic community and the Mediterranean have been closely intertwined for centuries… but never more intertwined than today,” he said.  

Amanda Sloat, a former deputy assistant secretary for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs at the US State Department, said the primary challenges to the key principles guiding the European Union (EU) come from Southern Europe. In particular, she cited the recent and ongoing economic and migrant crises.

Vershbow delivered the keynote address at an event at which Sloat participated in a panel discussion with Armando Varricchio, Italy’s ambassador to the United States, and Lisa Aronsson, a visiting fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security to discuss the development of a long-term strategy for securing the broader Mediterranean region. Aaron Stein, a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, moderated the panel. The event was hosted in conjunction with the launch of a report, co-authored by Nordenmann and Aronsson, called Mediterranean Futures 2030, which sets forth strategic recommendations focused on addressing the many security threats in the region.

The Mediterranean is a region in flux, and in order to devise a viable security strategy “we need a number of actors to work together,” Magnus Nordenmann, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said in opening remarks. He called for countries in the region as well as external actors to cooperate in responding to these security threats.

Vershbow echoed the call for partnership, saying, “the time has come for both NATO and the EU to make another go at engaging their Mediterranean neighbors.” He said a more integrated NATO-EU effort to address the security challenges in the Mediterranean “could give more credibility to both institutions.” He listed a new maritime initiative, and increased use of defense capacity-building with partners in the region as avenues for engagement.

Discussing Mediterranean Futures 2030, Nordenmann said the report “helps us lift our eyes [above] the current headlines and look at some of the long-term drivers of change in the Mediterranean and how they may impact security.” These factors include demographic shifts, security concerns, economic uncertainty, and climate change.

Aronsson described how the report does not only address drivers of change but elements of uncertainty, such as geopolitics, the role of external powers, identity politics, and economies throughout the region, which can determine the future of the region in unforeseen ways, thereby requiring a flexible strategic approach that can adapt to deal with unpredictable outcomes.

Considering both the perceptible drivers of change and elements of uncertainty, the report sets forth a number of potential scenarios for the future of the region. Based on these scenarios, the report makes a series of strategy recommendations for US President Donald Trump’s incoming administration.

Additionally, said Sloat, presidential elections in the Netherlands, Germany, and France through 2017 will be “key determinants” of the path Europe will take, and whether or not the continent will pursue a far-right, conservative approach to foreign policy.

That said, Aronsson added, “I expect there to be a sharp focus on counterterrorism in the Trump administration, and… perhaps this will be a hook for NATO and the EU to step up in their leadership in the region.” She described the potential for a counterterrorism effort, led by NATO and the EU, and supported by countries in the region.

However, Varricchio said that “NATO is only effective and viable when the most important member of the alliance invests in it,” referring to the United States. Trump has called NATO obsolete, rattling European allies, but also insisted that he still considers it an important institution.

With regard to the unprecedented levels of migration shaking the Mediterranean region, “there are new dynamics, uncertainties… but this is not a new situation,” said Varricchio. While there are new ideas, ideologies, “for the first time in many, many years, we have people moving and people coming.” He said “there is an obligation to save the lives,” of migrants, but the next step lies in dealing with the phenomenon of migration, and securing the external borders of the EU.

However, in order to understand why this is happening, the answer lies beyond the southern border of Europe, according to Varricchio. “What is more important is to tackle the root causes of migration,” he said, “that’s why it is important that we get back to Africa.”

Citing Libya as an example, Varricchio said it is paramount that NATO and the EU assist failing states in the Mediterranean region in their efforts to rebuild, thereby addressing the root causes of migration. However, “you cannot export a solution,” he cautioned. Countries in the region, such as Libya, must devise their own solutions to political turmoil in order to effectively address the conditions which drive refugees to Europe.

Overall, migration is a concept strongly linked with security, said Varricchio; “security both in our countries and when it comes to protecting our borders.”

In light of the close connections between effective governance, migration, and security, Aronsson emphasized the need for NATO to play a more political role in the region and focus on a cohesive security strategy. She said it’s time for the Alliance to be “thinking hard about what it means for NATO to be a political alliance as well as a military one in the context of the Mediterranean.” She also called for the EU to “project resilience abroad,” and seek avenues for cooperation in the south.

According to Sloat, the EU has taken many steps to develop an institutional response to the threat of migration. However, she said that there should be a greater effort by the EU to alleviate the burden of countries bearing the brunt of refugee flows.

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: Aaron Stein and Magnus Nordenman

Image: (from left) Aaron Stein, a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, moderated a discussion with Armando Varrichio, Italy’s ambassador to the United States; Lisa Aronsson, a visiting fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security; and Amanda Sloat, a former deputy assistant secretary for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs at the US State Department. (Atlantic Council)