Italy and Türkiye: Cooperation for a New Mediterranean Order

Italy and Türkiye: Cooperation for a New Mediterranean Order

The Mediterranean is a geographical area of great geopolitical importance due to its strategic location between Europe, Asia and Africa. The region is rich in natural resources and has a long history of trade and navigation. In the past, European powers have struggled for control of Mediterranean trade routes, and even today, the region is an object of interest for global powers because of its geographical location and resources.

It is precisely for this reason that the United States has decided to return to the Mediterranean. If during previous administrations, the United States was essentially disinterested itself in the Mediterranean because it was more concerned with geopolitical developments in different geographic quadrants. Now, it seems to have returned to the Mare Nostrum, a middle ocean as the geopolitical magazine Limes defines it.

Mainly because of that, the Mediterranean Sea fits into the global dispute for hegemony between the United States and Western vassals on the one hand representing decaying unipolarism, and the rising multipolar powers led by China and Russia on the other. Not to mention countries such as Türkiye, which, although part of the Western alliance system, primarily NATO, does not give up the pursuit of its own strategic interests even when these clash with those of the Western bloc. Thus Ankara has long been displaying strategic balancing act, even if in recent times it seems to be leaning more towards the east.

In this game, Washington wants to maintain control of the Mediterranean in order not to lose its influence over the coastal countries and to have agility of movement between the oceans. The decline of US influence in Europe had, to a certain extent, created a strategic vacuum around the Mediterranean region. But with the operation to support the Kiev regime in Ukraine, the United States has in fact taken full control over Europe. A Europe immolated on the altar of Washington’s economic and strategic interests.

The US strategy obviously envisages the involvement of Italy, according to US interests, even if some in Italy are trying to conceal Rome’s vassalage by trying to portray it as a revival of Italy’s role in the Mediterranean. On the subject of Italy’s role on NATO’s southern flank, Michael Carpenter – formerly Biden’s foreign policy advisor – replied to a question on the subject in the daily newspaper ‘La Stampa‘ as follows: “I think you will be enormously important for NATO’s southern strategy, regarding North Africa and the Mediterranean, which must be strengthened. In these regions we will look to you for a leading role, which also touches on the problem of migration. (…) NATO must develop a broader southern strategy, but on Libya the EU could have the leading role”.

In reality, however, the US seems to have aimed more at the eastern quadrant of the Mediterranean, where Greece is being militarized for this purpose. Washington has decided to use Greek bases for supplies and fleet maintenance, precisely at a time when Athens, also with French support, has decided to strengthen its military force. A decision that has exacerbated the terrain of confrontation with neighboring Türkiye: between the two countries – both NATO members – there are numerous disputes, including competing claims over jurisdiction in the eastern Mediterranean, overlapping claims over continental shelves, maritime borders, airspace, energy exploration, the Turkish minority in western Thrace, the divided island of Cyprus, the status of the Aegean islands, and the migrant issue.

The growing US military presence in Greece could lead to unpredictable scenarios in the Aegean, but nevertheless the US goes ahead without caring too much about the consequences.

With the ratification of the Greek-American Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) by the Hellenic Parliament on 13 May – an agreement initiated by Pompeo during the Trump administration and later confirmed by Blinken – the US gained access to new military bases in Greece, in addition to those it already controls.

In addition to the Souda Bay naval base in Crete, which the US has operated since 1969, the MDCA will allow the US military to use the Georgula barracks in the central Greek province of Volos, the Litochoro training camp and the army barracks in the northeastern port city of Alexandroupoli.

In addition, there are plans to expand the Souda Bay base in Crete, which houses submarines and where B-52 strategic nuclear bombers land. The doubling of the base in Crete could then be followed by that of the Akrotiri base in Cyprus, thus confirming the US strategy of military and geopolitical support for Athens and Nicosia, also with an anti-Turkish perspective.

One of the reasons behind the expansion of the US presence in Greece is the ‘containment’ of Türkiye, defense and security expert Kozan Erkan told Anadolu Agency, adding that Washington wants a ‘less independent’ Türkiye that acts in line with Washington’s interests. Just like with Italy, one immediately thinks.

The concerns and renewed activism of the United States in the Mediterranean are precisely set out by Thibault Muzergues – director of the Europe & Euro-Med programme at the International Republican Institute – in an article in War on the Rocks where he writes: “Not so long ago, the Mediterranean was considered a US, or at least a Western, ‘Mare Nostrum’. Today it seems increasingly disputed. As a thalassocracy whose leadership is based on guaranteeing freedom of navigation in the seas, the US cannot afford to lose the Mediterranean, nor can it allow it to become a territorialized and openly contested sea. While the continued presence of the Sixth Fleet certainly provides guarantees of military superiority, the lesson learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that not all geopolitical problems can be dealt with in a purely military manner. China is using economic opportunities rather than so-called hard power to gain a foothold in key ports, preferring financial strangulation to military force to increase its influence. Even Türkiye, despite being a NATO member, has embraced the role of disruptor to challenge the existing order at sea. In its attempt to build a ‘blue homeland’ to connect Türkiye to the resource-rich coast of North Africa, Ankara is at loggerheads with Cyprus, Greece and France. Although this dispute in the eastern Mediterranean is the most worrying, there are also growing tensions between other US allies further west, with Morocco and Spain at odds not only over migration but also over the Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla’.

Thus, according to Muzergues, the US “must demonstrate that it can adapt to changing circumstances and that if partners break alliances, the US can still act unilaterally. This requires a clear and coherent strategy that emphasizes freedom of the seas”.

Italy and Türkiye, a necessary cooperation

In such a scenario, there are two countries most at risk of being crushed under the weight of US interests: Italy and Türkiye. Therefore, willingly or unwillingly, they would have every interest in putting aside differences and mistrusts to start a potentially fruitful cooperation. After all, Italy and Türkiye have common interests in the Mediterranean in several areas, including security, energy, and economic cooperation.

Firstly, both countries share security concerns in the Mediterranean, in particular the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration. Italy and Türkiye have cooperated in the past to manage these issues and both have expressed their willingness to continue to do so in the future.

Secondly, both countries have energy interests in the Mediterranean. Italy is an importer of oil and gas and Türkiye is an important energy transport corridor to Europe. Furthermore, both countries are exploring opportunities for the development of renewable energy at sea, such as wind and solar energy.

Finally, Italy and Türkiye have common economic interests in the Mediterranean. Both countries have a strong presence in the tourism sector and have significant trade relations with Mediterranean countries. Furthermore, both countries are working to promote economic cooperation in the region through initiatives such as the Mediterranean Business Forum.

In general, Italy and Türkiye share many common interests in the Mediterranean and have shown that they are willing to work together to address challenges and seize opportunities in the region.

The conditions for greater and more fruitful cooperation are there: Türkiye and Italy are two historic Mediterranean powers. They have a balanced bilateral trade. Italy is Türkiye’s fifth largest trading partner in absolute terms and the second after Germany among EU countries. The geopolitical priorities of the two countries in the Mediterranean are not entirely conflicting, but rather tend to overlap.

In addition to US moves, both countries have to watch the moves of France, which seeks to increase its influence in the eastern Mediterranean through Greece and Cyprus. Therefore, closer cooperation between Rome and Ankara becomes almost obligatory. After all, the two countries have the potential and capacity to defeat the plans of the imperialist powers and stabilize the Mediterranean Sea.

Unfortunately, the current Italian government led by Giorgia Meloni, which even though it harks back to the experience and actions of Enrico Mattei, has gone no further than being the political continuation of the technical government of the quisling Draghi, which represented the height of Italian servility to US and NATO strategy, even to the detriment of national interest.

Italy has lost any residue of sovereignty and independence crushed by the joint action of the US-NATO-EU triad. Yet in the post-war period, despite being fully included in the Atlantic alliance, Italy did not give up its own autonomy, which included a policy in line with the national interest in the Mediterranean and excellent relations with the Soviet Union. 

From this point of view, Rome should look to Ankara, which, despite being a pillar of NATO, Türkiye has refused to go along with sanctions against Russia and has continued to work towards a diplomatic solution between Russia and Ukraine. Moreover, Türkiye, which has not given up gas and oil from Russia, has been working to become the new hub for Russian gas to the West. Not to mention the strong economic cooperation between Ankara and Beijing. An abysmal difference from an Italy now entangled up to its neck in the conflict and completely prone to Washington.

In the final analysis, we can say that closer cooperation between Italy and Türkiye, besides being more necessary than ever, would be a model for other countries in the region. It could even become the nucleus of a new Mediterranean order. An order open to the new opportunities offered by the multipolar world. The Mediterranean could thus become the area where BRICS and non-BRICS states meet: A sea of potential for development, peace and prosperity.

Fabrizio Verde

Journalist and geopolitics analyst.

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May 2024