Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Vienna Process: Reinvigorating the Spirit of Helsinki for Mediterranean

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On the historic date of March 08th – International Women’s Day, a large number of international affairs specialists gathered for the second consecutive summit in Vienna, Austria. This leg of the Vienna Process event titled: “Europe – Future – Neighbourhood at 75: Disruptions Recalibration Continuity”. The conference, jointly organized by four different entities (the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies IFIMES, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy, Scientific Journal European Perspectives, and Action Platform Culture for Peace) with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, was aimed at discussing the future of Europe and its neighbourhood in the wake of its old and new challenges.

This highly anticipated conference gathered over twenty high ranking speakers from three continents, and the viewers from Australia to Canada and from Chile to Far East. The day was filled by three panels focusing on the rethinking and revisiting Europe and its three equally important neighbourhoods: Euro-Med, Eastern and trans-Atlantic (or as the Romano Prodi’s EU Commission coined it back in 2000s – “from Morocco to Russia – everything but the institutions”); the socio-political and economic greening; as well as the legacy of WWII, Nuremberg Trials and Code, the European Human Rights Charter and their relevance in the 21st century.

The event was probably the largest gathering since the beginning of 2021 for this part of Europe.

Along with the two acting State Presidents, the event was endorsed by the keynote of the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Excellency Olivér Várhelyi. The first, of the three-panel conference, was brilliantly conducted by the OSCE Sec-General (2011-2017), current IFIMES Euro-Med Director, Ambassador Lamberto Zannier. Among his speakers was Emiliano Alessandri, OSCE Senior External Co-operation Officer. Following lines are his contribution to this highly successful Vienna Process event.

Unfulfilled Mediterranean Visions

After the Cold War, it was widely believed that the unevenly developed, conflict-torn Mediterranean region could finally stabilize around a rapidly integrating Europe, the gap between the Southern and Northern economies reducing through greater access to the European common market, and a truly “Euro-Mediterranean” region emerging as a more coherent space in economic, security as well as human connections terms.

A decade later, after 9/11, the region was singled out again as an epicenter of global insecurity. The Euro-Mediterranean vision largely unfulfilled, the region’s dysfunctions came under renewed scrutiny. While most of them had obvious socio-economic roots, international attention focused almost exclusively on the spread of radical ideologies propounded by various groups advocating anti-modern, anti-Western agendas. Instead of articulating an inclusive and equitable model of socio-economic development, the defeat of terrorism took over the agenda. Repression was often prioritized over reform. 

Unleashing long-standing grievances, the ill-named and ill-fated Arab Spring of 2010-2011 was prematurely welcomed as a region-wide movement towards democracy, portending the demise of an alleged Arab “exception”. Attention focused once again on transnational groups and movements, signally a civically engaged youth defying the authoritarian order to demand greater social justice. As protest movements gradually subsided, leading to what many have perhaps too harshly defined as a new “Arab winter”, views of the region have turned markedly negative again. Although wholesale cynicism is misplaced, the present realities call for a correction of the overly optimistic visions that had prevailed after the Cold War.

A more interconnected but no less conflict-prone Mediterranean

For one, the Mediterranean appears less and less a coherent space. The region is for sure interconnected in economic, security as well as human terms. But growing interdependence between Europe and the Mediterranean on the one hand, and the Mediterranean and Africa on the other, has not translated into convergence, let alone triggered a drive towards integration. When connections have expanded, they are not necessarily of the positive kind. The region is currently linked up through its proliferating smuggling routes and fast-expanding organized crime networks. Euro-Mediterranean exchanges coalescing around education, production, and employment opportunities are catching up too slowly and unevenly.

Contrary to what Europeans had envisaged, moreover, the Mediterranean region is also less and less a European “neighborhood”– a role that would have never done full justice of the region’s inherent diversity, multi-layered cultural identity, and wide-ranging international connections and influences. Europe undoubtedly remains a strong reference for some countries – economically as well as culturally. But the region increasingly looks in other directions – towards both Asia and Africa. For their part, a number of resourceful non-Western regional actors are bent on exert a growing influence on local dynamics. With China investing heavily in the region (including with a view to post-pandemic recovery), Turkey and Russia playing key roles in regional conflicts, the Gulf States and Iran expanding their clout either directly or through proxies, the region increasingly is a global chessboard (a role it intermittently held throughout its complicated history) rather than a European “inland sea”.

Contrary to what many have argued, finally, the Mediterranean state system has proved unexpectedly resilient. The region is certainly fragmented and transnational groups continue to erode the fragile foundations of the existing order. The prospect of failed states remains very concrete and Libya is still characterized by divisive internal dynamics that create a dangerous vacuum of governance. But overall local regimes have recovered from the wave of protests of 2010-2011, either by adapting or fighting back. The region is now characterized as much by dysfunctional governance as by regime survivalism and renewed state assertiveness. Inter-state competition remains a key factor of regional instability, compounded with (rather than in alternative to) the challenge posed by terrorism and other transnational threats.

A Mediterranean dialogue fit for the new realities

Against this backdrop, Mediterranean regional dialogue is more important than ever, especially in the security realm. Yet, it is also elusive. Recent breakthroughs towards the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations testify to a possible revival of regional diplomacy. But region’s central conflict remains unsolved and no illusion should be entertained about it being liquidated by the emergence of other pressing priorities. In any event, moving from a dynamic of conflict to a paradigm of peace would require a level of trust – and a focus on a common positive agenda – that is far from apparent at the moment.

For their part, the rise of China, Russia’s re-engagement in the region after a post-Cold War hiatus, the Gulf States’ growing influence open up opportunities for the region, diversifying the region’s international portfolio. But these dynamics also create new risks and tradeoffs, the net effect of which is not necessarily increased stability.

What, therefore, can support and advance a new Mediterranean dialogue that is reflective of the new realities as well as in tune with the region’s evolving challenges and needs?

As dialogue continues to be in short supply, no available platform should be discarded. Many of the traditional ones can continue playing an important role in their respective domains, from the Barcelona process/ Union for the Mediterranean to the dialogue formats provided by the EU and NATO. A less known venue that can be more strategically leveraged in the present circumstances is the one provided by the Mediterranean Partnership of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The CSCE/OSCE process has traditionally addressed East-West relations, with a focus on European security. But from the start and before many others did the same, the CSCE/OSCE built ties across the Mediterranean basin in an attempt to foster regional security and promote an Helsinki-like “method” or “model” for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts. The OSCE Mediterranean Partners now include all of the North African countries with the exception of Libya (which, however, has repeatedly expressed interest in joining), as well as Jordan and Israel in the Middle East.

What distinguishes this platform from others is above all its diverse membership, which includes many of the extra-regional actors that are currently active in the MENA, starting with Russia and Turkey. In fact, the OSCE Mediterranean Partnership offers a unique multilateral forum in which NATO, the EU, and all of the post-Soviet states can develop a security dialogue addressing the nexus between multipolarity and stability, which is so central to the current Mediterranean security equation. This dialogue can build on the long-standing OSCE experience with managing inter-state tensions in the European space, as well as aim at sharing best practices among countries that have undertaken complex political and economic transitions, from Eastern Europe to the Western Balkans.

Over the years, the OSCE Mediterranean dialogue has come to look at the Southern countries as an actor rather than an object of security. Successive OSCE Chairmanships have focused on outlining a positive agenda for Mediterranean security, that countries from the North and the South can advance together to tackle a growing set of shared concerns, from countering transnational organized crime to addressing environmental threats.

The OSCE Mediterranean dialogue has two key features that may make it particularly fitting for addressing the specific challenges of the Mediterranean of the 21st century. The OSCE was designed to address international conflict and, despite a growing focus on transnational threats, the organization still relies on a security toolkit that is particularly tailored to preventing or mitigating inter-state tensions. This double focus on the inter-state and transnational aspects of security is extremely relevant for the current Mediterranean security environment.

From the outset, moreover, the CSCE/OSCE process has propounded a “comprehensive” notion of security spanning politico-military, environmental-economic, as well as human dimension aspects. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act – the CSCE founding document – was among the first international texts to elevate human rights and fundamental freedoms to the rank of international norms. Through its Office on Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE has developed a solid track record of supporting free and fair elections, promoting democratic governance, and ensuring the protection of human rights. At various turning points, most recently in the wake of the Arab Spring, this wealth of experience was successfully shared with the OSCE Mediterranean Partners. The notion that states are as secure as their citizens is most relevant in a region where too often the interests of states have been defined against those of the peoples.

Rediscovering the OSCE added value

Although the OSCE Mediterranean Partnership has gained traction in recent years, including by offering a growing menu of capacity-building projects of cooperation in security-relevant policy areas, the future of the OSCE Mediterranean dialogue would greatly benefit from a sharper focus on some key goals.

First, conflict-cycle related issues should once again be put at the center of the OSCE Mediterranean dialogue, as this is the area in which the OSCE experience is the most encompassing. This would include a discussion on whether and in which form confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) initially  developed for the European context could be adjusted to fit the realities of the MENA region. Next to traditional areas such as arms control and military activities CSBMs could also address new domains, from energy to cyber security.

Second, the OSCE Mediterranean dialogue should not shy away from difficult topics, even if this means addressing relevant aspects of ongoing international conflicts. Over the years, the quest for a positive agenda has led to eluding some of the region’s key challenges to concentrate on less controversial topics, for instance how to promote economic cooperation or how to foster youth participation in decision making processes. The OSCE has traditionally offered a venue where international or regional crises can be de-conflicted and tensions de-escalated. A serious positive agenda is one that turns challenges into opportunities for cooperation, not one that systematically tries to avoid controversial or divisive issues.

Third, the door should be kept open to other Southern countries to join the dialogue. This should apply to Libya in North Africa as well as to countries of the Sahel that are already part of other interregional formats. In line with its vocation as an inclusive multilateral platform, countries from the Levant and the Gulf could also be brought into an expanded dialogue format in the future. Were conditions ripe for constructive diplomatic exchanges, the OSCE platform could even promote a new dialogue between Iran, the Gulf States, and other key international actors, with a view to mitigating current patterns of competition and rivalry.

Fourth and finally, the OSCE could step up its engagement with other regional and international organizations, including some that are yet to develop a Mediterranean profile, such as the African Union (which, however, has a focus on conflict resolution). As the largest regional arrangement under the UN Charter, the OSCE is well placed to promote cross-regional connections. This would anchor the new Mediterranean dialogue to a revival of multilateralism, one based on the recognition that a more global and multipolar Mediterranean needs inter-locking institutions to support the creation of a stable and effective security regional order.

*the views expressed in this article are strictly personal and do not represent those of any organization

About the author:

Emiliano Alessandri, Senior External Co-operation Officer, OSCE; Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS) since 2012; a scholar with the Middle East Institute (MEI) since 2019; and a Research Associate with the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) since 2017. He is also a Scientific Board Member of the NATO Defense College Foundation; Advisory Board Member of the US-Italy Global Affairs Forum and Editorial Board Member of The International Spectator.

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