Charting a New Future for the Mediterranean

Charting a New Future for the Mediterranean

To build a more strategically coherent approach to the Mediterranean region, the West must expand and deepen its relationship with African partners.


In just under two months, the heads of state and government from the Group of Seven (G7) countries will convene on Italy’s southeastern coast near Fasano, where the Adriatic Sea begins to run down the heel of the country into the wider Mediterranean Sea. In the summit’s agenda, as well as its location, Italy’s year-long presidency of the G7 has placed the Mediterranean front and center. According to Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italy has “a great responsibility on our shoulders, and we intend to honor it to the best of our ability, once again showing how capable Italy is of charting the course ahead.”

According to official statements by Italy ahead of the June summit, the course ahead should include a focus on defending the rules-based international order and strengthening governance over artificial intelligence. However, Italy has also put G7 countries’ engagement with African countries high on the agenda. Italy wants to build a “cooperation model based on mutually beneficial partnerships, away from paternalistic or predatory logics.”


Italy’s focus on the Mediterranean makes sense. The country is Europe’s frontline state in terms of security, migrant flows, and the continent’s energy future across the region. For most of Italy’s priorities, all roads lead through the sea. The task ahead for Meloni and Italian officials is to make clear to other G7 members that the Mediterranean is critical to their strategic priorities. Moreover, Italy must also focus on security in the Mediterranean at the NATO Summit in Washington, DC, which follows shortly after the G7 conference.

A Joint Mediterranean Strategy

Historically, the United States and many European countries have viewed the Mediterranean Sea more as a route than a region. It is a pathway to the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean near Israel, and the Suez Canal. Recently, however, it has become clear that this region, which runs along the southern flank of both NATO and Europe, deserves special attention. In recent years, Europe has experienced record-breaking migrant flows through the Mediterranean Sea originating in North Africa. In Italy, migrant arrivals increased in 2023 to 158,000 compared to 2022. The movement of peoples has surged as coups, economic crises, natural disasters, grain wars, and jihadism wreak havoc in Africa. In all, more than 286,000 people from the region migrated to Europe in 2023, almost double the 2021 figure.

Trade is also increasing the Mediterranean’s strategic importance. In light of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, grain shipments have passed through the Mediterranean Sea. China is deepening its ties with North Africa through financial cooperation, infrastructure development, and manufacturing. Finally, the new India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), launched on the sidelines of the most recent Group of Twenty (G20) Summit, aims to “stimulate economic development through enhanced connectivity and economic integration between Asia, the Arabian Gulf, and Europe.” The project will feature a direct line through the Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean region matters to the United States, too. Maintaining regional balances of power in Europe and the Middle East depends on stability in the Mediterranean. This area has seen rising influence from Russia and China in recent years. This mixture of internal instability and external malign influence could blunt the projection of U.S. power in the region. When they met in July 2023, U.S. president Joe Biden and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni discussed the root causes of instability, including transnational organized crime, terrorism, and irregular migration flows. Addressing these root causes requires stronger transatlantic cooperation. The time is ripe for both sides of the Atlantic to work together to determine a joint strategic approach to the Mediterranean region.

Building More Meaningful Economic Partnerships With Africa

To build a more strategically coherent approach to the Mediterranean region, the West must expand and deepen its relationship with African partners. Unveiled earlier this year, Italy’s Mattei Plan aims to develop those relationships through five pillars: education and training, agriculture, health, water, and energy. The Mattei Plan’s ultimate goal is not only to “make Italy an energy hub to transport natural gas supplies from Africa to the rest of Europe,” but also to “curb irregular migration to Europe.” Furthermore, building more mutually beneficial partnerships with African countries can help curb Chinese influence throughout the African continent. For more than a decade, China has out-invested the United States in Africa. Moreover, Beijing is on pace to overtake Europe as Africa’s largest trading partner by the end of the decade.

Throughout the years, Africa has been on the receiving end of uneven and, in many ways, extractive relationships with both the United States and Europe. Moving forward, the transatlantic partners must build “genuine industrial partnerships that enable states to move up the global value chain, from purely extractive activities to refining of critical raw materials or even manufacturing panels and batteries.” This also includes leveraging private sector finance to help support local energy projects and expanding the support for public infrastructure through grants. Further, the European Union should establish a permanent dialogue with the African Union, which doesn’t currently exist. Most communication between the blocs takes place through ad hoc channels, which don’t offer the opportunities for long-term planning that a permanent dialogue would provide.

Italy, at the helm of the G7, could strengthen these efforts by ensuring that the Mattei Plan becomes a model for other countries. To do so, Rome must support and fund the plan at levels that will allow it to grow, flourish, and succeed. This can help form more muscular connective tissue between Europe and Africa rather than allow risks to fester.

Focus on Security

Less than a month after the G7 summit in Italy, NATO will host its annual summit in Washington. Here, Italy can also play an important role. As Meloni has highlighted, prosperity and security in the Mediterranean region are interlinked. The alliance will be critical in ensuring the security side of the equation.

NATO will need to build on its earlier efforts. The alliance launched the Mediterranean Dialogue back in 1994 to contribute to regional security and stability, with seven NATO partner nations involved. Even as Russia’s war in Ukraine is the alliance’s primary concern and NATO works to strengthen allies’ defenses against Russian aggression in the east, NATO hasn’t forgotten about its southern flank, particularly the Middle East and the Sahel. As outlined in the Vilnius Summit Communiqué, the fragile security situation in these regions provides fertile ground for terrorism and enables destabilizing interference from strategic competitors.

The alliance will take a significant step forward when it adopts its first-ever Southern Flank Strategy in July in Washington. Meloni has been a strong advocate for this new strategy, stating at the end of the Vilnius summit that Italy “asked for more attention to be given to the southern flank.” When NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Meloni last year, he asked her for help in bolstering the alliance’s active presence in Africa, including in the area of security training.

The Southern Flank Strategy must be bold in its approach to NATO’s south. According to a piece by Jason Davidson for the Atlantic Council—in addition to enhancing resources for Operation Sea Guardian and increasing counterterrorism training and assistance with regional partners— NATO’s Southern Flank strategy must “entail a commitment to deepen cooperation with regional partners through the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.” NATO and the EU must also work closely together in this region, which is something Italy could help with, given its membership in both organizations. Earlier this month, NATO foreign ministers discussed the findings of a report by an independent group of experts on NATO’s approach to its southern neighborhood, including how “deep-rooted localized challenges are now exacerbated by global strategic competition and threat-multipliers, such as climate change.”

The Mediterranean region should no longer be viewed primarily through the lens of Northern Africa and Southern Europe. Instead, the transatlantic partners must take a joint security, economic, and military approach to this region and elevate its importance in U.S.-European strategic discussions. The G7 and NATO summits this summer offer the perfect opportunity to make progress on how Western countries view and engage with this critical region.

Rachel Rizzo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. Follow her on X: @RachelRizzo.

Valbona Zeneli is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center and the Transatlantic Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Follow her on X: @ValbonaZeneliTo.