Last week, Italy signed 29 deals worth a total of 2.5 billion euros to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by reviving Italian ports. Much attention has focused on how Europe is divided over the rise of China. However, this deal reveals a more important shift. Southern Europe will increasingly turn its focus away from the continent and towards the Mediterranean Sea.
What does this mean?
For millennia, the Mediterranean Sea connected Europe to Asia. However, during the Atlantic age, the ports of the Atlantic Ocean (first Spain and Portugal, then the Netherlands and the U.K.) became the dominant link between America, Europe and Asia. Indeed, the industrial development of 17th century Europe was accompanied by northern Europe gaining control of the continent’s main ports. In fact, southern Europe has never really recovered from this fundamental shift. But the rise of China, which seeks to connect the Mediterranean to its BRI, presents an opportunity. By strengthening ties to China, countries such as Portugal, Greece and Italy will increasingly turn away from the European continent (which is perceived to be divided and opposed against its interests) and back towards the Mediterranean to rebuild maritime networks.
Although it remains to be seen how much southern European ports will benefit, renewed interest in Mediterranean connectivity will have more consequences. For one thing, it could push France, which has historically oscillated between a continental and maritime focus, to move closer to southern Europe again. Whereas Sarkozy initiated a Mediterranean Union, Macron has opted for Franco-German cooperation. However, as Germany increasingly opposes the French vision for Europe, France may have to seek other options by looking south. Meanwhile, a stronger southern Europe may highlight tensions within the EU, but could actually make European integration more likely by restoring the European balance of power.