The abrupt U-turnof US President Barack Obama on his threat to launch a military strike against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria exposes the United States’ hesitations at getting dragged into the Mediterranean for a long stretch. Congress may yet give the green light, but the refusal of the British parliament to go along with a strike has left the United States isolated. Germany, Italy, and Poland have also announced their reluctance, leaving only France on a European level.

If no one wants to die for Syrians, this is also due to the evolution of the status of the entire Mediterranean. Once the cultural, commercial and political epicentre of the world for centuries, today it appears as a fragmented region that has no future in the “globalisation” that the new world marketplace dictates. It is now another sea – the China Sea – that drives global dynamics.

Many examples illustrate this loss of influence, starting with the changing direction of the “Arab Spring”, which had aroused so many hopes. In Egypt, a military coup, supported by a majority of the population, overthrew the president from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was on the road to concentrating political power for the benefit of itself. But the future remains even more uncertain, against a backdrop of the severe economic crisis. In Syria, the civil war is sinking deeper into tragedy and threatening the entire region, including its fragile neighbour, Lebanon. The chances of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain more a hope than a reality. In the Maghreb, the political situation has settled into a status quo that is harming economic development. Even Turkey, traditionally an example of stability, has seen sometimes violent protests.

To the north, the situation is also difficult: hit hard by the debt crisis, the European Mediterranean, which thought membership in the European Union would help it develop, is seeing its fate determined by a troika of international donors who offer solutions to the crisis, which are untroubled by any regard for regional Mediterranean economic development.

Loss of significance

Away from the world's centre of gravity, the Mediterranean region remains extremely heterogeneous

In the new wide-open geography shaped by globalisation, it is true, the Mediterranean appears closed off behind its three strategic passages: westward, the Strait of Gibraltar; to the south-east, the Suez Canal and its tanker routes; and to the north-east, the Dardanelles. While these straits were once major strategic assets that made it easier to control the flow of marine traffic, they have since lost their significance. Away from the world's centre of gravity, the Mediterranean region remains extremely heterogeneous. The population of 475 million people in the 22 countries bordering the sea come from different religious and cultural backgrounds: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, European, Turkish, Arab, Berber, Israeli. Militarily, on the north of the Mediterranean, unity is assured by the Atlantic Alliance, dominated by the United States, whose Sixth Fleet plays a dominant role in security in the Mediterranean. Until when? Washington is not hiding its desire to disengage, which is helping to speed up the loss of influence of the region.

Europe, however, is far away from being able to fill this space vacated by American power. While the EU did play a major role in helping eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, it has neglected its south. This weakness of the European leadership has, in consequence, fragmented a regional space in which several countries are jostling for influence: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey (a NATO member and possible European Union member), and Egypt, in a Middle East where Israel plays an independent role. In the Maghreb, the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria is stalling any regional cooperation.

Europe has nevertheless taken certain initiatives, the most ambitious of which is the establishment of a Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) which has no fewer than 43 members (the current 28 members of the EU, plus Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey!) Due to its size and its governance, though, this union is hardly operational. The interests of its members diverge. The Schengen area splits the Mediterranean, just as agricultural protectionism does.

Hope for the future

With lower geostrategic stakes than 20 years ago, in the long run the Mediterranean may again become an important economic hub

Is there therefore no hope that the Mediterranean will once again become an economic power? In the short-term, decidedly not; but over the long term, everything suggests it will. After all, the motivations that led to the birth of the “Arab Spring”, just like the motivations of the European Mediterranean countries joining the EU in their time, are the same: a better standard of living in a more secure and democratic environment. With lower geostrategic stakes than 20 years ago, in the long run the Mediterranean may again become an important economic hub.

A first step could involve creating an energy union that would ensure independence for the whole of the Union for the Mediterranean by establishing a partnership between producer countries (of hydrocarbons, but also of renewable energy) and consumer countries. This would have the benefit of reducing Europe’s dependence on Russia. The EU is the only entity capable of organising this unity, and the cooperative frameworks are already in place. Those efforts should intensify; apart from natural resources, agricultural potential is significant and a tourism industry could be developed in a sustainable form.

Europe is not likely to impose a “hard power”. It has the resources, on the other hand, to advance this goal of peace by exerting a "soft power" that is intended, through existing bilateral and multilateral accords, gradually to expand cooperation at the regional level. But for this it must find a unity that it is lacking today because of doubts emerged due to the debt crisis.

Such a project in the current context smacks today of Utopia, while the struggle between regional powers – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and their respective allies – may permanently undermine the southern shore of the Mediterranean, where, today, Syria is the bloody theatre.