Foreign Affairs

NATO’s South: Italy at the Forefront in the Mediterranean and Middle East

May 2024
By Paolo Bozzacchi

Not only the duties of hosting. Italy aspires to the role of leader among the NATO Southern Flank countries. It is hosting (until tomorrow) the three-day meetings of the Special Group on the Mediterranean and Middle East (GSM) of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. The point is that NATO’s southern flank, given the ongoing crises, deserves the highest Western attention.

There are many dossiers on the worktable: firstly, security, the delicate situation in North Africa (on the day of Prime Minister Meloni’s official visit to Libya), common migration challenges, the food crisis, the role of Saudi Arabia and Iran in Middle Eastern dynamics, as well as the influences of Russia and China in Africa and the Middle East. Africa, precisely. At the center of the Italian-born Mattei Plan with the Meloni government, now with international aspirations.

The attendees include: the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Lorenzo Fontana, the Ministers of Defense, Guido Crosetto, of Environment and Energy Security, Gilberto Pichetto Fratin, the head of the Italian delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Lorenzo Cesa, the Chief of Defense Staff, Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, designated as President of the NATO Military Committee starting January 2025.

The centrality of Italy for the wider Mediterranean and the Middle East
“In the past, during the Cold War, the area was somewhat marginal in NATO. Today, however, it has become central in light of the evolution of global geopolitical balances. NATO has recognized the Mediterranean as a geostrategic and geopolitical region primarily on Italian initiative, starting in the 1990s,” declared Lorenzo Cesa, opening the proceedings. Fernando Gutierrez, GSM spokesperson, reinforces: “Russia, China, and Iran pose a challenge to the international order. And the role of the special group is that of an open forum for discussion among NATO and Mediterranean countries, with the ambition to extend the partnership to the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.” The importance of Italy is emphasized by Marcos Perestrello, vice president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly: “Italy contributes to all key priorities of the Alliance and is a leader in promoting regional Mediterranean collaboration.”

Admiral Cavo Dragone: “The current crisis framework enveloping Europe, from north to south, tests not only the effectiveness of our deterrence but is a challenge to the democratic values of the Atlantic Charter. Today’s challenges are two overlapping and transversal hostile activities: the first conventional with ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, the second hybrid, subtle yet pervasive, caused by hyper-competition among major powers, with new technologies operating, not only in the three classic domains but also in space, cyber, as well as at the cognitive and underwater levels, transcending physical boundaries on the battlefield and invading the dynamics of daily life. We must prepare for new conflicts, made of symmetrical and hybrid threats, and to do so, it will be necessary not only to continuously update technology to produce deterrence and neutralize threats before they occur but also to undertake a change in mindset, a concerted action that overcomes differing perceptions within NATO and remedies the attention deficit to the challenges of the South Flank.”

Guido Crosetto, Minister of Defense: “We live in times when it seems we want to return to the law of the strongest, where a nation thinks it can attack another and occupy its territories. We are asked to increase deterrence capacity, not out of a desire for war, but to deter war through deterrence. Investing in defense means investing in the future, because we have forgotten that defense is a prerequisite for democracy. NATO’s attention must also be directed to the South, to what happens in Africa, we cannot only notice crises when they erupt. Africa will have two billion young people in 20 years, without water, hospitals, schools, and jobs, to which are added threats of terrorism and interference from countries like Russia and China. We must face these issues by shedding the arrogance of the West superior to all. If we have been kicked out of Africa, it is because of our attitude. We must look at new interlocutors with respect and help them grow, valuing our history, our achievements of freedom, and democracy.”

Pina Picierno, Vice President of the European Parliament: “Strong relationships and meeting tables with partners are needed for constant political dialogue. Yesterday’s rules do not apply to today’s world, and complex challenges require innovative solutions that place multilateral dialogue at the center. Our security is indivisible and the defense of the Euro-Atlantic space cannot be solely NATO’s. The European Union must be braver, more focused, and decisive in tackling the challenge of common defense. It is not possible to think of Europeanism as a completion of Atlanticism.”

Lorenzo Fontana, President of the Chamber of Deputies: “NATO plays an essential role in this historical period regarding global crisis scenarios and other situations, like terrorism, the increasingly frequent cyber-attacks, or misinformation. Equally important is the

diplomatic role of Italy which has established fruitful relationships even outside the West, starting solid cooperation with Arab and African countries. Parliamentary diplomacy represents a catalyst for bilateral and multilateral relations. It facilitates dialogue, mutual understanding, and the sharing of common values such as freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.”

Gilberto Pichetto Fratin, Minister of Environment and Energy Security: “The concept of energy security is strengthened on both shores of the Mediterranean. But energy security is not just the availability of renewable sources. To push clean energy, we also need to push more autonomously for the materials necessary for green technologies. The International Agency for Green Energy predicts that the global demand for rare earths will increase up to seven times by 2040.”

The three-day meetings in Italy of the Special Mediterranean and Middle East Group (GSM) of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly will close tomorrow in Naples. In view of the parliamentary summit of the leaders of the allied Parliaments and heads of delegation of the NATO Assembly, which will be held in Washington, on July 8 and 9, just before the next NATO summit.