NATO PA seminar in Barcelona highlights shared challenges, interconnectedness of security in the Mediterranean

23 November 2021

➡️ Photos of the seminar

“Stability in the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel region is essential, and the transatlantic community is not immune to sometimes dramatic developments” in this expansive and complex region. With these words, Sonia Krimi, a French parliamentarian and Chairperson of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group (GSM), kicked off a large parliamentary seminar hosted by the Spanish Parliament in Barcelona. The interconnectedness of security was a key theme underlying the discussions, which engaged not only parliamentarians from Europe and the MENA region, but also senior government officials, diplomats, experts, and university students.   

Stressing the importance of dialogue both within and with the region, the Spanish Minister of Defence, Margarita Robles Fernandez, told the audience through a video message that “the Mediterranean should be a place of peace and dialogue. We must work tirelessly to ensure that countries around the Mediterranean leave aside their differences and focus on what we share. NATO’s role is key to that effort”, she added.  

Irregular migration is one of the challenges which Europe and its southern neighbours must address together. Ignacio Fuente, from the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies at the Ministry of Defence laid out the key drivers of migration from the MENA region to Europe. These include divergent demographic trends, widening wealth gaps, geographic proximity, conflict, climate change and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic. These factors also affect the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa differently and might in time also lead to increased intra-regional migration, Mr Fuente noted.  

Irregular migration routes to Europe are constantly changing. When migration recently became more difficult in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Western Mediterranean underwent a dramatic upsurge of migration flows. This had immediate implications for Spain, which has experienced increases of illegal migration including to the Canary Islands and the autonomous cities of Melilla and Ceuta on the North African coast.  

Democratic aspirations and setbacks were another key theme throughout the seminar. Ander Gil Garcia, Speaker of the Spanish Senate, suggested that “The defence of democracy and its principles does not end at the EU’s borders. Our peoples, as well as sharing a common neighborhood, also face shared challenges, and, of course, some hope. One of these is for the democratisation of the countries on the other side of the Mediterranean”. He supported the Assembly’s proposal to establish a Democratic Resilience Centre within NATO Headquarters to serve as a clearinghouse of best practices and cross-fertilisation on democratic benchmarks for NATO members, partners and aspirants. 

Discussing the situation in Tunisia, where President Kais Saied has suspended parliament, Monica Marks, a professor at NYU in Abu Dhabi, noted that the country enters the winter with no parliament, broken democratic procedures, and a highly vulnerable economy that has only worsened as a result of the pandemic. Vincent Geisser, a Researcher at the CNRS Institute for Research and Studies on Arab and Muslim Worlds (IREMAM) told the gathering that “The limits, jolts and dysfunctions of Tunisian democratisation also point to political weaknesses and democratic vulnerabilities in Europe and North America. Our best response is to lead by example,” he added.   

Participants welcomed NATO’s political dialogue and cooperation with countries in the region in addressing shared challenges.  

Meritxell Batet Lamaña, Speaker of the Congress of Deputies, noted that, “In the Mediterranean, we have yet to guarantee the minimum security, a necessary condition for coexistence and development in freedom. For this reason, we need the involvement of our most effective instruments for the defence of collective and individual security. And at the forefront of these instruments is NATO with its various capabilities and tools”. 

Giovanni Romani, the Head of NATO’s Middle East and North Africa Section, described NATO’s multiple tools of engagement with countries and organisations in the region, from Mauritania to the Gulf. NATO allies will also address relations with the MENA region in the new strategic concept currently under development. A NATO PA GSM report on Iraq, authored by Ahmet Berat Conkar (Turkey) and adopted at the Barcelona meeting, identified the NATO Training Mission in Iraq as another illustration of how allies can assist countries confronting complex crises to lay the foundations for peace, security, and development.  

Iran’s continued interference in Iraq’s domestic political affairs remains a key challenge, although recent elections in Iraq suggest mounting public fatigue with Iran’s interference. Iranian leaders remain determined to establish “strategic depth” through proxies operating in the region. Tehran’s continued meddling thus has a strategic rationale that explains its persistence, suggested Thierry Coville, a Research Fellow at the French Research Centre for International and Strategic Studies. 

At the same time, negotiations continue on ways to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), while a realignment is underway in the Gulf that has fostered reconciliation with Qatar, open engagement with Israel and a limited dialogue with Iran itself, suggested Neil Quilliam, Associate Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.  

During the two day-meeting, participants also discussed the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict; Security and Diplomatic Challenges in the Sahel; Human Security in the MENA Region; and the Conflict in Libya.  The Barcelona meeting brought together over 50 legislators from 24 Allied and MENA countries. The Sub-Committee on NATO Partnerships, chaired by Marcos Perestrello (Portugal), partnered with the GSM for this meeting.  

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