Both Turkey’s and Italy’s strategic centers lie outside the Mediterranean, in particular the North Atlantic and Europe, where their major alliances, namely NATO and EU, are located. Their gravitation towards these centers has involved the two countries in policy frameworks in the Mediterranean initiated by those alliances, such as the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the Union for the Mediterranean. This situation has been altered by the end of the Cold War and the weakening of the alliances’ rationales and, even more so, by the post-September 11 American decision to intervene militarily in the Middle East. This intervention has shifted Turkey’s and Italy’s focus in their southern approaches from the Mediterranean to the Middle East. While Italy’s shift is peripheral with respect to its foreign policy strategy and is mostly an opportunistic move, Turkey’s shift may have a more structural significance and bring about changes in its strategic posture. Cooperation between Turkey and Italy in the Mediterranean and the Middle East involves less strategic-intense areas, such as developing structured economic cooperation in the area, support for small and medium sized firms, transport and energy security. In this sense, the Union for the Mediterranean, if duly reformed, could offer opportunities for expanding cooperation.
Turkey- Italy bilateral relations, EU, Middle East, Union for the Mediterranean.
Turkey and Italy enjoy very good and cooperative relations, both bilaterally and in the framework of numerous international organizations and alliances to which they both belong. Both countries happen to have important historical and, currently, relevant geopolitical interests with respect to their southern neighbors in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This article considers Turkey’s and Italy’s relations with the Mediterranean and the Middle East with a view to understand the similarities and differences in their strategic and policy approaches to southern areas and the two countries’ ensuing prospects for cooperation as well as disagreement.
The relative importance of the Mediterranean and the Middle East in Turkish and Italian grand strategies and foreign policies has traditionally depended on the significance of the two areas for the major alliances to which they both belong, namely NATO and the European Union (EU). In this sense, neither the Mediterranean nor the Middle East can have a central strategic significance for Turkey or Italy. The center is in the West and Europe, and the Mediterranean and the Middle East are bound to be, to a varying extent, peripheral to the former.
Until the end of the Cold War, the Mediterranean was undoubtedly more important for Turkey and Italy than the Middle East, consistent with the policies of their major alliances, which largely included the Mediterranean and stayed aloof of the Middle East. Beside their important political and economic bilateral relations in the Mediterranean, Turkey and Italy engaged in successive Euro-Mediterranean policies: the Euro- Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) from 1995-2008, and, since 2008, the emerging Union for the Mediterranean (UFM). Furthermore, they are also engaged in the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue.
In the 2000s, developments in the international and domestic arenas contributed to promoting shifts in the balance between the Mediterranean and the Middle East for both the alliances and the two countries. These shifts were not promoted by the alliances, which merely tried to adjust to them. However, neither the NATO-initiated Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) towards the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), nor the long-standing EU-GCC relationship managed to expand the Euro-Atlantic alliances’ outreach to the Middle East. As a matter of fact, the alliances did not really move from the Mediterranean. The later shifts were promoted by the United States alone and with the initiatives it took in response to the September 11 attacks. In agreement or disagreement with the United States, Turkey and Italy began to look towards the Middle East. They are now doing so to an extent that seems unprecedented in the post- World War II era, an extent that is rather reminiscent of historical times.
The question is whether Turkey’s and Italy’s shift towards the Middle East remains in tune with or contradicts their central strategic tenets. The present situation confronts us with the question of how the changing balance between the Mediterranean and the Middle East is reflected in Turkey’s and Italy’s foreign policies and grand strategies. Are the two countries’ policies a harbinger of alterations in the grand strategies of the alliances or are they going to collide with those of their long-standing allies? Are the ongoing changes bringing Turkey and Italy nearer or further away from one another?
Against this backdrop, this article highlights the role of the Mediterranean in Turkish and Italian respective interests. Then, it illustrates the shifts that are taking place as a consequence of new developments in the 2000s and the impact of such shifts on the two countries’ strategies and policies. Finally, it looks into the consequences on the two countries’ relations that could stem from current shifts in the balance between Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Euro-Mediterranean interests.