Italy likes to think of itself as crucial to setting Europe’s agenda on the Mediterranean. In recent years, Russia’s presence in Syria and Libya – not to mention China’s eyeing of ports around the Med – has made the body of water shared by Europe, Africa and the Middle East an increasingly significant space in geopolitics. These realities underpinned the annual Rome Med conference, which took place from 1 to 3 December – as did Italy’s long-standing belief that more co-operation between Europe and its wider Mediterranean neighbourhood is necessary to address their common challenges. The gathering brought together heads of state, foreign ministers, parliamentarians, business leaders, civil society figures, policy wonks and think-tankers from across the Mediterranean region. More than 1,000 participants from at least 50 countries attended this year.
The conference has long been the kind of event at which you might see Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, conferring in the corridors with a European foreign minister; or where you might catch a heated debate on migration or climate action. There was no Russian delegation present this year: the Ukraine war informed many of the discussions, with subjects ranging from energy transition to looming food insecurity.
In the opening session, Italy’s foreign minister, Antonio Tajani (pictured), argued that Russian aggression had made Europe’s southern neighbourhood even more important. The theme of this year’s Rome Med, “Weathering the Storms: Interdependence, Resilience and Co-operation”, nodded to the wider regional fallout from both the coronavirus pandemic and the Ukraine war. Many attendees from elsewhere in the region were keen to get a sense of how Italy’s approach to the Middle East and North Africa might shift under its new right-wing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. Is Meloni fully on board with the idea that shared challenges around the Mediterranean require shared solutions? The jury is still out.