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Opening remarks by Minister Di Maio at the 6th Rome MED Dialogues

Welcome to the sixth edition of the Rome MED Mediterranean Dialogues, promoted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). I would like to thank Ambassador Massolo, the Executive Vice-President, Mr. Magri, and the whole ISPI team. They and the Ministry worked relentlessly to organize, under circumstances we would never expect, this year’s edition of MED in a fully virtual format.

After five years, we can say we have restored a leading role for Rome as the venue of the most important international forum on the Mediterranean. We are very proud of that and we are keen on doing better every year.

 MED Dialogues will focus on four key topics:  shared prosperity, migration, shared security, culture and civil society. In each of those essential areas, COVID-19 suddenly added its burden to previous sources of regional instability, long-term weaknesses and too many unsolved disputes.

What we have now is an extremely fragile situation in the enlarged Mediterranean. The economy is suffering and the social order is under pressure. Having been always complex in its nature, today the regional scenario displays a very high level of polarization.

That is the result of an interaction between long-standing crisis fueled by internal fragmentation, and the evolution in geopolitical and ideological competition. Whereas we already have had traditional dichotomies, we now add a renewed scramble for bodies of seawater and resources therein.

In every crisis we have across the region we can see the adverse impact of such a heterogeneous fuel of instability.

Let us start with Libya. It is essential to ensure the unity, the integrity and the full sovereignty of this country. We must achieve a comprehensive political solution, in order to overcome the current deadlock and to benefit all the Libyan people. Many months of conflict exhausted the population, worsened the economic conditions of the Country and put the integrity of the country at risk.

[But] finally, on October 23rd the Libyans put an end to hostilities, concluding a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire agreement, in the framework of the Berlin Process and under the leadership of the UN. In this perspective, we welcome the significant outcome of the meeting in Tunis of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).

Now we have a roadmap to overcome the Libyan crisis. We see a chance for a new unified governance framework representing all the Libyan regions. We envisage a process towards national, credible, inclusive and democratic elections to be held next year, on December 24th. Against these positive developments, it is important to keep on progressing on the military track as well.

Safeguarding this space of dialogue the Libyans have been able to set under the auspices of UNSMIL is essential. The whole international community must stay vigilant in order to prevent any foreign or internal interference that might spoil it. [But], of course, the stabilization of Libya and restoring the rule-of-law on all its territory hold a special place among the core interests of Italy, even beyond the bilateral dimension.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the Turkish assertiveness has a political impact on Libya, as well as on Cyprus, Iraq, and Syria. Prospects of regional energy cooperation are affected too. Italy and the EU have called on Turkey to refrain from unilateral actions in the Eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, we have been stressing the need to pursue a constructive but earnest dialogue with Ankara, according to the European Council timeframe. Being an important NATO ally, we expect Turkey to give its contribution to stability, predictability and security in the region. These are essential conditions for a mutually beneficial cooperation.

As for the latest developments in the relationship between Israel and Arab countries, we consider the “Abraham Accords” a positive contribution to stability, peace in the Middle East. We are confident they will bring more development and prosperity to the region as well.

Here you immediately grasp all the strength diplomacy is capable of, no matter how much complicated a situation is on the ground.

However, there is no doubt that resuming the MEPP [Middle East Peace Process] through direct negotiation between the parties remains crucial to ensure a lasting peace to the region, with a just, sustainable and viable two-State solution in line with international law.

Italy is ready to engage directly. In the last few weeks, I have been to Israel, Palestine and the United Arab Emirates. [And] I am planning more visits in the region soon.

In the Gulf region, we face precisely such a complicated, heterogeneous and volatile situation among and within countries in the region. Let me start with Iraq. It is a strategic country for the stability of the whole MENA region. Italy and the EU remain committed to strengthening Iraqi institutions, despite all the risks and difficulties stemming from internal insecurity as well as from the fragile economic situation.

In Syria, Italy continues to support the UN-led political process in Geneva. We uphold all its efforts to make progress in the works of the Constitutional Committee, as well as on all other issues, starting from the release of detainees.

Then, allow me few words about Yemen, where day after day, it is getting more urgent to overcome the current deadlock and to achieve significant progress in the political process to settle the conflict in the country, whose geopolitical importance is too often neglected.

Few kilometers, across the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, divides Yemen from the Horn of Africa, where tensions erupted again into conflict in Tigray region, and the southern rim of the Sahel region. There, another big share of stability and prosperity both in Europe and the enlarged Mediterranean is at stake.

Moving to Iran, there is growing concern about the fate of the JCPoA, after the withdrawal of the US and Teheran’s disapplication of its obligations under the agreement. We know how much fragile the nuclear agreement is right now. At the same time, we continue to acknowledge its value for the regional stability and non-proliferation. For Italy and the EU partners, it is important to restore a full implementation of the JCPoA. We appeal to the sense of responsibility from the Iranian side, while we wait for the new administration in Washington to clarify its position on this matter.

Of course, many people across Europe and the world are wondering how American foreign policy might change in the coming years.

I do not expect a return to the past. For too long in Europe, we have shunned our responsibility and relied solely on the United States for our regional security. Actually, we gave the US a kind of permanent proxy over the resolution of all disputes across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This era is most likely over now.

This does not mean that we should let in other external powers, whose interests are opaque, when not overtly diverging from ours. We can opt for cooperation, but we need commitment and adequate governance tools.

I believe in the value of a cooperative approach. The pandemic reminds us just how important it is, in order to cope with all the direct and indirect consequences of such a global challenge.

Because of COVID-19, nowadays the enlarged Mediterranean has been facing social and economic vulnerability, overall. According to the IMF, the GDP in the region is expected to decrease by 5.7% this year, but those countries in conflict situation might lose up to 13%. [And] the drop in the oil price has not helped either.  It is a “double shock”.

We also have more social fragmentation. The pandemic further affected the unemployment rate in the region. Here, more than a quarter of its young people and more than a third of its women were outside the labor market already.

As the pandemic has been worsening the economic situation in Africa, human trafficking is profiting by the increase in migratory movements towards Europe. Against this backdrop, we have reacted by proposing more cooperation on migration to North African countries. This is a multifaceted problem. We believe we need a multifaceted approach to address it.

Nonetheless, Italy has stood at the forefront of rescue operations and assistance of migrants, responding to a moral obligation and to the international law. Safeguarding human dignity is our priority. There cannot be any compromise on this basic principle of individual rights protection. At the same time, we cannot overlook the security of our local communities back at home as well.

In order to achieve progress, we need to foster the dialogue among all the countries involved in the migrations flows, from those of origin to those of transit and final destination. We must count on responsibility and transparency from all parties. We are taking the initiative, but in exchange for that, we demand clear cooperation and factual commitment.

The very same attitude should apply to all the regional stakeholders in order to fight and eradicate terrorism. Addressing the root causes of many hybrid and transnational threats is essential to promote peace, stability and development across the enlarged Mediterranean. But it is not enough.

In spite of the growing polarization and its relevant risks, we need to keep the dialogue among regional actors alive and active, taking full advantage of those governance institutions we have in the area, being them older or brand-new.

We know we have many hard challenges ahead of us in the enlarged Mediterranean. We want to cope with them, by taking advantage of a regular dialogue among equal partners on both shores. Inclusion is part of the solution. That is the Italian strategy.

We know geopolitical projection alone would not be enough to keep Italy essential to any arrangement in the enlarged Mediterranean, driving its governance towards cooperation. However, we will not lack determination and diplomatic initiative to this purpose. Any orderly solution to the disputes we have in the Mediterranean would require a substantial contribution from Italy, for all the regional stakeholders to take their advantages and refrain from recriminations.

We have resources and assets. We offer training and institutional capacity building in the welfare and economic domain. We put on the table cooperation schemes in many fields, such as health, energy, science and culture. We have diplomatic capacity, economic and commercial dynamism.  

Italy goods and services trade with MENA region totaled more than 61 billion Euros in 2019. 43% of it was with North Africa only. Exports were almost 30 billion Euros, amounting to 6.2% of the Italian exports, overall. [But] we can do definitely better.

However, a joint effort of the EU as a whole is necessary in order to promote such an ambitious positive agenda for our common space. Since its launch in 2004, Italy has been arguing for an effective European Neighborhood Policy, bringing the EU closer to its partners from North Africa. We want to foster the creation of a wide area for shared prosperity, stability and good governance across the Mediterranean. 

We have proposed a new approach, based on a joint management of what we call the “Mediterranean common goods”. We refer to all those resources, both tangible and intangible, to be shared by every country in the region within the framework of a great “Southern Partnership”.

We would follow the principle of “more-for-more”. We wish to create incentives for countries of the Southern Mediterranean to give their contribution to the stability and the security of the whole region, starting from the fight against terrorism and human trafficking.

Stability and security in the Southern Neighborhood are also essential from the transatlantic perspective. This means more political dialogue and technical cooperation between NATO and its partners in the Southern Mediterranean and the Sahel region.

Both the transatlantic and the European strategies in the MENA region share the same values and general interests. Such a fundamental concurrence must be visible and lead again the international cooperation within the global UN multilateral initiatives.  

In this respect, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers quite an opportunity. It is a framework for action to the Italian Cooperation in countries from the Southern Mediterranean. It can also bring a new thematic focus to update older tools of regional cooperation, such as the Union for the Mediterranean. The day after tomorrow, we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Declaration.

I am referring, for instance, to initiatives aimed at fostering the environmental protection, the circular economy and the conservation of resources, starting from energy resources.

The energy issue is key for many countries in the MENA region, being among the biggest producers and exporters of fossil fuels overall. I have no doubt the world is on the verge of a major competition on this field.

The importance of natural gas fields offshore the Eastern Mediterranean has been growing. [And] the risk of new sources of conflict goes hand-in-hand. On the contrary, we aim at sharing those precious resources in an equitable manner beneficial to all. 

To this purpose, we will uphold any opportunity for dialogue and coordination among all interested parties, such as the East Mediterranean Gas Forum.

The EMGF has been established to discuss common policies on the exploitation of natural gas from the seabed in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is a coordination effort in order to maximize the benefit for all the stakeholders, being them countries of production, transit or consumption.

In the longer term, there is a clear and widely shared interest to achieve energy transition towards renewable sources, to develop electrical interconnections and hydrogen technologies. Many Italian companies are at the cutting edge of all those technologies and there is a huge potential for development in the whole MENA region. We aim at becoming the “green energy bridge” between Europe and the MENA region, bringing more prosperity and growth to all its peoples as well.

The “green economy” and energy transition are key in our strategy to promote growth in the countries from the southern shore of the Mediterranean.  Supporting local SMEs and creating local jobs boost positive expectations. [And] I believe this lays the foundation for an inclusive and sustainable path to more investment and development.

That is precisely what we want to achieve in the Maghreb countries. We have been focusing on technical and financial assistance to selected manufacturing sectors, where we see a potential for applying the best industrial and environmental standards. We have been supporting vocational and professional training programs.

We have been backing the establishment of bilateral partnerships and networks aimed at knowledge and experience sharing, also by means of regular business forum in the region.

I am very much confident of the potential for growth in the whole North Africa, whose complementarity with the Italian economy is a fact. Therefore, we plan to expand our cooperation further, including by means of scientific and cultural diplomacy. We will focus on innovation and start-up incubation, where we feel we can take advantage of the entrepreneurial talent of many young Maghrebi, who just want to build up a better future for their family at home.

However, for all these initiatives to bear fruit, it is essential to involve and pay due attention to civil society. Its contribution to the stability of the enlarged Mediterranean and the promotion of more inclusive societies therein is today all the more important.

In this respect, I would like to spend few words on the role of women and their significant contribution to peace, development and human rights in the region.  Italy is at their side. In 2017, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation launched The Mediterranean Women Mediators Network. Once again, MED Dialogues also offered a platform for the active involvement of civil society. As in every past edition, we have hosted a series of preparatory events, opening the debate to thousands of people connected from countries in the MENA region.

With all of them, we engaged in a discussion over the future of the enlarged Mediterranean. How do we envisage it? How should we build it back better after the pandemic? I wish MED Dialogues to keep such a constructive and forward-looking spirit. We have two additional keywords for this sixth edition: healing and reconstructing.

In this regard, please allow me a last digression to give my country full credit for its commitment to the noble cause of universal and equitable access to vaccines, tests and treatment for COVID-19. Against such extraordinary circumstances we are living in, we must consider health as a global interest and a universal good, accessible to all people in all countries. We all feel the need to move on quickly in this direction. With this in mind, Italy and the European Commission will host a “Global Health Summit” in 2021.  

In fact, because of the pandemic, we have found ourselves with the once-in-a-generation chance to design a different, better world. In doing that, economic, social and environmental sustainability should be our guiding principle. In the coming months, Italy will have a special responsibility in leading the international coordination in this direction. In 2021, we will hold the co-Presidency of UNFCCC COP26 and the G20 Presidency. Our ambition is to make the enlarged Mediterranean a laboratory for this evolutionary process. It is about caring for “people” and safeguarding the “planet”, so as to lay the best foundation for a shared “prosperity” among nations and through generations.

There is still space for dialogue and common solutions to common problems in the enlarged Mediterranean.

Now I am glad to declare MED Dialogues 2020 officially open. I wish you all a fruitful discussion.

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