We could call it “blue sovereignism,” with a Libyan flavor but with Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ingredients.
If we follow the current dispute over red prawn fishing and where it leads, it brings us back not only to old issues, but also to a recent reality: the Mediterranean has become a disputed sea as it has not been since the days of the Cold War, where the protagonists are the old ex-colonial powers and the losers of the past are claiming large portions of the sea.
Russia is not at all unhappy with the tensions: it has bases in Syria and would like to have another on the coast in Egypt or Cyrenaica, where it is present with the Wagner mercenary company.
Libya—which is neither unified nor sovereign, but is occupied in both parts, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, by foreign powers and militias—has found its sponsor in Erdogan, who has exchanged his military protection against General Haftar for economic agreements on maritime areas, with an undeclared but explicit goal: to push Italy out, after the words of Prime Minister Draghi calling Erdogan a “dictator.”
This is the key difference compared to the past, which also featured tensions and vessel seizures between Italian and Libyan fishing boats. Turkey had already made it clear that it considers the sea in front of Tripolitania an area within its sphere of influence, and it is no coincidence that it has photographed its military officers on patrol boats donated by Italy to Tripoli.
Erdogan does not do anything by chance. If he encourages the Libyans to flex their muscles with the Italian fishermen, it is because he has no intention of withdrawing from Libya, as Foreign Minister Cavusoglu claims. And he intends to strengthen his claims in the eastern Mediterranean, where he is disputing the exclusive economic zones of Greece and Cyprus for offshore gas extraction. There, he is up against a coalition consisting of Athens and Nicosia as well as France, Egypt, Israel and the Emirates.
The fishing game has much more at stake than red prawn. The Italian authorities, who have been negotiating for some time on the maritime borders with Algeria and Turkey, are perfectly aware of this. But our diplomacy is as subtle and elusive as a fish that isn’t taking the bait, and when it sees trouble coming, it immediately finds a scapegoat.
In the end, for our authorities, the Italian fishermen are to blame, according to a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry. Thus, the fishing boat Aliseo, with a crew of seven, whose captain Giuseppe Giacalone was wounded by shots fired by a Libyan patrol boat from Misrata, should not have been there because the area, according to the Foreign Ministry, “is highly dangerous.”
The attack was preceded this week by another boarding attempt against Italian fishing boats from the coast of Cyrenaica, controlled by Khalifa Haftar. The episode brought back the memory of the sailors taken captive, who were released in December only after a delegation led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister di Maio had to go to Cyrenaica. It was an unprecedented mission in the history of the Italian Republic.
But what is happening off the coast of Libya and Tripolitania, under Erdogan’s protectorate?
Let’s look at the claims of the Libyans and how they’ve justified them ever since the days of Gaddafi. The Aliseo incident took place about 35 miles off the Libyan coast between Tripoli and Misrata, within the reserved fishing zone claimed by Libya in 2005, which extends for 62 miles beyond the 12-mile territorial waters.
The conflict is between those who consider the attempted seizure of the Italian vessel illegitimate because it took place in an area of Libyan jurisdiction which is not internationally recognized, and those who instead consider that fishing in areas claimed by Libya is illegitimate without the consent of the coastal state.
The latter theory is bolstered by the fact that in 2009, Libya declared an exclusive economic zone extended “up to the limits allowed by international law,” which Italy has not really contested. By declaring the fishing zone a “high risk” one and promising to avoid trespassing, it has already recognized some of Tripoli’s claims.
All this can only make Erdogan happy, who is more and more committed to strengthening ties with the western part of Libya at the expense of Italy. Misrata, once our outpost and where we still operate a military field hospital, is now firmly in the hands of Turkey.
For us, not only is the Mediterranean no longer Mare Nostrum, but it is becoming a political-diplomatic quagmire. This was inevitable, since Italy, Europe and the U.S. have turned the southern shore of the sea into a sort of waste dumping ground for human rights, refugees and all human dignity.
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