Portuguese foreign policy has several priorities and all of them are well defined: the European integration; the transatlantic connection; the relationship with Africa and Latin America and with all the Portuguese-speaking countries; the bond with the Portuguese communities abroad; the internationalization of the Portuguese Economy, Language and Culture. The focus on the Mediterranean results naturally from the point of Europe’s intersection, specifically its southern flank, with the vast region of North Africa and the Middle East.
With this priority in mind, I recently made bilateral visits to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria and participated in the Limassol meeting of the so-called Med-7 Group, which is the informal regular meeting platform between the Foreign Ministers of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus. The same priority is also the basis for Portugal’s action in the frame of the European Union's southern neighborhood policy, advocating stronger relations with the Maghreb countries and the firmest commitment to stabilize Libya through a national dialogue process.
Our rapport with each of the Arab countries of North Africa is important on several accounts: the obvious historical and geographical reasons, not least the physical proximity between Lisbon and Rabat; the levels of trade and investment already achieved, as Morocco is currently Portugal’s second client in Africa and the fifth outside the EU, and Algeria is, respectively, the third and sixth; the potential for growth of the economic ties, both in terms of investment and exports – and thus these markets’ importance for the internationalization of the Portuguese economy and the diversification of its destinations and partnerships; the cultural connections from which stand out the Portuguese lectureships in Moroccan, Tunisian and Egyptian universities, the project for Portuguese integration as an optional language in Tunisian secondary education curricula and the cooperation in the cultural heritage domain.
But even more important are the political and security factors. And these should be perceived multilaterally as they touch directly Europe’s interaction with North Africa and the Middle East.
That is, they relate specifically to the Mediterranean as such. The ongoing political processes –such as the democratic transition in Tunisia, already generally institutionalized, the reforms in Morocco or the stabilization in Egypt – affect the whole region. The acute crisis in Libya and its vulnerability to Daesh’s progress and, a little further south, the several sources of instability in the Sahel, the persistent Palestinian problem, the conflicts between regional powers in the Gulf, the disintegration of Syria and the huge pressure it places on countries like Iraq or Lebanon, are other epicenters of insecurity, with devastating effects on international order.
Here are the roots and the nesting sites of the most feared terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda or Daesh - and their connections with certain social, political and theocratic groups in the European Union are well known. The humanitarian dimension of these problems is catastrophic and the pressure stemming from uncontrolled migration cannot be stopped without addressing them. For all this, it can well be said that Europe’s southern security borders lie across the whole of the Mediterranean.
The relentless fight against violent extremism and terrorism does not, of course, dispense from the humanitarian aid to those who are its victims and of the autocracies that attack their own people, as well as of civil wars and interethnic and interreligious conflicts. But it can neither dispense from the political and diplomatic intervention in favor of political dialogue, securization and stabilization, institutional capacity building, respect for human rights, religious freedom and confessional plurality, protection of minorities and the peaceful resolution of conflicts, within and between the various countries surrounding the Mediterranean.
Portugal’s voice and initiative make sense, first of all, within the framework of the United Nations and the European Union. But our participation is also vital in the fora that link southern Europe and the Maghreb (such as the 5 + 5 Dialogue, which brings together, on the one side, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Malta and, on the other, Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) or reinforce contacts between the European Mediterranean nations (such as the aforementioned Med-7 group).
And it is essential to reinforce the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), of which Portugal is a member along with 42 other countries, being the only international organization in which Israel and Palestine may dialogue.
There is no shortage of work. From my point of view, resetting relations with Egypt is now a priority at the bilateral level. Therefore, I’m preparing an official visit there later this year, which may give a new impetus both to the political-institutional rapport and to trade links; and, in multilateral terms, work in favor of an immediate solution that brings political stabilization and security to Libya, as well as developing in the short term the work of the UfM.
The start of the Euro-Mediterranean University in Fez is set for the next school year, in the framework of the UfM. May it symbolize the path everyone needs to follow on all other levels: the gathering and converging of the various civilizations and cultures that make up the Mediterranean. Peace and development shall only profit from that.
* The writer is Minister of Foreign Affairs of Portugal