Author: Michaël Tanchum
Affiliated organization: Austria Institut Für Europa- Und Sicherheitspolitik
Type of publication: Focus
Date of publication: October 2020
A geopolitical symbiosis between Italy and Turkey is creating a Turkey-Italy-Tunisia transportation corridor that promises to reconfigure the patterns of trade between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Slicing across the center of the Mediterranean basin, the Turkey-Italy-Tunisia corridor forms an arc of commercial connectivity from the Maghreb to the wider Black Sea. The corridor’s central hub is Italy’s deep-sea port of Taranto, located on the Italian peninsula’s southern tip in the strategic heart of the Mediterranean Sea. Managed by Turkish port operator Yilport, the Taranto port began servicing the Turkey-Italy-Tunisia corridor in early July 2020. The Taranto-Tunisia segment simultaneously forms the core link of the corridor’s Europe-to-Africa transport route, by connecting North Africa’s coast to the manufacturing centers of Italy, Germany, and northern Europe via Italy and Europe’s high-speed rail systems. From Tunisia’s ports, the corridor can also link via Algeria to the Trans-Saharan Highway, potentially extending Italy and Turkey’s Europe-to-Africa corridor southward into West Africa as far as Lagos, Nigeria.
Incorporating Malta and Tunisia as key transit nodes, the corridor is also giving rise to a new Italo-Turkish-led geopolitical alignment anchored in the central Mediterranean basin. The new alignment is a geopolitical achievement for Italy’s rebalancing toward the wider Mediterranean basin where Rome has exerted its strategic autonomy, particularly in its pivot to Africa. In challenging France’s dominance in Africa, Italy has developed a mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey, which has concurrently sought to increase its influence in Africa.
Italy’s Mediterraneo Allargato Strategy and its Pivot to Africa
While Italy maintains its traditional three foreign policy pillars – Europeanism, Atlanticism, and Mediterraneanism, Rome has been attempting to advance its global profile by becoming a central actor in the wider Mediterranean basin. Italy’s strategic framework views the Italian peninsula as the centerline around which exists a horseshoe-shaped geopolitical continuum, termed il Mediterraneo allargato (‘The enlarged Mediterranean’), formed by the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa on one side of the horsehoe and by the Balkans and Middle East on the other. Rome’s strategic priority to expand its economic and political presence in the regions of the Mediterraneo allargato constitutes a central organizing principle for Italy’s foreign relations.
The Taranto-Tunisia segment simultaneously forms the core link of the corridor’s Europe-to-Africa transport route, by connecting North Africa’s coast to the manufacturing centers of Italy, Germany, and northern Europe via Italy and Europe’s high-speed rail systems. From Tunisia’s ports, the corridor can also link via Algeria to the Trans-Saharan Highway, potentially extending Italy and Turkey’s Europe-to-Africa corridor southward into West Africa as far as Lagos, Nigeria
Rome’s rebalancing to the Mediterraneo allargato has resulted in Italy’s pivot to Africa, with greater active involvement in the Maghreb, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. In January 2018, when Italy reassigned troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan to missions in Libya and Niger, then Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti famously explained Italian strategic priorities: “the heart of our interventions is the Mediterraneo allargato, from the Balkans to the Sahel, to the Horn of Africa.”
Placing Italy at the center of a nexus of Mediterranean commercial routes connecting Europe with Africa and the Middle East has been the primary driving force of Italy’s foreign policy reorientation and its exercise of strategic autonomy. For the past two decades, Italy’s trade with the Mediterranean region has shown robust growth, with Italy’s exports to Mediterranean markets outstripping Italian exports to the United States and China respectively.
Italy and Turkey’s Strategic Symbiosis in the Mediterranean
Italy’s Mediterraneo allargato orientation enjoys a strategic synergy with Turkey’s own drive to develop inter-regional connectivity in the roughly overlapping geographical space defined by the former territories of the Ottoman empire. Italy has long been among the strongest advocates of closer EU-Turkey relations and the two enjoy a very robust trade relationship. After Germany, Italy forms the largest European market for Turkish exports, garnering Turkey $9.53 billion in revenue in 2019. With the exception of a conflict of interests concerning Cyrpriot offshore natural gas development, which the two countries have managed to compartmentalize, Italy and Turkey share a broad set of common interests across the wider Mediterranean basin, from the Balkans to North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
Within the Italian-Turkish symbiosis, commercial connectivity with the central Maghreb states Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya forms a core shared interest between Rome and Ankara as both seek to develop a greater economic presence in North Africa and the rest of the continent. Despite Italy’s proximity to the North African coast, France remains the dominant foreign actor in the Maghreb, a region that is increasingly becoming an overland gateway for Euro-Africa commercial relations with the widespread expansion of high speed road networks across the contintent. While Italy has surpassed France in becoming Europe’s second largest manufacturer, whose value of sold production exceeds France’s value by approximately one-third, the development of Italy’s economic relations in North Africa and the rest of Africa are constrained by France’s outsized influence on the pattern of Afro-Mediterranean commercial connectivity.
Placing Italy at the center of a nexus of Mediterranean commercial routes connecting Europe with Africa and the Middle East has been the primary driving force of Italy’s foreign policy reorientation and its exercise of strategic autonomy
Turkey faces an even more formidable challenge in the Mediterranean basin from its systemic rivals France and the UAE. From 2010 to 2016, Ankara opened 26 embassies in Africa as part of its push to expand Turkey’s economic and political footprint across the continent.
Despite making significant trade and investment inroads in Africa, Turkey’s ability to establish its own inter-regional commercial connectivity via North Africa is stymied in the western Mediterranean by Morocco and in the eastern Mediterranean by Egypt – both of whom share deep economic and military ties with France and the UAE. Turkey’s overt military intervention during the first half of 2020 to preserve Libya’s GNA has created an important strategic beachhead for Turkey in the central Maghreb. By reversing the course of Libya’s civil war through empowering the Tripolibased government against opposition forces backed by Egypt, the UAE, France, and Russia, Turkey has cemented its status as a major power in North Africa. Ankara’s considerable air force presence at the re-captured al-Watiyah air base, located 27 km from the Tunisian border, and its developing naval presence in the GNA coastal stronghold of Misrata have increased Ankara’s clout in Tunis as well as in Algiers.
Turkey’s new outsized military presence in Libya now serves as a platform from which Ankara can promote Afro-Mediterranean connectivity via the central Maghreb states in conjunction with Italy, which also backed the GNA and runs a military hospital in Misrata.
Italy and Turkey’s Europe-to-Africa Corridor
The Turkey-Italy-Tunisia commercial corridor is a multi-modal transportation arc that carries the potential to become an organizing principle for commercial connectivity between three continents. The core connectivity arc stretches from Turkey’s major ports on the Aegean to the corridor’s central node at Taranto and, from there, to Malta and the ports of Biserte and Sfax in Tunisia. Leveraging the Italian peninsula’s geographic position and Italy’s high-speed rail system with its connections to the wider European rail network, the corridor has a north-south axis connecting North Africa to major manufacturing and commercial centers of Europe. Connected to five active rail platforms that link directly to Italy’s national rail service, cargo delivered at Taranto can reach Milan within 9 hours and Frankfurt and Stuttgart within 17 hours.
The Taranto-Malta maritime link is also supported by the European Union as the southernmost link in the EU’s own “Scandinavian-Mediterranean Corridor,” one of the nine core network corridors of the European Commission’s Trans-European Transportation Network, or TEN-T, program.
Turkey-Italy-Tunisia corridor. Yilport is a subsidiary of the private family-owned group Yildirim Holding Inc. headed by its visionary chairman Robert Yüksel Yildirim. On July 30, 2019, Yilport entered into a 49- year concession agreement to operate the Taranto port. Although a thriving industrial center during the twentieth century, Taranto declared bankruptcy in 2006, staying in receivership for almost four years. The troubled port changed hands a few times21 until Yilport’s 2019 aquisition.
A Paradigm Shift in the Geopolitics of the Wider Mediterranean Although still in its initial stages, the Turkey-Italy-Tunisia corridor has already begun to rewrite the geopolitical rules of the Meditarranean basin, as witnessed by the shifting positions of Malta and Tunisia. Located equidistant from Tripoli and Tunis, Malta has been drawn into a security partnership with Turkey as Ankara builds up its presence in Libya. In late January 2019, during the initial phase of Turkey’s Libya intervention, a Turkey-Malta Business Council summit convened in Istanbul and called for boosting Turkey-Malta bilateral trade to $1 billion.
By creating a Europe-to-Africa commercial corridor through the central Maghreb, the geopolitical symbiosis between Italy and Turkey has achieved a paradigm shift in Mediterranean geopolitics that is reshaping the contours of NATO’s and the European Union’s strategic agenda
While the summit highlighted the economic potential of Malta and Turkey’s efforts to create AfroMediterranean connectivity, Turkey’s Vice-President Fuat Oktay also gave voice to the growing security dimension of the Turkey-Malta relationship, suggesting “the defense and security sectors in particular” were “strategic areas” for enhancing Turkey-Malta cooperation. By May 2020, Malta withdrew from Operation Irini, the EU’s naval effort to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya, which can potentially impede Turkey’s sea delivery of weapons to the GNA. Subsequently, Turkey and the GNA have engaged in close security cooperation with Malta concering illegal migration and illicit trafficking.
The Turkey-Italy-Tunisia commercial corridor, with its central hub at Italy’s Taranto port, may establish the developing Italo-Turkish-led alignment as a lasting feature of Mediterranean geopolitics. Italy’s assertion of strategic autonomy in the wider Mediterranean and its developing partnership with Turkey occur within the framework of Italy’s NATO and EU commitments. Taranto is both home to an important NATO naval base and services the EU’s own Scandinavian-Mediterranean transportation connectivity program. By creating a Europe-to-Africa commercial corridor through the central Maghreb, the geopolitical symbiosis between Italy and Turkey has achieved a paradigm shift in Mediterranean geopolitics that is reshaping the contours of NATO’s and the European Union’s strategic agenda.
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