COP 28. An Anachronistic Model

The Intertwined Destinies of Europe and North Africa

Climate change, which governments and NGOs are expected to tackle at COP 28 in Dubai, calls for reflection on the interdependence of societies, particularly in the Mediterranean. In this context, migration policies, in particular, which seek to turn Europe into a fortress, seem to run counter to the profound dynamics observed.

Remains of charred trees in the aftermath of a forest fire near the town of Melloula in northwestern Tunisia close to the border with Algeria on July 26, 2023
Fethi Belaïd/AFP

A warming world is blending the climates of the northern and southern Mediterranean. The resulting space is ever more interdependent1, even as European politicians scramble to push their Arab and African neighbors away. A boiling summer underscores just how futile—and brutal—this posture has become.

Southern Europe and North Africa are staring down mirror image environmental threats. July saw record setting temperatures on both shores; wildfires tore through the forests of Tunisia and Algeria, just as they claimed lives in Greece and Italy. While North Africa is accustomed to extremes, such crises appear set to grow in frequency and intensity—and in their ability to hop the Mediterranean and creep north into Europe.

From agriculture to migration

A hostile climate brings with it growing concerns of food and water security, as drought and erratic weather patterns strain agricultural production in North Africa and Europe alike. European states, however, are better placed to cope with this stress—not least by importing crops (and, by extension, water) from their southern neighbors. Indeed, with water scarcity straining Europe’s ability to satisfy its own appetite for thirsty crops—including the iconic avocado—the continent may lean more heavily on North African producers like Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. For the latter states, such exports provide a welcome influx of foreign currency, but rack up hidden costs in water and food security.

Energy, too, may increasingly knit the continents together—albeit in a similarly lopsided relationship. As Europe rushes to secure its energy supply and transition away from fossil fuels, it is eyeing multiple resources to the south: from the critical minerals in Sub-Saharan Africa to the sun, land, and water needed to generate solar and, potentially, hydrogen power in North African countries. But this, too, poses the thorny question: Can Europe benefit from Africa’s resources without straining African nations’ own supplies of food, water, and energy?

Finally, as the climate is heating up, so is migration—and Europe’s increasingly militarized response to it. In June 2023, the European border agency logged 29,240 “irregular border crossings”: the highest one-month total since 2016, and a 40% increase from June 2022. While it is difficult to draw a direct line from climate change to migration, it is harder still to ignore the ways that extreme weather might ratchet up pressure for desperate people to get on the move.

Egypt and Tunisia, a textbook case

Just take Egypt, which was among the leading countries of origin for migrants crossing the central Mediterranean in 2023; faces burgeoning crises of food and water security; is acutely exposed to diverse climate threats, not least the risk that a rising Mediterranean will swamp or salinize much of the Nile Delta; and whose population—the Arab world’s largest at over 100 million—is expanding almost as fast as its economy is contracting.

In parallel, the combination of extreme weather and intensifying crackdowns may render migration pathways ever more dangerous. Hence the nightmarish scenes this summer in Tunisia, where an increasingly authoritarian regime—having struck a deal with the EU to crack down on migration in exchange for an influx of euros —stranded hundreds of African migrants in a scorching no-man’s land along its borders with Libya and Algeria.

All of this casts harsh light on a European posture that boils down to two tenets: Suppressing Arab and African migration while drawing on pockets of African resources to solidify Europe’s own access to food, water, and energy. While this dual policy of containment and extraction is not new, the climate crisis may render it ever more explosive and self-defeating: If land, water, and energy are sucked from the southern Mediterranean to the north, that is yet another reason for cash-strapped, climate-hit societies to take to the seas.

The answer to this riddle is as plain in principle as it is elusive in practice: The shared threat of a warming Mediterranean can only be managed through partnership, development, and forward thinking—by contrast with the insular, reactionary politics that seem to be spreading relentlessly.

1« The Mediterranean Crush », Peter Harling, Synaps, 10 juillet 2017.