The Mediterranean is undergoing a monumental political transformation. Protests on its southern shores have now begun the process of bringing democracy to this region. Less visibly, perhaps, the Mediterranean is also undergoing another revival, equally important in terms of geo-economics.
The changes in the global balance of power from the West to the East, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, is making both the US and Europe apprehensive. Their loss of geopolitical and economic power is evident. Although the future geopolitical behavior of the rising new powers — Brazil, China, and India — remains uncertain, this shift could nonetheless provide an opportunity for the Mediterranean.
With the world focused on the West, the Atlantic region dominated the last three centuries. In a world focused on the East, however, the main linkages are the Pacific and Indian Oceans and, given today’s close relationship between Asia and Europe, the Mediterranean Sea.
Indeed, the container traffic between the Far East and Europe now totals 18 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) per year, compared to 20 million TEUs of annual Trans-Pacific traffic and just 4.4 million TEUs of Trans-Atlantic flows between Europe and the US. The container flow between the Far East and Europe uses the Mediterranean route via the Suez Canal — far faster than passing through the Panama Canal, circumnavigating Africa, or even taking the hypothetical (for now) ice-free Arctic route.
Despite the supremacy of the Mediterranean route for container traffic between Europe and the Far East, 72 percent of goods entering the EU Union do so via northern European ports (for example, Le Havre, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Bremen and Hamburg), whereas only 28 percent enter via southern European ports such as Barcelona, Marseille, Valencia, and Genoa. More than half the containers bound for Milan from the Far East are unloaded in northern European ports.
In other words, most ships from the Far East enter the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal and sail straight past Genoa, Marseille, Barcelona and Valencia, adding three days to the trip to reach Rotterdam or Hamburg. Unloading at an Atlantic port instead of a southern European port thus entails substantial additional financial and environmental costs, eroding Europe’s competitiveness.
Indeed, according to one study of the Port of Barcelona, the optimal distribution of container flow in economic and environmental terms would be 37 percent to the northern European ports and 63 percent to those in Southern Europe, given the final destination and origin of imported and exported goods. Based partly on the European Environment Agency’s methodology, the study concludes that a redirection of port traffic to the southern European ports would reduce the carbon emissions by almost 50 percent.
Of course, such a rebalancing is unthinkable today, for both political and economic reasons. After all, the current imbalance in container traffic reflects northern Europe’s economic dynamism, the efficiency of its ports, excellent road and rail infrastructure to connect those ports to virtually all of Europe and the economies of scale generated by the volume of goods that passes through them. However, given that container traffic is expected to increase by 164 percent before 2020, southern European ports should be able to increase their share in flows between Europe and the Far East by 40 percent to 50 percent.