Europe’s southern neighbourhood is a diverse but interlinked geopolitical ensemble, whose specificities need to be carefully assessed before Europeans devise dedicated security strategies, divide responsibilities and make policy decisions.


This exercise in geopolitical scoping seeks to make sense of the main security challenges present in Europe’s broader European neighbourhood, a space encompassing areas as diverse as the Gulf of Guinea, the Sahel, North Africa, the Levant and the Persian Gulf. It identifies (some of) the main sub-regions that make up the ‘South’, offers an overview of the threat environment in each of them and identifies relevant differences as well as common themes. In doing so we aim to provide a conceptual referent for further policy research on the security of Europe’s ‘South’, and to help inform future strategic and policy discussions within the EU, NATO and their Member States.


Both the 2016 EU Global Strategy and NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit declaration identify Europe’s southern neighbourhood as an area of strategic priority. However, neither organisation has so far provided a clear-cut definition of the geopolitical parameters of the so-called ‘South’, offered a clear picture of the kind of security challenges present therein or explained how they matter to Europe from a geopolitical perspective. It is important to clarify these aspects before entering any sort of discussion about strategy or designing any lasting policy response to the challenges emerging from the South.

In its narrowest form, the label ‘South’ is used to refer to those countries of the Mediterranean rim that do not belong to either the EU or NATO. For instance, the EU’s Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) and European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) include or aspire to include all the countries situated in North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia) and the Levant (ie, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria).1 NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue follows a somewhat similar principle, in that it includes all North African countries from Mauritania to Egypt (excluding Libya, for political reasons) and two countries from the Levant: Jordan and Israel.

A broader definition of the South would expand the scope to encompass the space running from the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, through the Sahel, North Africa and the Mediterranean all the way to the Levant and Mesopotamia and then, through the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, all the way to the Persian Gulf. This broader area or extended southern neighbourhood has gained increasing popularity in EU and NATO circles in recent years, with many experts alluding to the growing importance of the ‘neighbours of the neighbours’.2

Recent EU and NATO efforts to broaden the (geographical) scope of the South are understandable. European countries realise that the security and stability of their immediate southern neighbourhood (ie, the southern and eastern Mediterranean basin) is inextricably tied to developments in adjacent geographical areas. For the EU, this ‘broadening’ has led to the adoption of regional strategies for the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea/West Africa, which underscore the links between those areas and Europe’s immediate southern neighbourhood (ie, the Mediterranean proper). In addition to strategies, the EU has deployed missions and operations in the Mediterranean, Sahel and Horn of Africa areas, conducted within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy.

NATO, for its part, has in recent years been dragged into discussions about how it can contribute to the security of Iraq (deeper in Mesopotamia), whilst the presence of Turkey pushes for a more expansive geographical definition of the South, to include the broader Middle East. Thus, the Alliance’s Euro-Mediterranean dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative are increasingly referred to as different instruments to deal with an expanded South. Moreover, the Warsaw Summit has included the Sahel-Sahara region as an area of interest for the Alliance.3 However, in contrast to the EU, no explicit references have been made in NATO documents to the Gulf of Guinea and/or West Africa.

Taking into account the above considerations, it could be argued that the so-called South (in its extended version) could be broken down into seven main geopolitical referents or sub-theatres, namely: West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, the Sahel, North Africa, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Red Sea-Arabian Sea corridor and the Persian Gulf (ie, Iran and the countries of the southern Persian Gulf), and the (rest of the) Arabian Peninsula. Admittedly, this categorisation is just as arbitrary as any: these seven areas or sub-theatres can be regrouped differently as well as broken down into equally meaningful sub-categories (for example, it could be argued that the security dynamics in north-east and north-west Africa are very different, or that Egypt in many ways belongs in the Levant category). In this sense, it may be worth pointing out Libya’s specific importance as a geopolitical meeting point of sorts within the South, ie, one that acts as a transmission belt of a variety of threats and challenges irradiating from the Sahel and North Africa as well as the Levant. Be that as it may, it is a categorisation that promises to offer Europeans a useful starting point to help them organise and conceptualise the different challenges emanating from the South.

More info and original published by REAL INSTITUTO EL CANO 

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