What is the Mediterranean Sea? What part does it play in the lives and the livelihoods of the 500 million people who live around its foaming edge? We tend to see the Med – in fact, any body of water – as a blank blue hole that fills the spaces between landmasses. Dry land is a presence, full of topographical interest and teeming with human activity. The sea, on the other hand, can seem a blank and featureless thing. Open water is not our natural habitat, and we venture out there at our peril, as – tragically – many thousands of Syrian and Libyan refugees can attest.

Illustration by  Costas Mantzalos

Illustration by Costas Mantzalos

But the Mediterranean Sea is not a watery vacuum. It has always been a bridge between peoples and markets, an asset to its varied population: the intrepid Greek and Roman colonists of the ragged European coast, the Turkic civilisations of Asia Minor, the Semitic peoples at its eastern extremity, the African nations that inhabit its southern shores, and the many islanders settled on rocky enclaves from Mallorca to Sicily to Chios. The human factor means that trade has ebbed and flowed across the Mediterranean for millennia. The ‘middle sea’, as it was once known, is criss-crossed with routes that amount to a cat’s cradle of collaboration, commerce and connectivity. And as with the Silk Road that traverses the Asian steppeland, it is the very flatness of the terrain that makes it a negotiable space: once traders and invaders acquired sea-going ships, they could go anywhere within the Med’s watery borders.

Somehow, we have lost the all-encompassing vision of the Med that we once had. The aim of the Mediterranean Growth Initiative is to reimagine or reinvent the Mediterranean zone, to help foster conditions that will allow it to fulfill its enormous potential. The time is right to begin, and here are five practical things that can be done:

1. Spread the expertise. In Spain, France, Italy and Greece, youth unemployment runs at 25 per cent. In North Africa, meanwhile, there are pockets of niche expertise that have no access to the digital global economy. What if we could use the untapped know-how of educated young people in southern Europe, have them go into North Africa to help with building capacity, with disseminating financial literacy and language skills, with providing hospital care? There is so much we could achieve, but – here’s another need – it would all depend on workable internet connection to rural areas in African countries.

2. Create a regional airline. Right now, you cannot fly from, say, Cyprus to Morocco – you have to change at least twice. So, the Mediterranean needs a regional airline network of its own, one that connects the major hubs to each other – and also links the big cities to smaller centres where people might want to go and do business. Take Morocco: planes land in Marrakech and Rabat, but from there you must take a domestic flight, a car or a slow train to the interior. It’s absurd that commercial traffic cannot officially move between Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, that a Turkish entrepreneur wishing to go to Cyprus has to fly via Athens. The same political obstacle prevents ships flying the Cypriot flag from entering Turkish ports. Let’s unlock that, and open up trade so that people and goods can move freely through the Mediterranean Sea.

3. Teach Mediterranean culture. There are some university courses dealing with the richness of Mediterranean civilisation – at Montpellier and in Egypt – but, generally speaking, the Med as a cultural and geopolitical entity does not figure in the consciousness of academics. And while we all know about the health-giving properties of the Mediterranean diet, there is no unified commercial outworking of the idea. Makers of high-quality olive oil, for example, trade as Italian or Spanish or Greek concerns, not as producers of a something that is both essential and pan-Mediterranean The politics of olive oil is as intense as the politics of gold – but it is in everyone’s interest to make it clear that this product is the fruit of a shared culture; that is the way to make it more visible and saleable in world markets.

4. Manage risk. From a financial and market perspective, the key requirement for investors is to understand and secure the risk for small and large capital investment. Imagine a Tunisian or Egyptian entrepreneur who wants to grow a fruit-processing business. He or she can only access funds and know-how through commercial banks, as there is no home-grown private equity or securities market as in western Europe or the USA. The absence of these institutions means that the entrepreneur does not have the same range of choices as a counterpart in the UK or in California. That’s not fair, and it needs to change.

5. Harness the sun. The sun, as much as the sea, makes the Mediterranean what it is. Together, they are what draw millions of visitors to the region from chillier northern climes. But the sun is also a source of energy too, of course. We in the Med need to harvest solar power more efficiently, and then to connect our grids so that clean and plentiful energy can be shared across the region. A coherent solar and renewable energy policy would help to create a more efficient and competitive economy for the whole of the Mediterranean.

Cleopatra was interviewed by Jonathan Bastable for