Hafed Al-Ghwell: EU’s balancing act in the Maghreb


The EU’s engagement with the Maghreb has been long, complex and, at times, tumultuous. Since the early 2000s, this subregion has only grown in strategic importance to Europe in terms of trade, energy and counterterrorism, as well as efforts to transform it from a significant transit point for migrants and refugees into an extra barrier. However, that importance is an increasingly difficult assertion to make (and defend) today. A dismal record of missteps, from the mishandling of the migration crisis to the lack of a unified policy and a tendency to overlook the importance of regional dynamics, is now paralyzing the EU when it needs to step up its engagement, given the numerous challenges confounding its southern neighbors.

The current global landscape, dominated by the war in Ukraine, leaves little room for Europe to elevate the Maghreb on its list of priorities, despite the risk of catastrophic spillovers from the proximal subregion’s convergent challenges, including drought, inflation, unemployment, political instability and intraregional tensions. Granted, the prospect of a devastating war returning to the continent yet again dwarfs concern about Libya’s divisions, democracy’s perils in Tunisia, escalations between Algeria and Morocco, and the declining security situation in the Sahel. However, relegating a neighboring region’s struggles with an unprecedented wave of crises to a mere “concern” risks Europe repeating the same, well-catalogued mistakes that betrayed the euphoria and aspirations for change that came with the 2011 uprisings.

Libya has been a particular challenge for the EU, as the bloc has struggled to formulate a coherent response to the political and security crises that have plagued the country since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The EU’s inability to properly address the Libyan crisis has left it with limited influence in the country — not helped by a pervasive reluctance to get involved in Libya’s chaotic political arena, instead focusing on issues such as border security and migration.

It was not until early 2019 that the EU adopted its first comprehensive strategy toward Libya, which was touted as a new approach, but it is yet to deliver anything — well, “new.” Attempts to negotiate a power-sharing deal between rival factions has only further destabilized the country and legitimized undemocratic actors.
In Algeria, the recent rash of cordiality has only thrown a bigger spotlight on the EU’s struggle to adopt a unified and constructive approach to dealing with the country’s authorities, particularly when it comes to human rights, the rule of law and a worrying trend toward illiberalism.

On the other hand, EU-Morocco relations were “positive” until just over a week ago, when European lawmakers condemned declining press freedom in Morocco, prompting a unanimous vote by Moroccan legislators to review ties with the European parliament.

As it stands, the Maghreb is at an inflection point — much like the wider Arab region. Increasingly, repressive governments are the “reward” for society’s pursuit of unwieldy democratic ideals, while durably weak economies and austerity worsen the pain for the average citizen grappling with shrinking paychecks or joblessness. “Politics” now involves expensive distractions and forays into troubled countries enmeshed in violent conflict, terrorism and lawlessness, rather than shoring up governance to better deal with brewing troubles at home. Aging generations can only lament the woeful legacies now burdening a youthful population that is severely limited in its ability to make and act on consequential decisions concerning what it envisions for its future.

It is a rather difficult landscape to navigate for a Europe embroiled in its own maladies and still trying to find its place in a heavily contested geopolitical arena. However, Brussels only has itself to blame when it comes to the Maghreb. Europe failed to capitalize on the intrinsic ties between economic development and the success of any democratic project to emerge from the chaos of a decade ago. Instead, European leaders are now forced to scramble on fairly manageable crises coming from “the other side of the Mediterranean,” impacting the Maghreb’s 130 million inhabitants who are hobbled by halting internal and regional issues.

Of course, some of those issues are not native to the region, as they are a byproduct of a challenging global landscape that is fraught with simmering great power tensions. Yet, in such a climate, overbroad or patronizing urging from Brussels or other European capitals to police the subregion — with a combined gross domestic product less than Egypt — according to distant priorities will only fall flat. It does not, however, excuse the tired practice of burying heads in the sand, content with piecemeal solutions that do nothing to pull countries in Europe’s neighborhood back from the brink.

For instance, the lack of a unified Maghreb policy remains problematic as countries like Germany angle toward blocwide decision-making relegated to Brussels. Meanwhile, France, Italy and, to some extent, Spain favor looser, more decentralized EU-Maghreb relations, given their complicated interests and entanglements south of the Mediterranean in terms of trade, energy and security. When it comes to migration, however, the dynamic flips over. Italy, for example, is a strong proponent of creating a centralized EU border force. However, Paris is reluctant to subject that part of its national sovereignty to Brussels. There are other divisions as well, but this lack of unity is easy to exploit for malign actors who are threatened by a free, fair and safe Maghreb.
The outlook is daunting even for seemingly stable, somewhat prospering countries. Fortunately, there is still time for the leaderships in Brussels and across Maghrebi capitals to make better strategic choices in the rubble of the 2011 uprisings and a looming energy transition. In order to foster economic development, regional integration and promote functioning democracies across the Maghreb, the EU could explore a range of options.

Providing financial aid to Maghreb countries in the form of grants and loans to support economic growth will incentivize investments in infrastructure and educational projects, as well as offering access to technical assistance and market information. This will then enable the EU to push for intraregional trade and investment between North African countries by pursuing the implementation of free trade agreements and investment treaties via a North African free trade agreement and instituting a common external tariff under the auspices of the Arab Maghreb Union. Measures to reduce the cost of doing business across borders, such as the elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, will also promote the development of regional infrastructure like highways, railways and ports, improving connectivity and facilitating the movement of goods and services.

Focusing on economic development will contribute a great deal to establishing pro-democracy institutions across the Maghreb, including initiatives to promote transparency, combat corruption, guarantee the rule of law and strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations.
At a regional level, the EU must be careful to avoid misdirecting its policies. Working more closely with the Maghreb will allow Europe to better balance its relationships in the region, safeguard its interests, preempt shared threats and avoid some of the pitfalls of its past engagement. It will also provide the EU with opportunities to shore up fraught relationships with countries that have been somewhat neglected in the past.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell

This article originally appeared in ArabNews

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Maghrebi.org but we do nonetheless encourage freedom of expression and even the ‘right to reply’. If you want to contribute to the Opinion section, feel free to send your article to opinion@maghrebi.org


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