Oussama Romdhani: The EU can’t fix North Africa’s problems

Oussama Romdhani: The EU can’t fix North Africa’s problems

On June 14, the Adriana, a ramshackle fishing boat carrying up to 750 migrants headed for Italy, capsized and sank about 80 kilometres from the southern Greek town of Pylos.

With at least nine Egyptian crew members onboard, the ageing vessel had initially sailed from Egypt before heading to Libya’s Tobruk, where it picked up Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian and Pakistani passengers.

The tragedy has put a spotlight on the lucrative human trafficking business in the central Mediterranean, and in this case, the role of Egyptian smugglers in perpetuating the tragedy.

While Egypt has managed to rein in illegal crossings of migrants bound for the northern Mediterranean, the country has failed to curb the outflow of people to Libya and from there to Europe. More than 20,000 Egyptians arrived in Italy via Libya last year alone.

It is a similar story elsewhere in North Africa, where socio-economic conditions are driving young people to seek greener pastures in Europe.

Tragedies across the littoral have become the new normal. Shipwrecks off the Tunisian and Libyan coasts are yielding more casualties than hospital morgues can accommodate.

Predictably concerned, the European Union has been trying to shore up coast guard capabilities in Tunisia, Egypt and even in the more complicated case of Libya.

The EU has recently allocated 80 million euros to Cairo “for border management, search and rescue and anti-smuggling operations,” as well as 20 million euros to help with Sudanese refugees.

Tunisia has been offered more than 125 million euros for border management by the EU, Germany and France.

The problem with the European approach is twofold. First, it is destined to deal with the symptoms of the problem and not its root causes. Second, it is premised on the search for expedient palliatives, which seem to fulfil the desire of both sides for immediate fixes.

READ: Saied worried IMF conditions will create riots in Tunisia

Most of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s fragility is, however, self-induced. For years, they lacked the vision for a sustainable model of economic growth, which have left them with only one option: austerity measures that risk provoking the very social upheaval their regimes fear.

Failure to introduce reform stunts opportunities and fuels the type of despair that drives youth to cross the Mediterranean in the first place.

The two countries already face shortages of basic goods, mounting debt and dwindling foreign currency reserves, while they have a hard time convincing the IMF of their intent to adjust their policies.

After agreeing to a $3 billion loan with Egypt last October, the IMF has since delayed a scheduled review and second tranche disbursement. It wants Cairo to achieve “competitive neutrality between the private sector and the state,” sell some of its assets and put the brakes on its multibillion-dollar projects.

Tunisia faces a dire predicament of its own. It continues to wait for the IMF to consider its request for a $1.9 billion loan, money needed to help bail the country out of a budget crisis created by economic mismanagement since 2011. During a period that the World Bank called “a lost decade of growth,” Tunisia borrowed from abroad to finance wage increases and public service recruitment, accumulating its debt and deepening its budget deficit.

Repaying foreign and domestic debt looks like a daunting task this year and next. And yet, Tunisia (and Egypt) remain loath to take ownership of the required reforms so as to avoid giving the appearance of yielding to “foreign diktats.”

Meanwhile, the twin pressures of unemployment and poverty continue to build in both countries. Egypt has additionally to reckon with unbridled population growth.

For Tunis and Cairo, outside help is not as easy to come by, as it once was.

Egypt has traditionally looked east for help. But between its expectations and those of Gulf sovereign funds there seems to be a “mismatch” nowadays.

While Riyadh demands prior reforms, Cairo sees its geostrategic role as collateral enough. Without progress, Egypt’s hard currency crunch may hinder its ability to repay the accumulated foreign debt.

Tunisia, the former poster child of the Arab Spring, faces a rude awakening as it can no longer count on the unconditional largesse of Western donors.

Although showing more “flexibility” and willingness to attach less political strings, Europe and the US want Tunisia to reach a deal with the IMF before receiving economic help.

Complicating matters, Europeans seem more driven by fear than ambition in the case of Tunisia.

Italy, in particular, keeps warning the West about the impending collapse of the Tunisian economy and the waves of illegal migrants swarming European shores.

READ: UN envoy says deal agreed in Morocco can’t bring Libya elections

The Italians are fretting over Tunisia moving closer to China and Russia. They are also wary of a hypothetical Muslim Brotherhood takeover and threats to the Trans-Med pipeline, which carries Algerian gas to Europe through Tunisia.

With Tunisia and Egypt, Europeans should be devoting more time to discussing the economic potential of “near-shoring,” clean energy and mutually beneficial human mobility prospects, in order to pave the way for a win-win partnership between the EU and countries of North Africa.

For now, however, Europe is busy erecting advanced borders south of the Mediterranean. Handling illegal migration through a security lens alone will harden authoritarian impulses in the southern tier of the Mediterranean and compound the socio-economic pressures at the root of the migration problem.

There is a silver lining though: illegal migration could be the immediate issue that brings together the two shores of the Mediterranean. As it prepares to host an international conference on migration, Italy could break the mould by advancing a global strategy instead of the separate bargains struck behind closed doors.

Adequately addressing the migration issue and ending the tragic piling up of bodies in the Mediterranean will require North African states to finally sit down together, even if it is around a table in Rome, to coordinate their migration policies while they carry out much-needed reform at home.


The author is the editor of Arab Weekly and was previously Communications minister in the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. This piece was originally published in Arab Weekly


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