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What is the EU’s role in North Africa?

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco have changed the face of North Africa, which used to be a hotbed of repression, and have embarked on a transformation process that in qualitative terms is now on a par with other parts of the world – says Christian-P. Hanelt

The Arabellion is now in its fourth year. There is more freedom today but less security. There are far more opportunities but fewer jobs. And there is a patchwork of conflicts. In many places though, the Arab world is tentatively moving towards democracy and the social market economy. Although there have been some difficulties along the way, European assistance for the transformation process is moving in the right direction. Still, the European Union could certainly do more on the political level.

The civil war in Syria, the fight against the jihadists in Mali, the power struggle in Egypt and the refugee drama in the vicinity of Lampedusa create a negative picture of the upheavals in the Arab world. These negative impressions obscure the fact that
Europe’s Arab neighbourhood is in many ways rather diverse.

Our analysis shows that since 2011 certain sub-regions in the Arab world have drifted apart in political terms. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco have changed the face of North Africa, which used to be a hotbed of repression, and have embarked on a transformation process that in qualitative terms is now on a par with other parts of the world.

This geopolitical categorisation suggests that it makes sense to look more closely at the way in which transformation has progressed in the case of the EU’s five North African neighbours. Demonstrations, meetings, new political parties and advocacy groups, elections, media diversity and a kind of civil society that is increasingly mature and self-confident are all signs that ordinary citizens are clamouring for political and civil rights.
However, greater freedom, diversity and participation have also put the spotlight on social conflicts which used to be taboo subjects, above all the question of the relationship between religion and politics and the question of the legitimation of power. Egypt illustrates the acrimonious nature of the struggle for influence and resources.

The political conflicts have halted the economic development of North Africa. The ensuing political uncertainties have frightened investors and have given a boost to inflation. Declining tax revenues, rising unemployment, fewer tourists and, on the other hand – more corruption. It will only be possible to still the burning desire of these youthful societies for work and a little prosperity if the rentier economies are remodelled into a productive and service-oriented infrastructure. Morocco is trying to diversify its economic portfolio by means of closer interaction with the European market.

Good governance implies that decision-makers will have to introduce fundamental economic reforms with inclusive growth and a transparent regulatory framework to strengthen the fragile democratic institutions, to reorganise the traditional surveillance and security forces so that they are a police force and an army loyal to the constitution, to fight corruption and crime in an effective manner, to stabilise the security situation and to thwart terrorist attacks.

While it is true that the elites now have more options for government action at their disposal, there is less competence and less resource efficiency.
A particularly serious problem is the persistence of rampant corruption in North Africa. More transparency may well have a beneficial effect. The round table negotiating method is of some use in this context. In the vicinity of Europe the challenge to overcome social polarization and to develop new consensual structures is seen not only in North Africa but also in Turkey and in Ukraine.

In the wake of the Arab upheavals the institutions in Brussels and the member states quickly increased and restructured their transformation assistance. The EU reacted in institutional terms by increasing the level of direct budgetary assistance for revolutionary countries such as Tunisia. Moreover, within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy it intensified bilateral cooperation with all of the countries in North Africa and has added a distinctly normative component to its institutional support programmes. Therefore, the EU’s neighbours are going to receive more money and easier access to the European markets. And there will be more opportunities for their people to come to Europe. Furthermore, financial assistance will involve conditionality, and will take its bearings from the slogan ‘more for more and less for less’.

If the EU were to adhere to its “more for more and less for less’ principles, it would actually reduce its assistance and political involvement – in Egypt, for example. A number of member states are in favour of this, partly because they are critical of the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. Other member states disagree because they consider Egypt to be far too important in geopolitical terms, which means that it cannot be ignored.

The dilemmas facing EU policy on North Africa, suggest that there is a need for a dual-track political initiative. One strand should be introspective and the other should be geared to conflict resolution and mediation between social groups and between governments. Although, a decision at the highest European governmental level would help to determine the direction and the effect of EU transformation initiatives in its southern neighbourhood and harmonise the complex relationship between national interests, national and European assistance, and cooperation with the European External Action Service.

Christian Hanelt is a Middle East expert at the German-based Bertelsmann Stiftung non-governmental organisation

  1. Maybe a different policy towards Western Sahara would be good?

    Comment by Koldo Casla on March 13, 2014 at 9:09 am
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