North Africa and Europe are bound together by history, geography and society. Over the last decade, shakeups around the Mediterranean Sea basin have caused deep transformations in both regions. The European Union was forced to redefine its relations both with North Africa as a region, and with each of the countries that comprise it.
Over the last ten years, the European Union has suffered from at least three major crises, which have had implications to its policies vis à vis North Africa. First, in 2010 the sovereign debt crisis that hit mostly southern Europe states lowered the level of investment in, remittances to and trade with key economic partners in North Africa. Second, from 2014 Europe witnessed a mounting migrant and refugee inflow, which increased even more as Libya turned into a human trafficking port. Third, the ensuing rise of nationalist and anti-EU parties in various European states eroded the continental consensus on the Union’s external policies, placing domestic stances much higher than common goals on the political agenda. This transformation risks speeding up during the COVID-19 crisis as European governments will be confronted by shrinking political support for external assistance programs in the face of the pandemic’s domestic economic and social consequences.
In parallel, North Africa reached a historical turning point when Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in late 2010 set off the Arab uprisings. The European illusion that autocratic North African regimes offered a guarantee of relative stability fell apart as societies sought to strengthen their political freedoms and improve their economic prospects which, in Tunisia, led down a path toward genuine democratic opening. Freed from the ties that many European states enjoyed with these regimes, the European Commission and the High Representative, sympathetic to the protest movements’ demands, displayed vocal support for democratisation. Yet Brussels was confronted with the challenge of how to cope with North African societies in transition to an unknown future. Coupled with the Syrian war and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, North African turmoil turned Europe’s “ring of friends” into an “arc of instability” shaping its foreign policy in the “European neighbourhood”.
Until the Arab uprisings, the EU had pursued an agenda based on the common values outlined in its 2003 Security Strategy. The main architecture for its engagement with North Africa was the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), launched in 2007, which in effect became a framework for delivering financial assistance. The ENP’s early years revealed substantial contentment with North African regimes but that feeling did not last.
In 2011, the EU was already working on revising its policy when popular revolts burst out across the Arab world. Consequently, in its 2011 policy, Europe’s leadership took a bolder normative turn and shifted its objectives to the promotion of “deep and sustainable democracy” in North Africa, acknowledging the importance of human rights, the rule of law, and democracy. Yet, although this policy was strongly focused on establishing a positive conditionality (“more for more”) with each North African state, it provided no disincentives for states that failed to make progress in extending political and civil liberties. The approach turned out to be short-lived.
Indeed, recognising the limits of its capacity to stimulate democratisation, the European leadership that emerged from the 2014 European elections revised the ENP, making “stabilising the neighbourhood” its main priority and acknowledging the failure of its “more for more” without a “less for less” approach to complement it. Surging migratory pressure on Europe, the Islamic State’s arrival in Libya, and the increasing mobility of militants as well as arms and human traffickers along Algeria’s and Libya’s southern borders became major concerns for European diplomacy, which focused increasingly on the Sahelian-Saharan dimension to mitigate migratory pressure and contain jihadist insurgents’ threats to Europe. Against this backdrop, the ENP 2015 review placed strong emphasis on security cooperation to counter terrorism, organised crime, trafficking, smuggling and irregular migration as the linchpin of its approach toward the region. The EU enshrined this departure from its post-2011 values-driven approach in its 2016 Global Strategy. In abandoning its focus on democracy promotion, the Global Strategy identified North Africa as a source of instability where the EU had to support countries moving along “different paths to resilience” rather than promote a single normative agenda.
Crucially, the EU Global Strategy recognised the “growing interconnections between North and sub-Saharan Africa” for Europe’s security objectives. Apart from migration and the movement of Islamist insurgencies across both regions, the participation by Chadian and Sudanese militias in the Libyan war confirmed the diagnosis. Indeed the Sahel was deeply affected by the Arab uprisings, which changed political relations and set in motion the spread of conflict southward from Libya to Mali.
EU High Representative Josep Borrell confirmed Europe’s focus on these dynamics upon his ascension to the helm of European diplomacy in 2019, setting the EU neighbourhood as his top priority – and, within North Africa, resolution of the Libyan war, a major source of suffering in the region. Overall, new geopolitical tensions involving ambitious powers such as Russia, Turkey and Arab Gulf countries will constrain European initiatives. The United States’ unpredictable behaviour is an additional limit. If the EU wishes to play a meaningful role, it will need to increase its focus on North Africa and be more direct about its concerns with regional and external players who are feeding into regional tensions in order to increase their influence. Yet the persistent emphasis on countering terrorism and limiting migration in EU foreign policy risks weakening European initiatives, and overshadowing the need to address drivers of fragility in North Africa that may generate new crises.
Nearly ten years on, the economic, political and social exclusion pressures that lead to the 2011 uprisings have hardly been alleviated. The protests that rocked Algeria last year, eventually ending President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s twenty-year rule, are a case in point. Similarly, the rise of Kaïs Saïed to the Tunisian presidency came about from opposition to the post-2011 elite that, despite the country’s relative success, was widely viewed to have entrenched economic fragility and widespread inequality. Moreover, with the outbreak of the pandemic North Africa economies would suffer from major uncertainties. Stagnating economic activity is already a major concern in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. The fall of oil and natural gas prices, along with shrinking energy trade volumes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, will further limit the space for fiscal manoeuvring, especially in Algiers and Cairo, and worsen the outlook for Libya’s already devastated economy. The pandemic has already had negative implications for trade, remittances and investment flows across the Mediterranean.
The EU should continue to provide significant financial support to its economies despite the likely contraction of EU financial assets for external cooperation due to the pandemic — but should rebalance those investments to benefit the economies likely to suffer the most from pandemic-related shocks. Furthermore, the EU should encourage local governments to make progress on structural reforms that protesters are seeking and take a more inclusive approach toward minority and opposition groups.
Limiting the conditions that create instability in the neighbourhood is a key interest and one of the EU’s main foreign policy goals. As the world moves into a new, and uncertain phase, the EU should use the upcoming scrutiny of its external cooperation instruments to review their priorities for North Africa for the 2021-2027 period. While the EU should continue to intensify efforts to end the Libyan war, the discussion around the external cooperation architecture in the region offers an opportunity for its member states to balance the domestic pressure that leads them to prioritize migration and counter-terrorism with a greater ambition to foster North Africa’s economic, political and social inclusion. If the EU does not learn from the past ten years, history may repeat itself.