Similar to a very slow movement of tectonic plates that never produces something as dramatic as an earthquake or tsunami, the Maghreb countries undergo the slow process of strengthening their national sovereignty and diversifying their security partners. and economic.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 accelerated a change that dates back to September 11 and the decision of the EU and the United States to emphasize security in their relations with Arab countries. When the West chose to define its relations with these countries as a bed of nails, the only instrument it could use was a hammer. The spirit of the Barcelona process which included closer economic and cultural ties fell victim to the EU’s concern, some critics would say obsession, with security.
It is easier to observe the detail of the current movement than to define it. The changes are the result of a combination of external and internal factors. Riccardo Fabiani, head of North Africa at International Crisis Group, talks about the “selective United States disengagement from regional affairs” which includes most of the MENA region, not just the Maghreb (which, for the purposes of this analysis , includes Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia). This weakened Europe’s influence over its North African neighbors due to the EU’s internal divisions and its internal focus on migration. The outcome of the French game in Libya and now Mali has given Turkey a much larger military role in the first and Algeria in the second, both of which encourage what Fabiani calls “decoupling.” This decoupling also testifies to a broader failure of the EU’s political imagination and its lack of strategic thinking on the Maghreb and Africa.
Whatever its merits, the Union for the Mediterranean, created in 2007 at the instigation of Nicolas Sarkozy, was no match for the Barcelona process of 1995. Morocco and Tunisia are dragging their feet on the EU. deep and comprehensive free trade agreement proposed by the EU, as many economists and academics, in Tunisia more than in Morocco, express doubts about its real value for their development needs. The EU mantra of the 1980s to early 2000s that a growing architecture of association agreements between North African countries and the EU would lead to faster development and convergence is dead. Its demise was hastened by the agony of the Washington Consensus and the free trade ideology that underpinned it.
The emergence of new external actors, China, Russia, Turkey, Qatar and the Emirates to name only the most influential, has enabled often precarious North African ruling elites to take advantage of new sources of military ties. , commercial and political to reduce their overdependence. over Europe. With the exception of Libya, the three other Maghreb countries have avoided being trapped in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the one hand, Qatar and Turkey, on the other hand. In Libya, due to the chaos that followed the de facto partition of the country in 2014, the rivalry played out, further complicated by the support that the Russian paramilitary group Wagner gave to the ruler of eastern Libya, Marshal Khalifa. Haftar and the rivalry between European powers, especially France and Italy.
China and Turkey have increased their exports and investments in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria while Morocco has developed an ambitious policy of investment and economic cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa, encouraged by the prolonged freeze of its relations with Algeria and mediated by the State phosphate and fertilizer company OCP and leading banks such as BMCE and Attijari-Wafa Bank. EU policy making is hampered by France’s stubbornness in defending its interests in its former colonies. French decision-makers find it hard to imagine a role other than that of the dominant outsider that he has been playing since the 19e century.
Having privileged stability in its southern Mediterranean near abroad after September 11, which meant supporting authoritarian regimes, the EU experienced a brief turnaround after the Arab uprisings.
He financially supported Tunisia, alongside the United States and the IMF, but approached the Algerian and Moroccan leaders when the latter brutally suppressed peaceful protests.
When the Algerian Hirak movement erupted into massive and peaceful protests in 2019, the EU appeared to be in a state of utter confusion as it promoted democracy in Tunisia but sent no political message. in Hirak, then entered the ranks when the military reaffirmed its dominant role 18 months ago.
The repression against civil society in Morocco and Algeria is fiercer than at any time in a quarter of a century, and Europe has nothing to say.
Fabiani notes that the ruling elites of North Africa “began to expand existing social contracts to distribute available resources to social and economic categories that were previously on the margins”. This was done in Tunisia through the Islamist Ennahda party and an increase in the number of public sector employees from 450,000 in 2011 to over 600,000 ten years later.
This has had the unfortunate effect of destroying public investment, slowing growth and increasing the tax burden. More than ever and despite its growing economic ties with Turkey and China, Tunisia depends on the goodwill of the EU, the United States and the IMF.
But will the EU and the US want to tip the security boat in Tunisia, an oasis or a relatively calm and successful fight against terrorism, for a few billion dollars and tear up the rules of fiscal rectitude? After all, political rules have traditionally been attached to IMF bailouts, even when this was never spelled out in official agreements. After defaulting on its foreign loans in 1983, Morocco enjoyed strong support from France and Saudi Arabia while the reluctance of the EU and IMF to support Algerian reforms in 1989-1991 can be attributed France’s lack of enthusiasm for any change in the status quo. .
The way in which the economic decoupling of the Maghreb and Europe operates is precisely described by Hamza Meddeb.
Looking at the hidden face of informal cross-border trade in Tunisia since 2011, he writes that the success of the fight against illegal cross-border trade flows, especially with Libya and the flow of terrorism that accompanied it, has led to a shift towards the exchanges pass through the maritime borders of the countries. His analysis combines a judicious use of statistics and an intimate quasi-anthropological understanding of the functioning of the Tunisian elites to conclude that “the dynamics of these maritime trade routes reflect a strategic and progressive evolution of trade relations from Tunisia to Turkey and China and a gradual decoupling of Europe. “
Statistics confirm this argument because “the increase in imports from China and Turkey (40% and 50% respectively), between 2010 and 2019) corresponds to an almost equivalent drop in imports from France and Italy ( -28% and -2% respectively.)
This change has in turn allowed the emergence of new elites in Tunisia and risks marginalizing older groups whose interests are closely linked to France. In neighboring Algeria, it is striking how quickly, to give a significant example, Turkish private investment in the steel industry in Oran (Toysah group) has flourished compared to the ten-year attempt of the Italian group Danielli in Jijel. and Qatar’s unfortunate engagement with state-owned steel company SNS whose association with the Lakshmi Mittal group earlier ended in asset stripping and corruption.
Turkey’s overall strategy in the Maghreb is hidden in plain sight: the region offers a market of 250 million consumers, a platform to enter Africa (the Toysah group exports to Africa after starting to do so). in the United States) and opportunities to leverage its diplomatic strength. , especially in Libya where Algeria largely supports Ankara’s policy.
In this quicksand game, all countries have joined the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. It may not pay dividends immediately, but will over time if it is not controlled by a more imaginative response from the EU. In Libya, Russia has become an important diplomatic player. Moreover, being by far the largest supplier of arms to Algeria, may prove useful diplomatically to Moscow when Algiers decides to play a more active security role in Mali. None of the above considerations mean that the EU has no more playing cards in North Africa. But it will have to adopt a more proactive policy if it is to curb the medium-term trend towards decoupling between the two shores of the western Mediterranean.