Ever closer union around the Mediterranean?

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It has been a busy week for EU policymakers concerned with relations with the Magreb. Tunisian Prime Minister Jebali was in Brussels on Tuesday for meetings with Herman van Rompuy and others to pave for the way for a new ‘privileged partnership’ under the EU’s neighbourhood policy. On Friday,  Commission President Barroso and neighbourhood Commisioner Fuele will travel to Malta for the second ‘Five-Plus-Five forum’, bringing  together leaders from France, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain along with those from Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.

The subtext is clear. Whatever soul - searching may be taking place privately in the myriad corridors of European power, in the face of the very real challenges of the complex transitions in the North African region – most visibly the spate of attacks on western embassies last month following the circulation of the anti-Islamic film ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ – the public message is that the EU’s friendship with its southern neighbours is there for the long haul. Though policy makers may inwardly question the genuine commitment of the Algerian and Moroccan governments to political reform, outwardly they need to extol progress made on the common agenda of the European Neighbourhood Policy to justify other aspects of co-operation with these countries. And despite profound political differences with the newly elected governments of Tunisia and Libya, the EU does want to be their go-to partner. There is simply too much at stake on security, migration and energy, if we are not.

As ECFR’s recent North Africa Power Audit argues, strong ties between the regions north and south of the Mediterranean need to go hand in hand with strong intra-regional ties. These are more than somewhat frayed at the moment with both sides grappling with pressing divisive family matters.

Just as the most natural trading partners for the countries of the European Union are their most immediate neighbours, so too the argument goes, could the economies of North Africa grow in strength by increasing their intra-regional commerce. Except for the time being a Maghreb Union is coming far from naturally. The Trans Maghreb motorway -  which will be discussed at the Summit this weekend and could be a major boon to trade between North African countries - remains a prickly subject, with border issues, different sectoral strengths and levels of economic development all proving major stumbling blocks. Nevertheless some of the key economies of the region, such as Algeria, are increasingly interested to explore the possibilities of closer co-operation, and that is certainly progress.

While Hollande, Rajoy and Monti will advise their southern neighbours that a regional union can create a stronger global force than the sum of its parts, they will also take the opportunity to meet for talks on the Eurozone crisis in the margins of the Five plus Five summit.

Though it is always unsettling to see families disagree amongst themselves in public, a certain camaraderie grows from admitting that we all face the same problems, and no partnership is perfect. On first glance, the internecine struggles within the European Union over the past few years can hardly have created an enticing prospect for our North African neighbours to overcome their  economic and historical differences and focus on what they have in common – geography, strategic resources and many cultural commonalities. And then again, perhaps there is no better advert for the benefits a regional union can offer than a group of states that decide to stay the course as a partnership in spite of major differences, not only because there are some similarities. Perhaps we have even more relevant experience to share around the shores of the Mediterranean than we thought.

 

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