This time last year I was in Algiers as part of research for ECFR policy brief “A reset with Algeria: the Russia to the EU’s South”. At the time, Algerian policymakers seemed to reply fairly uniformly to the question of why Algeria needed to bother with EU relations. Algeria had its own resources, other options for trade, and was following its own path politically which didn’t coincide with the sorts of reforms which the EU would want to put into ENP action plans - or so the argument ran. Though privately officials might have been unsettled by the sounds of the Arab Spring reverberating through all its neighbouring countries, officially they were unconcerned – just by virtue of being in the same region, they reasoned, they didn’t automatically face the same internal pressures as Tunisia and Egypt. The EU was struggling to forge the strong relations that it wanted with Algeria in the face of this indifference.
A year on, and the picture is different, as ECFR’s recent North Africa Power Audit points out. The region is hardly more stable. Next door Tunisia has made advances towards democracy, though with an Islamist-led government of the kind that Algeria has historically rejected. Libya has taken some shaky steps forward but it too is struggling to maintain stability as the different political forces in the country collide. Morocco to the west has now put forward a potential solution to the vexed issue of the Western Sahara, providing at least the starting blocks for a normalisation of Algerian- Morocco relations. But crucially on Algeria’s southern border, northern Mali is now under the control of an extreme Islamist faction, with the international community struggling to understand whether and how to intervene.
It must at least be in part as a result of this changing picture in its neighbourhood that Algeria now appears to see a strong relationship with Europe as more palatable than it did a year ago. Two rounds of negotiations on the ENP action plan have now taken place, and Algeria is taking up technical and training support from EU countries in the development of a number of its industrial sectors through the EU’s twinning instrument.
But Algeria is wise enough not to put all its eggs in one basket – and neither should we. Europe will still have to work at the relationship if it wants to develop the partnership with Algeria that our policy brief last year argued for. Though China has for a long time invested in Algeria, officials last year talked of investment in projects, not in the country. Money came in for developments, but so too did the labour from China to undertake the work, reducing the overall benefit for the Algerian economy. This too seems to have changed: in 2006, as part of President Bouteflika’s state visit to China, the Chinese government offered a €30 million gift to build an Opera building in Algiers. This week, a delegation from the Chinese Ministry of Industry visited Algeria to discuss a proposal for technical support and training for the Algerian team who will manage the Opera. If this signals a new approach in Algeria from China, EU countries will need to stay ahead of the game if they want privileged ties with the largest African country.
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