European policymakers have generally looked at North Africa through a Mediterranean lens. Since at least the Barcelona process of Euro-Mediterranean partnership was launched in 1995, European nations have seen the countries on the Mediterranean’s southern shore, from Morocco to Egypt, primarily in the context of their own neighbourhood. Behind this approach rests a history of close links stretching back through the colonial period as well as deep economic relations; Europe is the most important trading partner and investor for the majority of these countries. But this vision of North Africa, which was always too simplistic, is increasingly at odds with the reality of how these countries see themselves. Across the region, North African countries are turning their focus towards their own continent and stepping up their engagement with sub-Saharan Africa.
The North African turn towards Africa is driven by several factors. Some countries are engaged in an effort to win diplomatic support on significant questions of national interest: for Morocco and Algeria, the dispute over Western Sahara and their broader strategic rivalry; in the case of Egypt, its concern about the giant dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile. Beyond this diplomatic effort, the focus is also a response to the rising security threats and flow of migration reaching North African countries from the south. Finally, the shift is driven by economic concerns. North African countries are searching for new markets and seeking to position themselves for the economic and demographic growth expected in sub-Saharan Africa in the coming years. This has been given new impetus by the continuing slow growth rates of North Africa’s traditional European trading partners. The turn to the south is also a reaction to the failure of regional integration within North Africa, where trade between countries remains low. Economic and political cooperation, for example through the Arab Maghreb Union, is held hostage in particular to the Algerian-Moroccan stand-off over Western Sahara.
The impact of covid-19 is likely to impose some short-term limitations but also offer new areas of focus for this process. At the time of writing, Africa has seen a lower death toll and infection rate than other continents, with 8,630 reported deaths. Many African countries have responded effectively and innovatively to the crisis. Nevertheless, the peak of the disease may not yet have arrived in Africa. In any case, the economic and social impact of the coronavirus on the continent is likely to be profound, with widespread job losses, difficulties in meeting debt payments, and a possible food crisis. At the same time, these effects could spur a transformation of African economies towards greater self-sufficiency, including in the production of food and medicines. They could also lead to a bigger emphasis on renewable energy and greater digitalisation. Such a transformation could offer further opportunities to those North African countries that have well-developed technology, health, and renewable energy sectors.
At a time when the EU is also seeking to deepen its relationship with sub-Saharan Africa, based around a joint communication of the European Commission and the High Representative unveiled in March 2020, the North African turn southwards deserves greater European attention. EU policymakers could benefit from understanding North African engagement in sub-Saharan Africa in two ways. Firstly, they should recognise that North African partner countries have their own policy agendas in areas like migration, trade, and investment that are not directed towards Europe, and that EU-North Africa cooperation will be more successful if it takes this into account. Secondly, an understanding of North African strategies could also lead to a greater awareness of where Europe and North African countries could cooperate in sub-Saharan Africa. However, even as they look for synergies, Europeans should also remember that not all North African initiatives are welcomed, or accepted at face value, by sub-Saharan countries. Europeans should be aware that accepting North African offers of triangular cooperation may in some cases have drawbacks that outweigh the advantages they offer.
North Africa’s “return to Africa” has been a striking feature of the region’s foreign policy in recent years. All four of the countries – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt – whose strategies have been analysed here, have stepped up their engagement with sub-Saharan Africa, recognising it as both a leading emerging market and a region whose influence in international politics is likely to increase in the coming years. But, at the same time, these North African countries are pursuing distinctively national agendas in Africa and they have in turn met with a correspondingly mixed response from sub-Saharan African countries. North African countries have returned to Africa for their own reasons, and their initiatives have often left existing tensions with sub-Saharan countries unresolved.
Morocco and Egypt, in particular, have brought a strong sense of their strategic interests into their engagement with Africa. Many sub-Saharan countries have maintained their wariness of these positions even as they welcome the attention to African institutions and processes. North African countries have also continued to equivocate about their position in Africa. In what has been called a “double pursuit”, they are committed to maintaining their privileged relationships with the EU even as they deepen their ties to their own continent. North African countries have shown no interest in being associated with negotiations between the EU and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific group of states about a successor to the Cotonou Agreement, which expires at the end of this year. North African development cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa offers benefits to the continent but can also provoke resentment if it is cast in a tutelary form, with North African countries seeming to offer the benefit of their more advanced status.
The EU should take account of the complex nature of North African engagement with sub-Saharan Africa in its relations with the continent. Firstly, it will get better results from its cooperation with North African countries on migration if it understands the African context of its partners’ policies. As Tasnim Abderrahim has argued for ECFR, the EU and its member states should appreciate that migration is a sensitive issue for North African countries as well as European ones. European and sub-Saharan African interests can be in tension, and any impression that North African countries are acting as Europe’s enforcers or gendarmes will complicate their relations with source countries. Cooperation on border management, and supporting the integration of migrant communities, is likely to be more effective than pushing North African countries to accept migrants intercepted at sea.
In the field of security, the EU and its member states should welcome signs that Algeria is re-engaging in the Sahel and encourage it to build links with the G5 Sahel and to contribute actively to stabilisation and development. The EU should also be prepared to step up its involvement in efforts to resolve the Nile dam dispute if the current round of talks falters. Europe may be better able to present itself as a neutral power than the US, which is seen as close to Egypt. As the EU looks to deepen its relationship with Africa, it should naturally seek to coordinate where possible with North African continental initiatives. Commercial ties between Maghreb countries and the Sahel could help European objectives of promoting stability. Supporting African economic integration is one of the goals mentioned in the guidelines for a new EU-Africa strategy. This could be promoted by helping to create better infrastructure links between north African countries and the rest of the continent.
There is also scope for Europe to pursue triangular cooperation with North African countries in sub-Saharan Africa, joining together on projects in areas where North Africa has relevant experience to share. Morocco, in particular, has sought to promote this idea, which was endorsed in a joint EU-Morocco declaration in June 2019. Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia have international cooperation agencies that have carried out many projects in third countries in association with international institutions and developed countries, and Algeria has announced the creation of an international cooperation agency. In several areas, including public health, rural electrification, renewable energy, and digitalisation, North African countries are pursuing similar development cooperation goals as Europe and have relevant experience, and it would make sense for efforts to be coordinated.
At the same time, the EU should remain cautious about aligning itself too strongly with North African strategies in Africa. Triangular cooperation is only valuable to the extent that all parties genuinely share objectives and the arrangement offers added value. As the EU tries to move towards a more reciprocal partnership approach with Africa, it should remember that many sub-Saharan countries look at the posture of North African states with some distrust. Where North African countries are thought to approach the rest of the continent with a sense of their own more advanced status, it may not help Europe to ally with them. Above all, European policymakers should be aware of the interests, tensions, and rivalries that underlie North African policies on the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa’s stance towards North Africa is increasingly pragmatic. A correspondingly pragmatic approach – that looks for convergence where possible but remains alive to the national agendas of powerful North African countries – would provide the best foundation for Europe’s own relationship with Africa.
‘A Return to Africa: Why North African States Are Looking South’ – Policy Brief by Anthony Dworkin – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.
The Policy Brief can be downloaded here