Europe’s Growing Strategic Irrelevance in North Africa: The Mirage of ‘Chemical Maghreb’

Written by | Friday, December 3rd, 2021

A 1,600-kilometre pipeline which lies empty is an unusual sight. All the more so when it links two continents (Africa and Europe) and four countries (Algeria, Morocco, Spain and Portugal). The crisis in the Maghreb has parallels with the recurring tensions between Russia and Ukraine which pushed Russia to build the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines to avoid depending on transit through Ukraine. Except that in Algeria’s case, the Medgaz pipeline which links Algeria directly to Spain via the Mediterranean Sea already exists. However, as from 1 November, Algerian gas is no longer exported to and through Morocco, through the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline (also known as Pere Duran Farell pipeline) which has been up and running since 1996. The gas sales agreement between Algeria and Morocco expired on the same date as the transit contracts linking Spain and Portugal to Morocco, as well as Algeria’s gas sales contracts via the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline (MGE).

As Russia blows hot and cold over a possible increase in its gas deliveries to the EU, as neither Saudi Arabia nor Russia have done anything to promote an increase in the supply of oil and gas that could have helped to curb the rise in prices of these hydrocarbons, particularly gas, the Spanish foreign minister has received “the guarantee of gas supply from Algeria to Spain, as well as the commitment to satisfy Spanish demand”. Thus, in this context, Spain has, since late summer, been receiving a greater volume of gas through the two lines supplying it from Algeria than the contractual volume. Spain and Portugal try to maximize their gas and LNG contracts with other suppliers, as they face a very tight market, the closure of the TransMed could cost Spain and Portugal as much as $4 bn/annum and about $2.2 bn/annum, respectively. Morocco for its part will have to fall back on other energy sources, though it has asked Spain to consider setting up a reverse-flow system on the MGE. Such a system requires time and money to set up. The Alawi kingdom will have to increase output from its coal-fired plants and, if it is available, import more electricity from Spain.

Meanwhile, with mistrust between Algeria and Morocco running deep, the current political crisis was thus not a bolt out of the blue which raises the question of why Morocco and the two Iberian countries did nothing to avoid a looming gas shortage “by concluding a transit agreement”. The oil and gas weekly Petrostrategies pointed out a month ago that, had this been done, “Algeria would then have renewed its gas contracts to Morocco, Spain and Portugal. Despite the eruption of the political crisis, Algiers would have been forced to honour its commitments in order to maintain its credibility as a reliable supplier”. Algeria has scrupulously honoured its foreign gas contracts ever since it started exporting gas, in LNG form, to the United Kingdom in 1964 and by pipeline to Italy in 1983.

As the two north African countries turn their back on one another, the high hopes of industrial cooperation which existed in 1996 have been dashed and with them the opportunity of creating a chemical Maghreb which would have inserted the region more closely into world trade. Hundreds of thousands of potential jobs will go missing in a region where youth unemployment and poverty are high, and rising. The pipeline could have brought greater wealth and stability. It has come to symbolize the lack of leadership which has bedeviled North Africa for decades. North African leaders have been incapable of building any form of regional economic cooperation that would have given younger people hope of a better future and the Maghreb a voice on the world stage.

The mistrust between Algeria and Morocco goes back nearly six decades. Competition to be the leading regional power is at the heart of this bitter rivalry which has prevented broader economic cooperation between North African countries from Tunisia to Mauritania. Failure to open borders and encourage trade and investment across the Maghreb has shaved at least 2% points off growth, encouraged the flight of capital, and denied a region where unemployment is high massive amounts of investment, both private and public, national and international. Neither the European Union nor the United States has been able — critics would argue, willing — to bring the two countries closer.

In fact, Europe has never really engaged strategically with North Africa. And it is this empty pipeline that also highlights the fact that the EU is unable to think strategically about a region which is important for its security because its member states are divided. The revolts which spread across the Arab lands in 2011, the more active role played by Turkey and certain Middle East monarchies, let alone China, in the Mediterranean have been met, in the Maghreb, by a failure of Europe’s political imagination. Europe has failed to live up to the challenge of its turbulent frontiers and the arc of crisis which, for a quarter of a century, spread from the Baltic states to Morocco. The EU and the US have allowed Russia to build up its military assets by accumulating strategic and tactical mistakes in Iraq, Libya and Syria. The West has indulged in wars of choice which have destabilized a region bedeviled by long-standing domestic and regional conflicts.

One of the key reasons the EU never engaged with North Africa is that it never offered the region the kind of economic integration that Germany did to its Eastern European hinterland. By heavily investing in industrial sites in the East, and fully leveraging its comparative advantages, Germany made it a “verlängerte werkbank” — a workshop extended to the East. Then in the late 1990s, the EU had taken to portraying itself as a “normative” power. While the Union lacked the attributes of traditional military superpower, it could project global leadership by promoting such norms as democracy, rule of law, human rights and social solidarity. Such lofty aspirations, however, never formed the real basis of German, or for that matter French foreign policy. The German decision to go ahead with Nord Stream 2 was inspired by “wandel durch handel” — change through trade. North Africa and Eastern Europe do not share the same historical or economic account but Northern Mediterranean countries might and should have followed Germany’s example vis a vis their Maghreb counterpart. Yet, it was never the intention of France, the key player in this game, to offer its former colonies a partnership in industrial development. This speaks of a failure of France’s political imagination.

The EU promoted its “normative” power in North Africa but never any industrial policy which might have benefited Maghreb countries as a whole. In such circumstances, the enhanced economic cooperation offered by the Barcelona Process in 1995 failed to live up to its promise because it never went beyond dressing up existing mercantilist practices, particularly those France enjoyed, in new garb. It failed to address the opportunities offered by oil and gas, phosphates and fertilizers and the broader chemicals industry at a time when the European chemical landscape was vanishing and being remodelled in a radical way. The EU failed to spot the rapidly growing demand for fertilizer that the relentless increase in world food consumption would require.

Never did EU leaders, or north African ones for that matter, consider the opportunities of a “chemical Maghreb”, where the joint use of phosphates ¬– of which Morocco has huge reserves, gas and sulphur ¬– which Algeria enjoys in abundance to which could be added ammonia, to take advantage of the fast migration of chemical industries from northern Europe to the southern hemisphere. Chemicals such as vitamins, colouring agents, industrial dyes, to quote but a few, have left Europe. The Gulf has built a powerful chemical industry, not so Algeria and Morocco. Algeria derives 95% of its export income from oil and gas, unchanged from 40 years ago, a symbol of failed economic policy. Morocco in contrast has through its nimble phosphate monopoly, OCP Group, built up a network of joint ventures across Africa and in Brazil. Fertilisers derived from phosphates have been leveraged using management techniques worthy of any well managed international company.

The EU’s lack of deep economic engagement with the Maghreb is also the consequence of France’s stubborn defence of its interests in its former colonies. The emergence of new outside actors such as China, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and older players such as Russia has allowed often precarious north African ruling elites to leverage new sources of military, trade and political ties to reduce their overdependence on Europe. So far, U.S. has not disengaged from the region. It is playing an active role in Tunisia, is engaged with Algeria in guaranteeing the security of Tunisia’s borders with Libya, and does not appears averse to Algerian security forces playing a greater role in Mali as France slowly disengages from its military commitment there.

So will the Maghreb decouple from Europe? The closure of the Maghreb-Europe pipeline will further encourage the economic decoupling of countries on the two shores of the Western Mediterranean. Turkey and China are both developing their trade and investment ties in the region while Morocco is building new ones across West Africa and, in OCP’s case, across the world. Russia’s military presence is meanwhile growing in North Africa and the Sahel countries while relations between France and Algeria are going through their worse crisis in decades. As France draws down its forces in Mali, Algeria will step up its presence. As the tectonic plates move in the region, the EU has no new ideas, let alone policies to offer. Might Chinese companies integrate the Maghreb in the years ahead? Such an outcome is less far-fetched that it might appear but the onus will be on North African countries. Europe might even be tempted by some kind of triangular perspective. The EU’s incapacity to think strategically about North West Africa and the wider Mediterranean region points to its influence declining further as we move into the second quarter of the 21st century.

‘Escalating Rivalry Between Algeria and Morocco Closes the Maghreb-Europe Pipeline’ — Opinion by Francis Ghilès — Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.

The Opinion can be downloaded here

Article Categories:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.