In February 1989, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania signed the constitutive treaty of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) in Marrakech, aimed at creating a common economic market with free circulation of people and goods as well as a customs union. Its formation was strongly influenced by that of the European Union. The organization’s goals were to achieve economic integration among the member countries and to strengthen the position of the Maghreb.
The political union was to be a corollary of this process of economic integration, very much like in the EU system. As former Algerian minister of foreign affairs explained, during the negotiations that led to the creation of the AMU, former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi wanted immediate political unification whereas Algeria and Morocco, most likely influenced by the formation of the European Union, insisted on economic union first with the idea of the political union coming later.
The AMU aimed at alleviating the poverty, bad management and social violence that the countries of the region were experiencing at the time. Sharing similar languages and dialects, the same religion, namely Sunni Islam, recent experiences of colonial oppression – whether French colonialism in the case of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, or Italian in the case of Libya – and a similar culture with seemingly complementary economies, this goal of creating a union seemed achievable.
But a rivalry between Algeria and Morocco, still one of the most prominent regional issue had prevented the process from moving forward. As a former Algerian diplomat explained, at the time, the Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid and the King Hassan II of Morocco had decided to ignore the Sahrawi question in the bilateral relation between Algiers and Rabat and to leave it to the UN. Better, Hassan II strongly believed that the creation of the AMU would facilitate a solution of the Western Sahara issue. However, thirty years later, it is clear that the AMU has been a total failure as a result of the continuing dispute between Algeria and Morocco.
This, in turn, has severely constrained the region’s economic development and damaged its position in the international system. While all the Maghreb countries are open to the international economy and world markets, there is no coordination among them. As a result, their economic development has been restricted given the asymmetry between them and their primary economic partners – the EU, the United States and China. Moreover, the Maghreb countries have signed a series of agreements with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other major actors that have led to vertical rather than horizontal integration, thus benefiting their partners rather than being mutually beneficial.
The AMU, which was supposed to promote cooperation and to unite the North African states following a model similar to that of the EU, has been virtually inactive since 1994, mainly because of the tension between Algeria and Morocco, and is therefore considered by many as “a deceased organization”. The competition between Algeria and Morocco disrupts the coherence of the sub-regional system and destabilizes it, or at least delays any possible stabilization, thus increasing the fragmentation of the region into a sort of “bipolarity”.
For its part, the EU is seen by both Algeria and Morocco as a major partner both in economic and political terms. However, when it comes to the issue of the Sahara, while both sides believe the EU could play a role in its resolution, they have not succeeded in defining what that role could be, especially given the sheer diversity of interests among EU members.
‚Algeria–Morocco Relations and Their Impact on the Maghrebi Regional System‘ – Working Paper by Djallil Lounnas and Nizar Messari – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.