Political crises and deepening structural and governance deficiencies throughout North Africa have become emblematic of a troubled EU approach to the region that emphasizes illusory ideals over difficult, albeit common sense, engagements.
Over the past decade alone, puzzling stumbles in its attempts to navigate the region’s complex challenges have decimated any confidence in the ability of Brussels to confront the grave threats brewing right on its doorstep.
Given the speed at which a new Middle East and North Africa is emerging, spurred by Washington’s “right-sizing” of its presence in the region, time is quickly running out for Europe to develop a coherent, sustainable approach to its engagements with its Mediterranean neighbors.
Granted, much of the attention in Europe and the wider world currently is focused, rightly, on the troubles in Eastern Europe and their potential to spill over into a global landscape replete with woes.
However, it should not be understated how a resilient democracy in Tunisia, the peace, prosperity and sustained stability of Algeria, Libya and Morocco are of similar strategic importance.
Instead, the reality is a dismal, decade-long record of bumbling, knee-jerk reactions and gross strategic miscalculations that will continue to hamper EU institutions and the ability of the bloc to coordinate its responses to crises unique to North Africa.
The Tunisian president’s dissolution of parliament and the shutting down of almost all political life, echoes the authoritarian rule that the Arab Spring aspired to undo. What first appeared to be remarkable decisiveness is now a jumble of incoherent, out-of-touch responses to a worsening socioeconomic crisis and the reintroduction of systemic repression by the security forces to curb opposition.
Instead of a great turnaround, there is an accelerating slide into state bankruptcy, governance failures and a return to instability. Given the likelihood of such a worst case scenario, the EU could have applied indirect pressure on Tunis to wrap up this political project as soon as possible. However, the bloc would rather “reward” the president’s lunge for one-man rule by lending Tunisia about €450 million ($470 million) in budget support, in addition to maintaining its access to a €200 million fund, shared by Morocco, Algeria and Egypt, to mitigate disruption to global grain supplies.
Libya, meanwhile, is spiraling into a self-inflicted festering mess the longer the will of its war-weary populace remains subordinated to the pursuit of extremely narrow interests by a gilded few and their external backers. What is left of the country’s tattered, ineffectual, multitrack transition processes are cults of personality vying to rewrite a long-overdue first chapter of Libya’s democratization in the post-Muammar Qaddafi era. The actual transition to a stable, democratic and unified state — capping off a multi-year standoff — remains a distant, elusive priority, if it happens at all.
Europe must quickly come to terms with its undeniable role as a major actor in an increasingly multipolar world, and the first place to do so assertively would be in North Africa.
This woeful state of affairs has only become more entrenched given the complete disinterest of Brussels in mounting serious, well-coordinated and well-managed interventions to correct the unraveling of Libya’s post-2011 order.
France and Italy are the nations most actively engaged in very divisive roles in the shadow of broader European inaction over Libya, doubling down on the pursuit of narrow, often contradictory, interests prompting even more external meddling by Russia and Turkey.
In Algeria, a promising Hirak protest movement has waned, crowded out by an incompetent ruling elite that is quicker to suppress dissent than initiate compelling reforms to make the “Algerian Dream” a reality. The risky gambit that should have led to Algeria’s “Tunisia moment” is now a sociopolitical hellscape, with the Hirak movement now reduced to a mere symbolic aspiration for democracy.
What remains is a dysfunctional state, where neither a fractured opposition nor an incorrigible ruling elite can capably address Algeria’s glaring shortcomings ahead of what will likely be severe socioeconomic collapse.
This growing list of the EU’s failures to deftly manage its relations with North Africa are a byproduct of a dysfunctional and misguided Southern Neighborhood Policy, officially known as ENP-South. On a broader level, what should have been a “privileged partnership” has so far devolved into an ambiguous project that eschews meaningful engagement, allows member states to pursue competing strategies, and ignores severe institutional deficiencies that are hobbling North African societies, economies and politics.
In addition, the most dominant priorities on the EU’s southern borders are the propping up of a punitive border regime, and wonky diplomacy tinged with neocolonialist ideals, instead of coherent approaches focusing on securing longer-term stability. However, a decade or more of continued strategic miscalculations risks entrenching dangerous trends that eventually metastasize into the shared cultural spaces and deep links between every society along the Mediterranean’s shores.
Given North Africa’s proximity and strategic importance, Brussels correctly prioritized cooperation with Mediterranean states, solidifying its ambitions to become an influential player in efforts to address shared global risks such as climate change, irregular migration, energy security, counterterrorism and other hybrid threats.
Algeria, Tunisia and Libya remain the countries most at risk given their fragile sociopolitical dynamics, and any further destabilization could spill over into Europe, and even the rest of the world, if continued indecision sponsors or institutionalizes inaction in external engagements by Brussels.
The EU faces numerous internal challenges resulting from resurgent nationalism and EU-skepticism, which distract from the complex efforts to stabilize its southern neighborhood and invest in its longterm resilience.
Europe must quickly come to terms with its undeniable role as a major actor in an increasingly multipolar world, and the first place to do so assertively would be in North Africa. Collective action there must be guided by coherent strategies and clear-sighted objectives, not narrow transactionalism.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.