Hafed Al-Ghwell

The recent European parliamentary elections have set the stage for interesting shifts in the bloc’s policies toward North Africa, a region that is increasingly pivotal, and not only for its proximity to Europe.

In recent years, North Africa has risen sharply in Western policy priorities owing to rapidly increasing roles in managing migration, bolstering European energy security, counterterrorism cooperation, regional stabilization, and climate change mitigation. Given the outcomes of these elections, it is critical to explore how EU-North Africa relations might evolve or prefer continuity in Europe’s approach toward its closest southern neighbors.

On migration, the changes in the European Parliament’s composition signal potential continuity of favoring stringent immigration controls, and increased reliance on externalization policies that empower North African countries to stem migration flows before they reach European shores. The policy aligns with existing practices, where the EU has sought to reinforce its borders indirectly through collaboration with third countries, coupled with financial incentives to bolster their capacity to deter migrations.

The sustainability of these policies, however, has come under intense scrutiny. Externalization has proven effective in reducing numbers, but it does not deal with the underlying causes of migration, such as instability, economic hardship, and climate change impacts that prevail both in origin countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, and transit countries, mainly in North Africa. The resulting policy framework thus risks perpetuating a cycle where short-term containment overshadows long-term solutions.

North African governments appear to have embraced their sharply expanding roles as gatekeepers of “Fortress Europe.” After all, the threat of a repeat of the 2015 crisis has and will continue to provide significant leverage in negotiations with Brussels.

The jury is still out on whether a continuation of the dynamic will eventually shift discussions toward more comprehensive partnerships that include investments in key sectors, infrastructure development, and climate resilience. However, with the current makeup of this next parliament, the EU will likely resist adopting more nuanced strategies beyond the current “contain first, answer later“’ approach, even when faced with continued migration pressures and heightened criticism from human rights groups.

On climate policy, the proposed outcomes and sentiments expressed in continental frameworks such as the European Green Deal make it clear that energy security and sustainability are taking on a new-found primacy in European policy circles. These are not just shaping the internal dynamics within the European bloc but also recalibrating extrinsic partnerships, particularly with its resource-endowed southern neighbor North Africa.

In turn, North African countries are keenly aware of the evolving energy narrative within the EU for various reasons. Aside from Algeria’s meteoric rise as an alternate supplier for disrupted Russian gas, there is also the region’s unmatched potential in solar and wind energy that makes it a pivotal player in the EU’s “greenification,” and mitigating the dependence on non-renewables.

Such a trajectory holds great promise for North African countries willing to harness this potential. A concerted move to establish clearer policy directives and bolster infrastructure can channel substantial EU investment into renewable projects — investment that can be a catalyst for broader economic revitalization and diversification within the region. 

However, while the EU’s policy shift toward the green transition and the enshrined goals such as net-zero emissions by 2050 stand as a testament to its commitment to addressing climate change, this shift is not without its complexities.

The impetus toward a green transition, while supported by some European political factions, faces resistance from others, particularly from sectors with entrenched interests in traditional energy sources or those that perceive environmental regulations as threatening to economic competitiveness. Such actions have a direct bearing on the magnitude and pace of green investment flows, and by extension, the benefits to North Africa.

Moreover, the greening of European economies is likely to prompt a systemic shift in global energy markets. North African countries, therefore, perceive the existential necessity not only to align with this transition but also to integrate into the emerging green value chains — motivated by opportunities to create new industries, jobs, and economic diversification.

Simultaneously, North African states are disproportionately affected by climate impacts, such as water scarcity and agricultural disruptions, which worsen existing vulnerabilities. Arguably, a deeper collaboration with the EU on climate finance and technology transfers presents not just a route to economic development but also a way to bolster climate resilience — a synergy that dovetails with both EU’s foreign policy aspects of the Green Deal and North Africa’s overall development in future.

In light of security recalibrations in the Sahel, notably the termination of the EU Training Mission in Mali and other missions in Niger, the bloc insists that it will remain a steadfast security partner to Africa. Despite withdrawals from specific operations in the Sahel due to the region’s political instability and the arrival of competing security entities such as Russian mercenaries, the EU’s resolve to engage with African nations on security matters, notably through new civilian-military missions, signals a flexible approach to tackling transnational threats.

North African policymakers are also cognizant of these shifts. Approaches that combine direct military training with broader, capacity-building missions align with both current and future efforts to bolster regional stability and counter threats that could spill over from the Sahel. This operational reshaping indicates European readiness to adapt its security strategies to political changes within its territories and external geopolitical fluctuations, shoring up its role as a critical security partner for a region that sits right next to a volatile Sahel and Horn of Africa.

Lastly, on democratization, the EU’s stance has evolved toward democracy support — a noticeable pivot from an assertive democratization agenda — to safeguard democratic spaces in restrictive contexts. The recalibrated strategy is less about exporting a specific democratic model and more focused on preserving the civic freedoms necessary for democracy to breathe.

The change signifies a recognition of the complexities inherent in supporting democracy in environments where political repression and challenges to civic freedoms are prevalent. Thus, the EU will likely increasingly favor initiatives that strengthen the resilience of civil society, rather than pushing for immediate political transformations.

In sum, the trajectory of EU-North Africa relations in the wake of European parliamentary elections presents a complex interplay of continuity and potential shifts. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for navigating existing challenges and leveraging opportunities to redefine the region’s engagement with Europe. Future strategies should remain nuanced, aiming to balance national interests with collaboration in areas of shared threats, from energy security to climate action, while pursuing a migration agenda that respects dignity and promotes development.


Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.


Related Articles