New Directions in European­ North African Relations

Balon - Torino 2010
New Directions in European­ North African Relations - Roberlo Aliboni

From the European geopolitical perspective, North Africa presents a rather confused picture. European politics tend to focus on the Maghreb, the Arab Occi­dent, which traditionally includes Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Egypt, although geographically part of North Africa, belongs geopolitically to another framework, the Mashreq, the Arab Orient. Libya, while strongly attracted towards the Mashreq and the Arab-Israeli framework because of its Nasserite nationalism, has largely failed to find a clear identity among the Arab front-line countries. Despite its at­tempts to integrate itself, it has remained, in many respects, excluded from both the Mashreq and the Maghreb. At the end of the 1980s, it joined the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), thus accepting a less eastward political orientation. Thus, in Euro­pean policies and perceptions, Libya is regarded as part of the Maghreb, yet the country continues to remain in between the Arab Occident and Orient.

The AMU includes the Western Saharan state of Mauritania, as well. Tradi­tionally, Europe has considered Mauritania to be a sub-Saharan, rather than a North African country. While the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue includes Mauritania, the current EU Mediterranean policy, the Euro-Mediterranean Part­nership (EMP) does not, instead placing it within the framework of the Lome Con­vention. However, were a new EU policy to emerge as distinct from present all­Mediterranean EMP, it seems reasonable for the EU to include Mauritania in a new EU-Maghreb group-to-group framework.

Thus, this article concentrates on EU-Maghreb relations, considering a wider or narrower notion of the Maghreb depending on the particular circumstances. Europe faces a number of challenges and issues in this part of the world, which affect its security in a narrower as well as broader sense. This article considers five central challenges of EU-Maghreb relations: Libya as a "rogue" state; Algeria and political Islam; migration; the Western Sahara; and the American presence in the Maghreb. To be sure, the US presence in the Maghreb does not directly impact European security. However, the mediation carried out by former US Secretary of State James Baker between the parties to the Western Sahara crisis; the weight of the American policy in shaping out Western and European attitudes towards Alge­ria and Islamism; and, more recently, the Eizenstat initiative of economic coopera­tion with the Maghreb states, are many signals of a significant American role in a region where Europe perceives itself, and is broadly perceived by others, as a pri­mary actor. This trend, while not a security issue, is nevertheless a political ques­tion mark in the European role in the Maghreb and in the Southern Mediterranean more generally.

European Relations with Libya

Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya has never ceased to pose many prob­lems internationally. In many respects, the regime is characterized by strong het­erodoxy and activism and, for various reasons, it often acts as a troublemaker on the world stage. Rightly or wrongly, the regime has been suspected of using terror­ism to attain its political ends. Such suspicions brought about the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986. Since then, two opposing kinds of strategies, inclusion and coercion, have been pursued in relations with Libya. One school of thought considers inclu­sion to be the best approach, as it prevents the al-Qaddafi regime from feeling frus­trated or isolated and thus moderates Libya's radicalism and unpredictability. On the other hand, coercion and retribution are often considered to be the most forceful and effective ways to moderate Libya.

At the end of 1980s, Algeria's President, Shazli Benjedid, following a clearly inclusive policy line, convinced Qaddafi to enter the AMU. It must not be forgotten that the AMU was not created to foster economic and inter-state cooperation. Rather, it was designed as a framework for fostering cooperation among incumbent regimes to strengthen their domestic stability and security. In this sense, Libya, with its record of subversion and activism in the region, was seen better in than out, as follows from Machiavelli's notion that, if one has an enemy, he must be either co­opted or killed. On the other hand, at that time domestic pressure and opposition from both tribal and religious quarters was beginning to increase in Libya, as well as in other Maghreb and Arab countries, so that the support provided by the AMU was welcomed by Tripoli. This inclusive policy was coupled by the addition of Libya to the framework of the Five-plus-Five Western Mediterranean agreement, estab­lished in 1989 by the AMU countries, on one side, and France, Italy, Malta, Portu­gal, and Spain, on the other. This cooperation, however, was subsumed by the 1990-91 Gulf War.1

In subsequent years, coercion became the dominant policy line. The UN placed sanctions on Libya because it refused to surrender the two citizens suspected of carrying out the terrorist attack against a Pan Am civilian aircraft over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 12, 1988.2 Meanwhile, France suspected Libya in the bomb­ing of a UTA aircraft in 1989, and Great Britain maintained no diplomatic relations with Libya because of both the Lockerbie incident and the murder of a London policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, in 1986.

However, the Libyan leadership's decision of April 5, 1999 to hand over the two suspects in the Lockerbie affair has brought about the suspension of sanctions and the implementation by the European states and the EU of normalization poli­cies in a renewed inclusive perspective.3 Even before this, Italy acted as a forerun­ner in the fostering of normal diplomatic relations. In 1996 the Italian Foreign Minister received his Libyan colleague, Omar al-Muntasser, in Rome. This meeting paved the way towards a joint declaration of the two governments in Tripoli on July 9, 1998. By this declaration, Italy has recognized its colonial responsibilities, and in particular its duty to search and care for Libyan victims of the Italian colonial ad­ministration and their families as well as to help Libyan authorities to clear Second World War Italian land mines. In the same declaration, the two governments agreed to set up an Italian-Libyan joint stock company, with a mandate to undertake joint development projects in Libya and transfer part of the income to a fund for the support of operations related to colonial victims and de-mining. After the surrender of the two Lockerbie suspects, Italian-Libyan relations were rapidly upgraded. The Italian Foreign Minister, Lamberto Dini, visited Libya on April 6, 1999, the day immediately after the sanctions were suspended, and again in August of the same year. The joint stock company was established on May 30, 1999. And, the Italian Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, visited Tripoli in December 1999. Altogether, bilateral relations between Italy and Libya are flourishing.

In a March 1996 letter to the French President, Jacques Chirac, Colonel al­Qaddafi promised to accept the French verdict on the UTA incident if it were handed down in absentia and to collaborate with the French authorities to enforce it. The ad hoc French court established to judge on the UTA case handed down a sentence on March 10, 1999, which convicted six Libyan citizens in absentia. According to a communique by the Quai d'Orsay, by mid-July 1999 a fund to compensate the rela­tives of the UTA victims had been transferred from Libya to France. French au­thorities have issued international arrest warrants for the convicted Libyans. Whether Libya will collaborate to enforce them remains uncertain. Altogether, how­ever, France considered bilateral differences with Libya publicly closed. Similarly, in the UK, after 15 years of silence, diplomatic relations resumed on July 7, 1999. At the same moment, the two governments issued a joint declaration whereby Libya recognized its responsibility in the killing of Yvonne Fletcher and its readiness to compensate her relatives as well as to cooperate with the British police inquiry into the case.

Also within the realm of this political normalization is Libya's initiative for a multibillion-dollar economic development plan to which most European countries contribute. Italy, Germany, the UK, and France remain Libya's most important partners. In 1997, these countries contributed the largest percentage of Libya's world imports: 19.4 percent from Italy; 10.5 percent from Germany; 8.5 percent from the UK; and 6.5 percent from France (about 8 percent in the two previous years). This trend continues today.

Bilateral normalization was extended further, when in April 1999 the EMP invited Libya to the its Ministerial Conference in Stuttgart as an observer with a view to become a member. In subsequent developments, the EMP partners and Libya failed to agree on membership, but Tripoli was invited again as an observer to the EMP Conference in Marseilles in November 2000. While there are many positive signs for increasingly normalized relations between Libya and Europe, the international court's conviction of one of the two Libyans indicted for the Lockerbie incident may put in question these efforts to moderate the regime by including the country in some international cooperative systems.

Algeria and Political Islam

The Europeans' interest in supporting Libya's stability largely stems from fears that Libya is easily destabilized by religious forces and such destabilization has the potential to spill over into its Arab and Sahelian neighbors. The latter are very concerned with this danger as well. In fact, the founding of the AMU was, among other things, a tentative response to this common danger. North African diplomacy, especially on the Egyptian side, has been very active in supporting Libya against Islamists so as to prevent transnational contacts and alliances between religious groups in the region. Because of its pre-eminent interest in Southern Mediterra­nean stability, Europe also has been very sensitive, both in bilateral and regional relations, to this concern. The invitation for Libya to become member of the EMP derives partly from this very concern and reflects one of the few north-south secu­rity understandings working across the Mediterranean.

Even more central to concerns about destabilization in the Maghreb and North Africa is the violent conflict unleashed by Islamism in Algeria. Europe expresses concerns over Algerian spillovers into Europe as well. The European and Western debate on Algeria in the 1990s took place as part of wider Western perceptions with respect to Islamism.4 In this debate, two main positions can be discerned. On one hand, after the Gulf War, European and Western perceptions of Islamism and its impact became most acute as a result of the domestic reactions to the war in most Arab countries and in particular in Egypt, occupied Palestine, and Algeria. Here, Western perceptions oflslamist expansion combined with emerging ideas about the enhanced role of cultural and identity factors in post-Cold War international rela­tions and the clashes these factors could bring about. In this framework, Islamism is a risk or even a threat with respect to Europe, the West, and their regional allies, which necessitates an adequate response through defense or coercion.

On the other hand, the rise of political Islam has been regarded in many Euro­pean quarters as evidence of the need to introduce political reform and pluralism in Maghreb and Arab polities. The argument runs that, provided that Islamist parties and groupings renounce violence and accept the rules of the democratic game, they should be considered legitimate opposition and should be integrated into national political processes through democratic reforms. The inherent systemic character of Islamist opposition groups to the kind of national and secular states that gradually developed in the Arab region after the French Revolution was broadly trivialized by stressing the unacceptability of "culturalist" interpretations.5

This point of view has been supported by European non-governmental organi­zations (e.g. the St. Egidio Community in Italy) and academic circles and has strongly influenced European and Western official policies in general. Developments in Al­geria have been for Europe a most important test of such progressive views and policies. Islamist leaders, considered to be terrorists by the Algerian and other Maghreb governments, were given political asylum in European countries and in the United States. In general, the mistrust of the illegitimate and authoritarian Algerian military regime outweighed concerns over lslamist threats. The use of violence by the Algerian state was regarded as state-terrorism, to the extent that it was exercised by a poorly legitimated incumbent power, so that at times Islamist violence was regarded as legitimate resistance. This state of affairs continued into the mid-1990s.

However, the expulsion of a number of Algerian leaders from Europe and the United States coincided with a change in European and Western governmental policies towards offering more support to the Algerian government. European as well as American governmental circles now give credit to the institutional reforms set in motion by President Laimine Zeroual. Western non-governmental organiza­tions do not lend the same credit to them and tend to believe that the Algerian government continues to be masterminded by the military and affected by their internecine struggles for power. The election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, hailed in Europe as an opportunity to emancipate the state from military control, has proved disappointing. In any case, while the international economic organiza­tions have never failed to support Algeria, what has changed today is that the EU, after a long suspension of relations, has started negotiations for a new association agreement with Algeria within the framework of the EMP, and NATO has provided a green light for Algeria's membership in its Mediterranean Dialogue.

European and Western perceptions of political Islam have changed in the sec­ond part of the 1990s. Islamism is no longer regarded as a direct risk or threat to Europe or the West. Instead, it is conceived as a risk or a threat to regimes and countries in the region whose destabilization would be detrimental to European and Western interests in the region and in their own countries. In this sense; the European policy, in line with that of the United States, is today more supportive of regional regimes and less selective about their political natures, whether with re­spect to Algeria, Libya, or Egypt.


Europeans are afraid of terrorism as spillover effect of political unrest and Islamism. But, in addition to the few cases of "new" terrorism, Europe is also in­volved in the region for political and logistical reasons. Political interactions also emerge as a result of perceived remnants of colonial relations in the region. For example, Algerian attacks in France in 1994-1996 were founded Algerian Islamists' belief of a link between the Algerian incumbent power and France. In the case of logistics, geographical proximity and the presence of expatriated communities in European countries are factors which also objectively involve Europe. There is no doubt that there is an important correlation between the presence of expatriated communities, sometimes fairly large, such as the Maghreb community in France and the Turkish/Kurdish presence in Germany, and transnational trends like ter­rorism and organized crime.

This correlation contributes to negative European attitudes towards migra­tion, though the perceived threats of Islamism, terrorism, and crime are not the only factors in anti-immigration positions. Immigration, legal or illegal, is regarded as a spillover in itself. The Maghreb is an important contributor to the new immigration center that Europe constitutes today. European responses to this situation, although not always directly addressing the Maghreb or North Africa, are in any case relevant to the latter and sometimes, especially in bilateral relations, have a direct impact on them.

Today, immigration to Europe, and in particular into the countries of the EU, as well as related issues, such as asylum, citizenship, etc. is essentially regulated by national policies. For the Maghreb countries, the relevant national policies are those of Italy, France, and Spain as the main countries of immigration and, more and more, countries of residence. The orientation of immigration regulations oscillates. In general, despite pressure from the left-wing parties for the adoption of liberal policies, even towards illegally immigrated people, the substantive European and Southern European trend, with few exceptions, is towards policies of more or less controlled access, regardless of the left or right orientation of the governments in­volved.

The integration of the European space to provide people the possibility of mov­ing freely in the EU/Schengen territory would require that the EU place the devel­opment of common immigration policies as a higher priority than it does currently. By raising many questions related to immigration to the level of EU policy-making, the Treaty of Amsterdam constitutes progress.6 Still, the process of developing a coordinated EU response and policy towards immigration is proceeding slowly, par­ticularly in terms of common action and resources. This situation has thus far pre­vented the EMP from addressing migration and setting out cooperation in a field, which, ultimately, is the only real north-south security issue in trans-Mediterra­nean relations. In sum, the EU has offered a very weak response to a very impor­tant challenge.

The Western Sahara and the US Presence in the Maghreb

The Western Sahara crisis is considered to be over, in the sense that it will hardly return to an armed and internationalized conflict. 7 Still, the conflict re­mains unresolved and, if a political solution is not finalized, it could trigger new tensions such that regional relations would be prevented from improving and bring­ing about the cooperation the Maghreb needs for its political stabilization and eco­nomic development.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the violent confrontation between the Western Sahara separatist movement, the Polisario Front, and Morocco ended after Algeria's support ceased under President Ben Jedid. In 1992 the UN Secretary General, on the basis of a "settlement plan" agreed upon by the parties involved, established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). After many years of unsuccessful talks with the parties to implement the settlement plan, in 1997 the Secretary General asked former US Secretary of State James Baker, to mediate between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government so as to come to an agreement as to how the referendum should be regulated. Mr. Baker held talks in Houston which succeeded in bringing about an agreement on the procedure to set up a list of eligible voters.

This procedure, however, has not managed to establish the necessary voters list. The Moroccan government has submitted numerous candidates for eligibility, but the MINURSO has approved only a small number of them. These outcomes have triggered opposition and discontent on the part of the Moroccan government and stalemated the procedure. After another unsuccessful round of talks led by James Baker, in May 2000 the UN Secretary General issued a report asking the Security Council to provide a new mandate whereby resolution options other than a referendum were made possible, which the Security Council approved.

According to a recent analysis, the possibility that the parties will compromise on a solution different from a "winner-take-all” referendum, such as a form of West­ern Sahara autonomy within the Kingdom of Morocco, is not to be dismissed.8 The Polisario seems unwilling to revert to urban terrorism and unable to practice mili­tary options any more. It is also aware of the fact that if Morocco looses the referen­dum, it will hardly willingly evacuate the territory. Furthermore, Algeria seems more interested in settling its long-standing dispute with Morocco than supporting the Polisario. As of today, the situation remains stalled.

The Western Sahara issue is interesting not because it affects European secu­rity, since it does not, but because of the conspicuous absence of European diplo­matic participation in the issue, with the exception of some French international involvement and the fact that the Western Sahara issue is constantly on the Span­ish domestic opposition's agenda. The involvement of former Secretary of State Baker in the negotiation process obviously has a personal character. Still, the UN General Secretary's the choice of an American rather than a European figure is evidence of the fact that there is an American influence in the Maghreb which competes well with Europe's. There is also an American policy towards this region that is far from neutral with respect to the region and European policies. This has been very clear in the change in Western policy towards Algeria. Although this change was not an American initiative only, the US definitely stated its decision more clearly and loudly than Europe (which acted without much official noise) and strongly influenced the overall change in European policies.

The presence of the United States in the Maghreb has been felt most recently with the Eizenstat initiative,9 which intends to involve the Maghreb countries (in­cluding Mauritania and Libya) in closer trade and investment cooperation with a view to linking these countries to globalization trends more firmly. While the coun­tries concerned did not prove very responsive, the initiative is nevertheless further evidence of an active American presence in the Maghreb.

Conclusions and Prospects

In this turn towards the US and away from Europe, Libya seems to be an exception. Here, Europe has shown to be effective in managing crises and might now help to normalize the country and encourage the restoration of Libya-US rela­tions. However, after the Camp Zeist verdict and the conviction of one of the two suspects in the Lockerbie trial, diplomatic relations may again go back to square one. Unlike in the central Maghreb, where transatlantic relations are shaped by a mixture of competition and cooperation, which in the end brings about positive results for all the parties involved, in the case of Libya the emergence, of a renewed transatlantic opposition could prove mutually detrimental rather than helpful.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the EU's Maghreb policy is indeed affected by transatlantic relations no less than its Middle East policy. Still, it remains true that Europe could have a more prominent role if it wanted to, and that in principle its role of global civilian and economic actor could provide results more easily in the Maghreb than in the Middle East because the Maghreb countries are less involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Europe's chance to play a primary political role in the Maghreb remains predicated on the relatively minor involvement of this regions' countries in the Arab-Israeli conflict on the one hand, and their especially impor­tant economic ties with Europe (trade, oil, migration) on the other. Thanks to this combination, in the Maghreb case, Europe's economic and civilian identity can gen­erate political results in ways which it cannot in the Middle East.

In this sense, Europe should opt for a special and enhanced framework of partnership with the Maghreb rather than an ad hoc system of political arrange­ments in the region. Talks should include all of the Greater Maghreb countries and have a two-tier structure. On one track, the bilateral Maghreb-EU relationship should address the economic, human, and social dimension, including soft security issues. On the other track, the Maghreb countries should set up multilateral nego­tiating desks on significant regional issues, such as reviving and revamping the AMU, establishing a regional cooperative security regime, and attempting to re­solve the Western Sahara dispute. When appropriate, as in the case of the Western Sahara dispute, non-regional actors, such as the EU, the US and the UN, should be involved in talks. There should be a conditional link between the two tiers of nego­tiations, in the sense that the institution of the special EU-Maghreb partnership would depend on significant improvements in and the success of multilateral talks on security and political issues. This strategy could help Europe realize its expected and potential role in the Maghreb. Furthermore, it would provide consistency and cohesion to transatlantic relations.

For this policy to be implemented, the EU must initiate bold rethinking about the all-Mediterranean policy it adopted with the Barcelona Declaration in 1995. This policy, blocked by the stalemate of the Middle East peace process, has proved very rigid and has prevented the EU from using its instruments according to neces­sities and circumstances. It should be remembered today that, before the EU policy assumed the shape of the all-Mediterranean Barcelona process, there were propos­als of and experiences with a European-Maghreb special relationship (the EU-Maghreb approach adopted by the 1992 European Council in Lisbon and the Five­plus-Five group). This approach could be restored either in the form of a distinct EU-Maghreb partnership or in the form of a sub-regional approach within the all­Mediterranean Barcelona framework. Whichever path is chosen, it is altogether clear that a new direction is necessary.


Roberto Aliboni is the Director of Studies at the International Affairs Institute, Rome. He is a member of the Steering Committee of the Euro-Med Study Commission, the Board of the EU-Israel Forum, and the Scientific Council of the Tampere Peace Research Institute. He has written extensively on the Mediterra­nean and the Middle East.