For Its Own Sake, the EU Should Do More For the Arab World

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Given the political turmoil in their respective spheres, the European and Arab leaders who attended the first Arab League-European Union summit in Sharm El-Sheikh may not have realized they were missing a great opportunity. Indeed, they were quite distracted during the event—the Europeans, with Brexit, and the Arabs with Qatar’s decision to send a downgraded delegation to the gathering at the Red Sea resort.

This is disappointing, because the summit was a rare chance for top leaders from both sides to explore areas of potential collaboration in the face of common strategic challenges, including security and migration. It’s only small mercy that they’ve agreed on holding another meeting in 2022.

After the almost desultory discussions at the summit, it is easy to conclude that the EU has very little to offer the Middle East and North Africa. Little has come of previous attempts at collective cross-Mediterranean economic and political cooperation, under the rubric of the Barcelona Process, which began in 1995. A series of association agreements between the EU and individual Arab neighbors—Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan—have failed to deliver long-term growth, prosperity or employment to the Arab parties. Politically, the Arab states are now much more fragile and dysfunctional than they were 24 years ago.

But the failure of the Barcelona Process is down EU’s neglect of its influence—not the lack of it—in the Arab world. Despite its internal economic and political weaknesses, and the increasing prominence of China, the EU retains enormous economic power, especially in North Africa where the most populated Arab states are located. The EU is the biggest trade partner for Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. It is the biggest source of FDI inflows in those countries, as well as a main source of tourists and of workers’ remittances for Tunisia and Morocco.

These North African economies are tiny: their combined nominal GDP in 2017 barely made up 2 percent of that of the EU. This means the Europeans can easily afford to sponsor their development efforts through trade and investment. This is not a matter of charity. Sustained peace, stability and economic development in these countries are vital for the security of the EU.

The trouble is, EU leaders expect their Arab counterparts to do a great deal, in return for nothing. For instance, they want North African governments to block the flow of illegal migrants and to coordinate efforts against terrorism—but the Europeans are reluctant to revisit existing patterns of economic cooperation in a way that would accommodate the development needs of the North African countries. Instead, those countries are expected to fit their pressing national development requirements into the EU priorities of reciprocal trade liberalization and investment in maquiladora industries that serve European markets ,with little spillover to the local economies.

In remaining unwilling to accommodate the development needs of the countries on the other side of the sea, European leaders are ignoring the reality that trouble in the Mediterranean periphery will not be contained there—it will find its way into the very heart of Europe, with enormous political and economic consequences.

The Syrian civil war is a good example of this: large flows of refugees from the war-torn country have contributed significantly to reshaping the political spectrum in major EU countries. On the one hand, these flows have facilitated the rise of the far-right and openly-racist parties across Europe; on the other, they have exacerbated tensions amongst EU members over sharing the burden. On top of these are the problems of radicalization among Europeans of Arab descent in the wake of the conflict in Syria and Iraq, some of whom are trying to make their way back home as the ISIS caliphate collapses.

The only way around all these problems is for the Europeans to take a more active role in the development of Arab states, especially those in the Mediterranean littoral.

A good start would be to revise the bilateral trade agreements between the EU and their Arab partners in a way that acknowledges explicitly the development needs of the latter, especially regarding technology-transfer, job-creation and diversification away from raw materials. This should replace the EU’s revived push for further liberalization of trade that would likely lead to more de-industrialization and higher unemployment.

The EU should also remove the bias against agricultural imports from these countries. Another positive contribution European nations can make is to integrate oil-poor North African countries into their renewable-energy strategies as long-term alternatives to fossil fuels. Countries like Morocco and Egypt have a great potential in areas like solar energy production.

In short, the EU should accommodate the development needs of the Middle East and North Africa, instead of forcing those regions to accommodate those of Europe. That should be the basis of a new Barcelona Process.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Amr Adly is an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of "State Reform and Development in the Middle East."

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