The decision to turn to greater cross-border cooperation in the region can only come from the highest levels in each country, and in this case that means the very personal attention of the heads of state – Mohammed VI in Morocco, Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, Zine Labadine ben Ali in Tunisia and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Pressure points in such a situation are difficult to find. However, they exist, at very high and much lower levels.
The lower levels concern public opinion, the media, NGOs, and political parties. None of these have the weight one might find in a more developed country, but they do exist and the leaders are not insensitive to them. Morocco and Algeria, under a monarchy and personalised leadership respectively, are multiparty polities; in Tunisian and Libyan autocracies, civil society would be the source of pressure in the absence of political pluralism. Studies have shown that integration takes place when it becomes a party platform across the potentially integrating countries, and this is true for cooperation, a looser form of integration. To date, this has not occurred, so what is necessary is a less formalised effort led by NGOs to bring the message of the benefits of cooperation to the decision-making levels.
The higher levels refer to other states, friends and allies of the Maghreb countries, who can weigh heavily on the North African leaders, in all the parties’ interest. A focused policy to encourage Maghreb economic cooperation will have multiple components, beginning with a new approach that treats the region as a unit rather than a collection of competing bilateral relations. Discussions called for in existing EU-Moroccan and EU-Tunisian FTAs and the US-Moroccan FTA on coverage by the agreements’ rules of origin can be used to explore creative ways to greater cooperation, including regional cumulation or ‘economic integration zones’ modelled on the successful Qualifying Industrial Zones in Jordan and Egypt that are tied to the US-Israel FTA. The US and EU can build upon their trade and investment framework agreements in the region (as done with the Asian Pacific economic region) and bilateral investment treaties with Tunisia and Morocco to promote regional trade and investment liberalisation.
Maghreb partners of the US and the EU can also be encouraged to eliminate their own tariffs and non-tariff barriers on products imported from other Maghreb countries and reduce barriers to intra-regional investment and trade in services. The US can create mandates for regional projects in North Africa for the Trade Development Agency, Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Ex-Im Bank. The US and Europe can also create regional, private sector initiatives through instruments and programmes such as the US Center for International Private Enterprise, and promote FDI that focuses on the region as a whole, instead of simply on a country-by-country basis.
By emphasising reform, the EU has done much to improve the business climate in Eastern Europe and it can do the same for the Maghreb. The US can cooperate with ongoing EU initiatives such as the Barcelona Process for Euro-Mediterranean cooperation, the eastern Mediterranean 5 [European]+5 [Maghrebi] efforts at handling common challenges, and the French-sponsored Union for the Mediterranean designed to promote exchanges between the north and south shores, all of which can benefit from some external energising. One example would be US support for systems for independent administrative and judicial review of customs determinations.
The US and the EU can encourage harmonisation of regulatory regimes throughout the region to the highest possible standards, as is being done for ASEAN in Southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in the Pacific area. In the Maghreb, where both the US and European countries have common interests, the two sides of the Atlantic can find a common cause for cooperation and overcome the temptation to see each other as competitors and to be played off against each other. This requires focused dialogue, measures of collaboration, and attention to mutual benefit.
The most dangerous future challenge to the region concerns its water supply. The Maghreb is now a ‘water-threatened area’ where water is in scarce supply, and will soon become a ‘water¬deficient area’ where water supplies are seriously inadequate to human, agricultural and industrial needs. A coordinated international effort to support research, investment and infrastructure development to meet the threat before it crunches agriculture and urban life in the region is a critical confidence-building measure.
As in any of these areas, collaborative research can help improve general research and development capacities in North Africa. As leading members of the international financial institutions, the US and EU countries can coordinate projects to promote North African regional integration, including current efforts at high-speed train and motorway construction and crisis stabilisation in the region. Other sectors ripe for greater regional cooperation are energy (including wind generation), agribusiness and banking.
Security rests above all on the improvement of socio-economic conditions and the development of a healthy society and economy, so that youth are not drawn down into the pit of despair and rebellion, with the unemployed seeking outlets for their despair in terrorism,jihadi groups, drug networks, and smuggling. Without greatly increased levels of cooperation and coordination among the Maghreb countries and with the US and the EU, the sahel region will continue to be the Achilles heel of any efforts at regional security. The unregulated and ungoverned areas, including those populated by the Polisario refugee camps, are real threats to cooperation and stability in the region.
Moroccan security services have been more effective against jihadi groups since the deadly attacks on Casablanca in 2003 and Madrid in 2004, and within the past year several major Moroccan terrorist cells with roots and connections in Europe have been dismantled before they could carry out their attacks. Although security has improved in Algeria since the series of Al Qaeda attacks in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007, the attacks continue and Algeria could benefit from increased regional cooperation. It would be far more efficient in meeting these threats to complement ‘vertical’ cooperation with the US and Europe with ‘horizontal’ cooperation between Maghreb countries. Examples include regional training programmes on anti-terrorism, drug smuggling, trafficking in persons, illegal immigration through existing multilateral programmes (like NATO’s Med Initiative) or through bilateral efforts of both the US and European allies.
The states of the EU and NATO security communities can help the countries adopt confidence- and security-building mechanisms (CSBMs) as a step toward the development of a security community in the region, where war is no longer conceivable as an arm of intra-regional policy. The most obvious measure to promote regional integration is to reopen the border with road and rail services between Morocco and Algeria and increase direct flights between the Maghreb capitals. The countries of North Africa face no threats external to the region, and they know that a war in the region would be costly and unproductive. Security cooperation is an option that the US and the EU can facilitate, and would help forestall an accidental escalation of tense relations between neighbours. Removing the single largest issue in the way of security cooperation by resolving the Western Sahara conflict would allow Morocco and Algeria to turn coordinated attention to the security problem to their south, permit them to reduce their forces level and halt their arms race and free them to devote more of their budgets to civilian needs.
For those who feel that the Western Saharan issue is merely a symptom, not a cause, of ill relations, its removal can eliminate a specific instance of cross-border conflict and clear the way for other measures of cooperation and CSBMs that can chip away at bad neighbourly relations.
It should also be obvious that the Saharan problem will not be ‘solved’ in any absolute sense in the near future, but that a new compromise status could allow attention to be focused on specific components of the situation without remaining stuck in the larger principled deadlock. If the US and the EU states members of the UN Security Council provide active leadership, there are good prospects for creating an environment for action toward a solution based on the compromise expressed in the UN-favoured sovereignty/ autonomy formula. Already, these countries can adjust their policy on development assistance and investment support to offer direct assistance and development programmes in the Western Sahara for the benefit of the local population and to provide better opportunities and a more hopeful future for the people of the region. Such a leadership role would benefit the entire Maghreb and the interests of the external sponsors as well.