While the rationale for deepening economic relations is compelling and there is a foundation of commercial ties to build on,significant drawbacks remain. The EuroMed countries, more specifically, the North African nations, may trade a lot with the EU, but they do very little trade with each other. In fact, from a trading perspective, these countries could well be islands. There are few distributed value chains that span across the region and, when the EU interacts with them, the transactions are effectively bilateral. This is in stark contrast to the situation in Asia, where the export boom has been supported by trade within the region, with China acting as a local hub. Regional free trade agreements, such as ASEAN, have been successful at boosting inter-regional value chains.
The lack of integration in regional trade in North Africa is caused by several factors. Trade costs are high, due to tariff and non-tariff barriers and high transportation costs. North African economies also lack complementarity, with countries such as Libya and Algeria being largely reliant on revenues from oil and gas, while Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia are more dependent on agriculture and tourism. The region suffers from significant political instability which doesn’t favour cross-border trade. Libya is in the midst of a civil war, while countries such as Algeria are notable as being unpredictable markets for foreign investors. There are also latent hostilities between countries, such as Morocco and Algeria, where the land border has been closed since 1994. In addition, the North African countries also have scope for domestic reforms, to improve their competitiveness and in areas such as the rule of law and enforceability of contracts, which would increase their overall attractiveness at the international level.
The region thus faces multiple challenges in its economic development, which in turn provokes the question of how the EU can best support the process. As a first step, it could start by encouraging more regional dialogue through its existing EuroMed forum. The forum explicitly aims to improve cross-regional links and includes thematic programmes working across including civil society, economic development, climate change and transport. However, the forum could benefit from a political boost and increased resources, with more engagement at a senior level.
One of the challenges to date has been that this region is often largely viewed through the prism of security. The security situation in Libya, having degraded into a form of proxy war between Egypt, the Gulf countries, Turkey, Russia and others, has absorbed the efforts and political capital of many EU leaders. This in turn may have embedded the logic that meaningful cooperation with the region cannot begin until Libya is more stable.