A shift to ‘strategic interdependence’ could revive the EU’s troubled policy on North Africa

By Hafed Al-Ghwell, Arab News, 04 November 2023

For every theory of foreign policy, there is an equal and opposite alternative. It is this strange maxim that seeks to augur the bewildering aftermath of Europe’s failed pursuit of some kind of strategic vision premised on European exceptionalism.

Swimming against an undercurrent, Europe had sought, and was on the cusp of finding, its place in the sun, somewhat unshackled from American hegemony and poised to take advantage of the emergence of China and heady ambitions for the Global South, fueled by Russian energy, of course.

Unfortunately, a rash of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, an upsurge in migrant arrivals and the recent convulsions in the Middle East, have conspired to uproot that dream, forcing Brussels back into more familiar geopolitical trenches.

This retreat will likely bury the remnants of the idea of “strategic autonomy,” once the lodestar of European foreign policy in the post-War on Terror world, now to be replaced by a more outward-looking and proactive “strategic interdependence.”

It is within this evolving diplomatic framework that Europe must revisit its troubled policy on North Africa, which has long been plagued by a lack of political will, uneven capabilities, and diverging priorities among member states.

The EU has traditionally viewed North Africa through an array of prisms, including migration management, counterterrorism, and resource trade. Often, these have prioritized European self-interest over a more balanced approach, making it impossible to craft effective policies to build a path toward fostering better ties or, at the very least, helping to ameliorate some of the pressing challenges in the subregion.

Guided by its strategic interests, the EU has long recognized the importance of forging robust ties with North Africa, which is its gateway to the youthful, resource-rich and burgeoning African continent. This focus is nothing new, given the gradual development since the early 2000s of the European Neighbourhood Policy in an attempt to craft frameworks for political dialogue and reforms in North African countries, which form part of the bloc’s Southern Neighbourhood.

In 2021, the EU launched a renewed agenda for the South Mediterranean, with a view to integrating these economies further with the EU edifice. Two years later, however, North Africa remains nowhere close to reaching a region-wide free-trade agreement, nor has the subject of EU-Maghreb integration moved beyond the realm of fiction.

Europe is stuck and it can only be hoped that a new, more assertive approach in trade, security, migration and energy will help materialize the contours of this new “strategic interdependence.”

Today, the subregion largely remains at arm’s length, its instability perceived more as a distant threat than a direct challenge to Europe’s geostrategic interests. The end result, therefore, is a patchwork of clashing priorities, questionable maneuvering, absenteeism, lop-sided bilaterals, unforced errors and, as demonstrated in Libya, complete disarray.

In short, Brussels consistently fails to engage meaningfully with the complex sociopolitical nuances of the subregion by grossly underestimating, and even dismissing, the importance of promoting equitable, mutually beneficial relationships.

Inevitably, rather than strong foundations and robust frameworks for mutual cooperation, we instead have harmful misconceptions, unfulfilled potential and institutional resistance to replacing flawed policies with assertive, cooperative approaches toward North Africa, ideally rooted in the principles of strategic interdependence.

As we find ourselves on the precipice of a new global order in which middle powers increasingly shape the terms of engagements, the EU needs to recalibrate its relationship with North Africa, post haste. On paper, strategic interdependence looks promising, since it shuns a Eurocentric narrative in favor of a more nuanced perception of engagements with external powers, while simultaneously recognizing the inherent interlinkages that shape these relationships.

It also compels the EU to acknowledge its limitations, while also identifying areas in which it wields significant influence. Rather than striving for self-sufficiency or dominance, it encourages a shift toward an equitable, equal footing with external partners.

This necessitates navigation around political coexistence, competitiveness, and key relationships in lieu of championing the crumbling remnants of a bygone era that is largely responsible for the current malaise.

Strategic interdependence in the EU’s North Africa policy will certainly enhance the bloc’s interactions with the region, although a growing undercurrent of Western antipathy will complicate such a pivot. A focus on interdependencies, however, might facilitate greater engagement across various sectors, including climate, migration, and socioeconomic partnerships, thereby strengthening ties and fostering more effective cooperation.

If successful, such a forward-looking approach will naturally evolve into a conduit for a more nuanced understanding of each North African country’s distinct aspirations and imperatives as part of overall policymaking.

By dispensing with the lazy, “one-size-fits-all” diplomacy du jour, the EU could finally achieve something that has eluded many of its accomplished statesmen and women: Constructive engagement with the bloc’s near-neighborhood on the basis of shared interests and expectations, thereby meeting North Africa halfway, while curtailing the one-sided approach that marred previous engagement policies and strategies for navigating the subregion’s shared crises.

However, this does not mean that the pathway to strategic interdependence would be devoid of challenges. A crucial prerequisite will be the EU’s political will to adopt a more “tactical” approach to help safeguard its interests in an ever-shifting geopolitical landscape in which the lines blur between friends, foes, aspirants and aggressors.

Europe’s quest to reenergize its ties with North Africa will likely bear more fruit if it is rooted in honest, unvarnished discourse about the bloc’s vested interests in areas of potential collaboration. Such a transparent approach would position it more as an earnest participant in an increasingly multipolar world, without restricting or denying the agency of keen-eyed counterparts wary of any version of neocolonialism.

Moreover, while “moral righteousness” might have shaped the contours of engagement in the world of yesteryear, that world has changed. Identifying common ground rather than demanding subservience to elusive, broad stances on so-called “universal values” will go a lot further, provided it is reinforced by tangible financial backing.

Europe must therefore endeavor to nurture confidence in partnerships through fruitful discussions about an array of pertinent issues, including debt sustainability, climate change compensation, infrastructure development, healthcare, education and migration, to name but a few.

It is vital for the bloc to approach these affairs with a lucid understanding of their inherently transactional dynamics, and engage squarely based on overlapping interests. Over time, acknowledging strategic interdependence and its nuanced approach to collaboration will demand acceptance of a new, fractured global order.

This by no means implies that Europe should isolate itself. On the contrary, constructive engagement with non-Western actors becomes critical, not only to address global challenges but also to further Europe’s own agenda.

Commitment to these new rules of engagement will define whether or not the EU emerges as a formative player in shaping this new world order, and it begins with its own proverbial “backyard.”

The shift from autonomy to interdependence should not be a mere change in terminology, or window-dressing to disguise a rehash of past failures. It should be a fundamental reorientation of Europe's diplomatic posture, one that signifies a move away from a self-centered, inward-looking approach toward a more proactive, outward-looking stance that emphasizes coexistence, competition and key relationships.

Such a shift could prove instrumental in enhancing Europe’s engagements with North Africa, a region in which geopolitical volatility directly affects Europe’s security and energy dynamics, and unprecedented migrant surges are adding to the challenges.

For too long, the EU has been bound by a flawed approach defined by one-sided interests; if Brussels hopes to revitalize its strategy for and influence in North Africa, it must signal a willingness to learn from the past, adapt to present realities, and to participate meaningfully in the emerging world order.


Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative (IKSI) at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C., and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell


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