Does Maghreb integration still matter?

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

Since the beginning of the year, if one judges at least by the number of conferences held on the issue in various capitals, there is clearly a renewed interest in the issue of Maghreb integration. But considering the inward focus of most of the Maghrebi countries these days, as they struggle with the aftershocks of the Arab Spring and the blowback of the war in Mali, does Maghreb integration still matter?

Based on recent developments, one can argue that the long-cherished Maghrebi ideal does not matter anymore. All the countries of the sub-region, Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, are consumed by their own internal and regional dynamics. The five nations are very much absorbed by their own security and political stability concerns as well as by their continuing socio-economic woes. The Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) institutions seem ill-equipped to deal with the formidable transformations in the region. It is not surprising that they hardly make the news anymore. The celebration of the 24rd anniversary of the AMU, last month, was subdued to say the least. And the Maghreb summit, which was supposed to bring together the member-country leaders, for the first time since 1994, did not take place last year.


Ironically, however, it is because of these difficulties that the Maghreb still matters. In fact, it has never mattered as much as today.

Isolated development approaches, pursued in the Maghreb for more than two decades, have clearly failed. In the words of Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, “The old economic model was not up to the task”. A euphemism for the huge socio-economic impasse where the countries of Arab North Africa find themselves.

The socio-economic indicators of failure are obvious. Youth unemployment and university graduate unemployment rates were and are still the highest of any region in the world. Economic growth, even before the revolutionary upheavals, was too low to provide for the needed value-added jobs and overall stability. Post Arab Spring turbulence has only compounded the pre-existing socio-economic difficulties.
Inter-Maghrebi trade accounts for no more than 2 % of the total trade in the region. This rate is lower than that between countries of any other regional grouping, including nations of Latin America and Southeast Asia. In the words of Jacob Kolster, a senior executive at the African Development Bank, "the region is the least integrated neighborhood in the world."

There have been many studies trying to assess the cost of the “”non-Maghreb”, i.e. the cost incurred by Maghreb countries for failing to integrate their economies. A recent European Union communication pointed out that “on the economic side, the cost of the “non-Maghreb” has variously been estimated at between 1 and 2% of the GDP. However, the real cost of non-integration goes beyond economic growth to include security, and wider human development in the region.” The “go-it-alone” approach has led Maghreb countries to a dead-end.

A renovated integration process

Speaking to Maghrebi finance ministers and central bank governors, last Januray in Nouakchott, Christine Lagarde said: “We need strong and sustained economic growth. Inclusive growth that is generous in sharing its fruits. Growth that produces enough jobs to satisfy the yearnings of the younger generation.”

It is difficult, however, to see the achievement of these objectives without a renovated Maghreb integration process.
A regionally-integrated model of development could help the countries of the region overcome with the paradox of enduring poverty and unemployment despite available natural resources: 3 per cent of global oil reserves, 4 per cent of global natural gas deposits and 50 per cent of the world's phosphates. In the short term, these resources could provide the means to jumpstart the Maghreb’s sluggish economies, or at least bring them to a minimum level of growth. On the long-run however, regional economic integration --within a new developmental approach-- could enable Algeria and Libya to steer away from near total reliance of hydrocarbon revenues. Educated youth would become an asset and not a time-bomb.

Experts expect high dividends from real economic integration: higher development growth, increased economy of scale, better competitiveness, more effective resource management, greater diversification of production, lower cost of production and supply, better bargaining power vis-à-vis the European Union, and easier global market access.
With greater integration, the Maghreb would be also better equipped to establish new rules of engagement with its neighbors to the north. Dialogue with the EU has been essentially determined by each Maghrebi nation's assessment of its individual bargaining chips. Europe has yet to treat the Maghreb as a real strategic partner, and not just as a buffer against terrorism and illegal immigration.

An integrated Maghreb region would enable its members to better withstand the negative fallouts from the European and global crisis in many areas, including tourism revenues, investment inflows and emigrant worker remittances. The Old Continent’s own financial difficulties, and the over-reliance of Maghreb countries on Europe as a source of foreign investment (80% of FDI of Tunisia, for instance, has originated from Europe) have caused foreign investment flows to the Maghreb to ebb, in recent years. According to the IMF, foreign direct investment flows have decreased from $12.3 billion in 2008, (3% of the GDP and already one of the lowest rates of any region of the world) to 6.5 billion dollars in 2011, less than 2% of GDP.

Europe itself has eventually a lot to gain, too. Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle also believes that “efforts towards integration within the Maghreb would not only bring real benefits to the people of the region but also ultimately to the EU itself”.


Today, a serious recalibration of the Maghreb regional integration process is urgently needed.
The immediate task should be to establish some form of common security platform taking into consideration the fundamental changes at the national and regional levels. Last January, the Prime Ministers of Libya, Tunisia and Libya, met in the Libyan city of Ghedames to discuss border security and combatting arms smuggling and terrorist activity in view especially of a possible blowback from the war in Mali. Maghreb countries have yet to establish a non-ad-hoc security framework to collectively face the collective threats they face especially with the trans-border flow of weapons and fighters, a problem that is likely to worsen with the war in Mali.
Without a sense of stability and security in the Maghreb, domestic and foreign investments are not likely to rebound. Even vital trans-border trade and labor flows, such as those between Tunisia and Libya, are at risk.

Two years after the “Arab Spring” uprisings, it is high time for all countries of the Maghreb to draw the lessons of their development-model failures. Not to become obsolete, the pan-Maghrebi integration process has to offer countries of the region better chances of dealing with the current perils and shortcomings than their own go-it-alone approach. Educated and well-exposed to the outside world, the new generations in the Maghreb mostly view the old social contracts with their country’s rulers as a disappointing failure. Without hope or a stake in their own societies, many already have been desperate enough to put themselves in harm’s way at home and abroad. Newly-empowered young masses are not likely to let rulers get-off-the hook with the wrong policies for decades, as they did in the past.

Governments do not have the benefit of the doubt anymore. The U.S. Atlantic Council was not very much off-mark when it pointed out recently that, “as governments in the region become more accountable to their constituents, they will find that integration is critical to providing the job growth needed to keep them in power”.

Heeding new realities

Where should Maghreb leaders start now? There is needed first and foremost a clear demonstration of new political will.

There is need for realization that self-complacent insularity (and the passive posture of letting problems fester for decades) did not and will not offer a way out of the current impasse for Maghrebi countries. After the Arab Spring protests, it has become obvious that the ways of the past will not be enough to satisfy the demands of the younger Maghrebi generations that are clamoring for decent jobs, better standards of living and greater freedom.

Awareness of the new realities will pave the way for civil servants and economists to do their work. Long-time Maghreb watcher Francis Ghiles has called for the harmonization of legal frameworks (a crucial condition to attract investments), launching of a common currency, opening land borders, and giving greater role to Maghrebi expatriates in the present and future of their countries.

Non-state actors should play a more active role. Reliance on only-“top-down” approaches will not by themselves carry the day. Future progress will hinge upon sustained “cross-fertilization” between various segments of civil society and academia in the Maghreb. New think-tanks in the region, such as the Tunis-based Maghreb Economic Forum, are already playing a role.

Above everything else, there is need for awareness that the common challenges are much greater than any other considerations. Greater than any possible divide between “Arab Spring” and “non-Arab Spring” countries. Greater than the suspicions emanating from political, ideological and historical differences between the regimes in place. Greater than the old sensitivities between Rabat and Algiers, or between any other countries of the region. Sidi Thami Elouazzani, a professor at the Université de Paris X at Nanterre, believes “reconciliation between Morocco and Algeria constitutes a barrier to the proliferation of outlaw formations in the region”. That would obviously mean some tangible progress towards ending the 38-year-old Western Sahara conflict.

But in the face of the manifold challenges the region faces, it is the ability of the Maghrebi rulers to accept the new realities on the ground and the quickening pace of history that will in the end determine whether Maghreb integration can still matter.

Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

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