A stable, well-governed neighbourhood, which provides security to its inhabitants while opening up future economic prospects for them, is in the EU’s fundamental self-interest. Our Views from the Neighbourhood discuss challenges our neighbours face and their impact on the EU.

The threat in North Africa

The effects of climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic are hitting the EU neighbours in North Africa particularly hard. They reinforce social and economic structural problems in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Geopolitical rivalries complicate the search for solutions to political conflicts. The EU is not sufficiently prepared for the new pattern of conflict.

Summer 2021 in North Africa: almost 50°C heat in Tunisia, wildfires even in Morocco, torrents of rain in Algeria, low water in the Nile in Egypt – North Africa is a climate change hotspot. Experts predict a two to three °C warming by 2050.

Climate change threatens  North Africa on two levels.  An increasingly inhospitable climate influences every citizen’s working and living environment. And with Algeria and Libya, in particular, deriving more than 90% of their income from exporting oil and natural gas, plans to reduce the use of fossil fuels to fight climate change threaten Middle East economies.

Drought and heat destroy arable land

Heat and drought are causing a more rapid expansion of the arid Sahara Desert and the semi-arid Sahel regions. The repercussions are complex and foreseeable: less and less freshwater is available, soil erosion is increasing, cropland and pasture are being destroyed. Algeria and Morocco are particularly affected.

co2 emissions
The states of North Africa and the neighbouring Sahel are contributing to the increased CO2 consumption that is more and more observed for developing and emerging countries.

Michael Tanchum outlined the worrying consequences for food security in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It is becoming increasingly difficult for public authorities to plan and organize the food supply for the population. More food has to be imported, which is becoming increasingly expensive for governments due to high world market prices. As subsidies to keep food affordable are also becoming more expensive, it is increasingly difficult to calculate the additional budgetary costs of food imports and subsidies in advance.

This has an impact on North African countries with a high population growth like Egypt. With an annual increase of 1.92%, the Arab state already has more than 100 million inhabitants. For several decades now, Cairo has had to import increasing amounts of staple foods.

Land use, topography, and population growth in North Africa | Source: Janpeter Schilling, Elke Hertig, Yves Tramblay, Jürgen Scheffran in Regional Environmental Change (2020) 20: 15. No changes made. Licensed: (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

With industrialization and population growth, valuable arable land along the Nile is being lost. Due to droughts and heatwaves, the Nile carries less water, although it must supply more and more people with drinking water.

Less tax revenue, more unemployed,

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is also putting pressure on social and economic systems. A French research report shows a multiple loss of revenue for North African countries due to the decline in tourism, exports, consumption, remittances, and the already low direct investment rate.

In the official economy, but even more so in the shadow economy, the adverse effects are felt in the labor market. On average, 50% of the working population is employed in the informal sector. Here jobs and orders quickly fall away, domestic consumption declines, and poverty increases.

At the same time, prices are visibly rising. Due to the pandemic, health care spending is increasing. Wage continuation does not exist in Tunisia, for example. Notably, Morocco has set up a national support program that has been able to bolster some of the lost earnings.

All this exacerbates well-known structural problems: the mismanagement of the public sector in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, the failure to diversify the economy in Algeria and Libya, the lack of investment in public education, training, and health from Morocco to Egypt.

North Africans are calling more forcefully for efficient and citizen-oriented governance, administration, and management, a reduction in corruption, and narrowing the gap between rich and poor. According to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index for 2020, in a regional comparison, Morocco is among the leaders in the category of governance skills.

The vaccination rate against Covid-19 is high. The production and export of wind and solar energy are being expanded. The port of Tangier has a fast and efficient berth management system for container ships.

By contrast, in Libya, the establishment of citizen-oriented institutions is only just beginning. A cease-fire is still in place, and there is still the hope that the presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 December 2021 will pave the way to efficient and legitimate governance – if warlords and militia will accept the election results at all.

Political conflicts intensify

The many political conflicts among Europe’s neighbours have an additional aggravating effect. The dispute over water use of the Nile among Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia illustrates how the interplay of climate change, population development, and food supply can develop into a political conflict. In the Sahel, illegal human and drug trafficking, extremism, and terrorism have also been a destabilizing factors for years – hotspot Mali.

Moreover, geopolitical and geoeconomic competition between Morocco and Algeria has intensified with a particular focus on the Western Sahara region. Borders are sealed, diplomatic relations have been severed, mutual allegations of interference in the neighbor’s internal affairs are heating up, overflight rights have been canceled, and, since October, Algeria has stopped sending natural gas to Spain via Morocco through the MED-GAZ pipeline, which was praised as an interregional cooperation project. This “regional cold war” could last longer.

The EU: geographically close – politically defensive

Although on its immediate doorstep, the European Union has not succeeded in mediating the conflict between Morocco and Algeria. The individual historical and foreign economic interests of important member states such as Spain and France are too different. Competition for influence over oil production in Libya between Italy and France has also hampered the European role in conflict management in the Libyan civil war for several years.

Due to the dominant interests of individual EU member states and defensive attitudes towards the conflicts in North Africa, the EU has opened up political space into which Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China have advanced since 2015 – regional powers that have undermined or can undermine EU transformation efforts in North Africa.

… but the green ace up the sleeve

The EU is not sufficiently prepared for this complex pattern of political conflict. However, it can draw advantages from its economic, trade, and innovation potential to give a boost to the transformation need in North Africa. Ambitiously engaging Europe’s southern neighbors in the green and digital transition would not only give the EU access to more solar power from North Africa but also provide societies there with tools more effectively to deal with the challenges.