When, in 1987, Rabat applied to join the then EC, foreign ministers rejected the application because Morocco is not a European country. Twenty-five years later, the EU, which spends 1/3 of its technical assistance budget for northern Africa in Morocco, should look again to the region as an opportunity to ‘kill two birds with one stone’. A recent article, by Robin Niblett and Claire Spencer of Chatham House, points to the interconnection between Europe’s financial crisis and the Arab spring uprisings , and calls for further economic integration between the EU and the southern Mediterranean, particularly as Italy, Spain and Greece struggle to pull out of the enduring economic crisis.
For quite some time I have called for Italy to play a bigger, more proactive role in the region: its geographical position make it the ideal candidate to play a leading part in relation to northern Africa. Furthermore, Italy is free from the post-colonial burden that might strain relations between Spain and Portugal and their neighbours across the water, or Greece’s troubled relationship with its Turkish ‘friends’ in Asia Minor. The planned completion of the pipeline, which will bring precious gas from Azerbaijan into Europe by way of the heel of the Italian booth, is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.
The benefits of a deeper Italian involvement in the region are twofold: firstly, it would, as Niblett and Spencer rightly suggest, help Italy on its way to an arduous economic recovery, thus restoring the country to its rightful position at the centre of the EU, where its prestige and economic might have been diminished by the mounting public debt; secondly, it would allow Italy to take on a normative role in Europe’s external relations towards the south Mediterranean, after the relative failures of the European Neighbourhood Policy’s southern branch, the Union for the Mediterranean (previously known as the Barcelona Process).
The coincidence of the financial crisis with the Arab spring has highlighted the EU’s lack of creativity; while the Union’s eastern neighbours are offered new, ‘deep free trade’ agreements, Brussels’ orthodox approach does not go beyond pouring money into its Mediterranean ones. Yet, ‘the financial crisis and ensuing economic maelstrom touch on the very foundations of Europe’s market based liberal democracies, which [the EU] seeks to promote abroad’1. If Italy has vision and the courage to pursue it, it may lead a wave that will bring stability to the democratic movements of the Arab spring, and it will be able to reap the benefits, which will underpin a long and stable economic growth.
Italian industries would certainly benefit from the removal of trade barriers between Europe and the south Mediterranean, fostering the movements of goods, such as agricultural produce, into the EU and services towards the southern shore of the Mare Nostrum. Northern Africa would also be fertile ground for foreign direct investment, which currently stands at 1.5% of the EU’s total.
The region will also be of vital importance for Italy’s (and the EU’s) energy security, as its proximity make it a natural source of fossil fuels, on which our economies depend. Finally, the long term security value of deeper economic and political integration is inestimable. Until now the EU has been, for obvious reasons, unable to effectively control its southern borders and put a stop to illegal immigration, human trafficking and cross border illegal activities. For years Italy has taken a reactive approach to such problems. By proactively seeking to support the transition process of fledgling Mediterranean democracies and promoting their economic growth, it will tackle the problem at the base, and eradicate the source of the ‘demand’, thus showing to its European partners that it is possible to pursue both milieu and possession goals at the same time.
1: Boserup, R.A., and Tassinari, F. (2012), The Return of Arab politics and Europe’s chance to engage anew, Mediterranean Politics, 17:1, 97-103