How North Africa’s look towards the south can shake up AU-EU relations

For the first time since its creation, the African Union finally embraces the whole African continent, with Morocco being the last state to join the Union earlier this year. Now that North Africa, particularly the Maghreb area, is increasingly looking south and moving closer to African organisations, it is the moment to understand how this will affect the relations between an Africa that can finally speak with one voice – although the dissonances in its choir are still many – and Europe. It might take a while before the effects become visible as the priority for North African countries, for the time being, is to (re)engage primarily within the continent.

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      Morocco’s decision to join the organisation came to end the country’s 33-year isolation from the AU group. A few months after its return to the AU, Morocco also requested to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In the same period, Tunisia applied to join both the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and ECOWAS.

      The North African countries’ new ventures south indicate a policy shift, mostly driven by economic and security imperatives as well as the desire to expand geopolitical influence. In a speech on the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of the King and People’s Revolution Day, King Mohamed VI stated that reinforcing relations with Sub-Saharan Africa is at the centre of Morocco’s foreign policy. Morocco’s trade relations with Sub-Saharan Africa partially explain the statement as 14.7% growth in trade relations was registered between 1999 and 2014. Besides, around 85% of Morocco’s external investments are in the African continent, registering a peak in 2010 when the figure reached 88.2%.

      Mauritius, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal and Mauritania were the top five Moroccan foreign direct investment (FDI) recipients in 2015. The Moroccan banking sector is also expanding in the rest of the continent through investments in mining projects notably in the DRC. The development of Moroccan FDI in the African continent is expected to grow as, in December 2015, the country raised the transferable amount for investment abroad to a maximum of MAD100 million (€8,955,607) for Africa, and to MAD50 million (€4,477,803) for other continents. The interest in consolidating Morocco’s position is, therefore, not surprising.

      But the country is also seeking to increase its leverage on the African position vis-a-vis Western Sahara. Reacting to a Communiqué of the AU on the situation in Western Sahara in spring 2016, Morocco reengaged with the AU and submitted its candidacy to the regional body. The debacle around the participation of the Sahrawi Republic, a member of the AU, in next week’s EU-AU Summit was a first visible manifestation of the tensions likely to emerge within the AU around the position of Morocco and Western Sahara in the years to come.

      Unlike Morocco, Tunisia has little engagement with its Southern Neighbours. However, its economic interests in Sub-Sahara African countries is more pronounced than that with its immediate North African neighbours. Between 2010 and 2013, Tunisia’s imports from EAC, COMESA and IGAD totalled respectively 4.2%, 4.3%, and 3.7% of Tunisia’s GDP – only trade relations with Algeria have reached this level.

      Following a similar trend, Algeria is looking to open up to new markets and to revamp its relations with Sub-Saharan Africa. However, Algeria’s relations with the continent are not new since the oil-rich country has been actively involved in African security affairs. This is evidenced by the remarkable presence of Algerian officials in African institutions such as the Peace and Security Department, the AU’s most critical department in security affairs, and the African Peace and Security Architecture. Algeria also previously launched its own initiatives for security cooperation with the Sahel countries.

      The seemingly southern re-orientation of North Africa towards sub-Saharan Africa could be viewed as an opportunity to finally ‘treat Africa as one’ in the EU’s frameworks towards the continent.

      It might take years for this new-found unity to influence AU-EU relations


      To refer to the upcoming summit as ‘AU-EU Summit’ rather than ‘EU-Africa’ Summit surely indicates the new all-encompassing membership of the Union, which now really groups the whole of the African continent. It also acknowledges the AUC as an interlocutor in the dialogue between the two continents. This could provide a platform to discuss reforms in future frameworks that would reflect this new-found sense of unity.

      But beyond rhetoric, Africa will continue to be split in EU policy frameworks between North, South and extreme South, at least until the next EU-AU Summit in 2021. But most importantly, one cannot assume that the interest of North African countries to couple their rapprochement with Africa south of the Sahara will coincide with a renewed relationship with Europe.

      Take for instance the discussion around migration. The hope that North Africa will play a key role in the migration-related dialogue may be dashed. Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco are increasingly focussing on the issue, but this is largely driven by geostrategic competition in the Sahel countries and domestic challenges, as they themselves are becoming host countries for an increasingly large number of Sub-Saharan African migrants. The interest in acting as a buffer zone to reduce the number of crossings to Southern Europe does not appear to be motivated by direct interest, although measures in the region are likely to indirectly benefit the EU’s agenda.

      Similarly, there seems to be a lack of interest to engage in the future of the Cotonou Partnership Agreement (CPA). The EU has sought to launch consultations on the role of North Africa in a future agreement that would possibly cover Africa as a whole. What emerges from initial consultations, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that the region is not united. While some may not see the advantage of entering into a new legal agreement with the EU considering the ambitious association agreements most North African countries benefit from, those who remain open to the discussion have so far little appetite for connecting their relations with Europe to their foreign policy in Sub-Saharan Africa.

      In the short-term, the renewed interest of North Africa in the rest of the continent will have a greater impact on intra-African relations rather than on the continent’s relations with Europe. But it will be important to see how the renewed interest in regional organisations like the AU will shape the regional organisation’s role in international partnerships in the future because it is there where the impact will be felt.

      The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM

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