Covid-19 in the Mediterranean – is ‘Team Europe’ getting it right in the South?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU is starting to 'think neighbourhood' before global. But what does this mean for countries in the Middle East and North Africa, asks Michael Benhamou. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The EU is starting to ‘think neighbourhood’ before global. But what does this mean for countries in the Middle East and North Africa, asks Michael Benhamou.

Michael Benhamou is a Research Associate at the Martens Centre

“The European Union (EU) launches #TeamEurope to support partner countries around the world with €20bn to fight the #coronavirus”, tweeted Europe’s Foreign Affairs chief, Joseph Borrell in early April. As Covid-19 continues to dominate, the Spanish diplomat is, to some extent, being successful in pushing Brussels to regroup and “think neighbourhood” before going global. But what does this mean for the Middle East and North Africa which have been hit faster and harder by Covid-19 than by the 2008 financial crisis?

Let’s start with the big number first: €20bn. Three quarters of it, at least, is actually reallocated from past budgets, and the rest comes from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) which retain their executive autonomy. “€20bn” and “Team Europe” refer therefore to the (laudable) attempt of VP Borrell to build on the current crisis to improve coordination amidst Europe’s multiple external tools. Steps then, horizontal steps, no revolution yet.

Out of this horizontal €20bn for foreign support, €15.6bn are already available according to the European Commission and approximately 28% of that latter sum is destined for Middle Eastern countries. This is substantially more than the 21% we had calculated with a similar funding base for the year 2014 – humanitarian, development and neighbourhood programmes combined. Perhaps this trend is the sign that Brussels now does more to prevent potential nearby crisis, such as the 2015-16 migration wave, adapting its geographic reflexes away from legally binding humanitarian doctrines and closer to concerns advocated by rising populist parties.

In February 2020, VP Borrell had already called for “less dispersion, less involvement everywhere”, knowing this bureaucratic battle would be protracted. His wish appears to have been heard for what regards the Balkans and the Mediterranean, if we strictly eye released Commission numbers, although remain in the mix hardly “geopolitical” humanitarian and development funds towards Latin America and Asia (15% in both 2014 and 2020).

But Commission numbers suggest a second trend of even greater political meaning: Brussels’ rebalancing from the Eastern Mediterranean to the entire Mediterranean basin, from Turkey to Morocco. Our analysis for 2014 showed that 6% of all EU external funds went to North Africa (from Morocco to Libya) and 14% to the Near East coast (from Egypt to Turkey), absorbing the Syrian conflict shocks being paramount then. This order of priority remained identical in 2016-18, as North Africa received €1.5bn in EU funding against €13.6bn for the Near East area. But these budgetary habits have clearly changed since the Coronavirus: close to 40% of reallocated funds by the “April 2020 Borrell package” are going to the Western Med., strengthening comparative support to countries like Tunisia and Morocco. The EU’s financial assistance, which takes the form of medium/long-term loans or grants that complements the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s Covid-19 response, follows the same pattern so far: €600m for Tunisia, and €200m for Jordan.

Is this merely a temporary move or the beginning of a deeper realignment?

Health and economic indicators show that the Western Med. is as much hit by the sanitary crisis as the Eastern Med. Countries like Lebanon or Jordan struggle as much as Libya or Morocco, though that struggle takes various shapes – think low tourism revenues, high dependency to cereal imports or growth forecast of –4% up to –12% according to the IMF. Perhaps the EU is simply bringing the proof of its often publicized “flexibility”, this time for war-torn and oil-deprived countries in the entire region. After a disastrous Syria war cycle in the last decade, EU Member States may want to get the next one right. Nothing long term in this interpretation, just improved policy responsiveness.

Or perhaps these are the early signs of a new trilateration of Europe’s foreign policy: as Brussels gradually entered and impacted Italy’s bilateral post-colonial tango with Libya, from the end of the 1990s to 2011, the time may be ripe for such partial transfer with Spain and especially France’s complex relationship with North Africa.

French military forces already cover large swaths of land and water on behalf of EU’s security interests, whether in the Sahel, in the Straight of Hormuz or as part of operation IRINI, Europe’s latest maritime operation to combat arms trafficking in Libya. Paris therefore needs Europe’s support to maintain its level of engagement in the months to come. This is especially true since the United States tends to withdraw from the area – there were 41.000 US troops in the region at the end of Obama’s tenure against 16.000 nowadays, and Washington’s Aid response to Covid-19 has been rather timid: only $100m of newly voted resources for the Middle East and North Africa.

Whatever the reasoning and duration of these policy evolutions, let us hope that Joseph Borrell is able to preserve that pro-neighbourhood momentum. Some ideas heard in think tanks are worth pursuing along that same principle: prioritize further our external (and military) support to Africa, the Middle East and Europe’s close East, demonstrating to voters their security worries are taken into account, or launch a forum between the EU and South Med. businesses in order to bring the former’s distant Asian tertiary and production chains closer to home, tapping into the latter’s educated youth before China does.

Europe is a natural partner to the Middle East and North Africa, and Brussels has proved it by reacting quickly this time. Now, it’s about nurturing this old Mediterranean pool.

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