The EU must speed up its Southern Neighbourhood strategy

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

File photo. Members of the Italian Navy ride towards a boat carrying migrants, during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, 19 September 2015. [Giuseppe Lami/EPA/EFE]

A Union that protects must be pragmatic in its Southern Neighbourhood – starting from the Sahara and placing security and counterterrorism at the centre of its thinking for the region, writes Mario Mauro.

Mario Mauro is a former Defence Minister of Italy and promoter of the Mare Nostrum operation in the Mediterranean.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the Arab Springs and 25 years since the beginning of the Barcelona Declaration that gave birth to the Union for the Mediterranean. The world is very different now.

Those promises for the EU’s Southern Neighbourhood were not kept. Countries from Libya to Egypt or Syria cause headaches for European diplomats rather than inspiring hope. Turkey showed it has a special relation with Russia and its own plans for the Mediterranean.

The EU will be reviewing its Southern Neighbourhood strategy next year, but the region is changing much faster and everyone looks at the US for answers. The Union should take a pragmatic look at the Mare Nostrum and ensure it has a seat at the table, placing security and counterterrorism at the centre of its thinking for the region.

Security – or the lack thereof – was a defining element of the Mediterranean in 2020. Turkey is asserting itself in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, where it is forging alliances that some see as a neo-Ottoman strategy.

Conversely, the EU seemed powerless time and time again on Libya, Syria and other regional crises, too caught up with trying to manage refugee flows stemming from those situations to keep “populist” parties at bay. With sanctions against Turkey still in the making, the EU seems on the back foot.

The EU was also caught like a sitting duck by outgoing President Trump, when he announced a US-brokered Israel-Morocco agreement to normalise relations and recognised Rabat’s sovereignty over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara.

Enough has been written on the former and the Abraham accords, notably by other members of my political family, whose analysis I share: they out-manoeuvred our slow and inconclusive EU diplomacy. But if the accords can help dialogue and stability in the MENA region, they should be given a chance rather than be judged for the sins of their father.

Recognition of Moroccan claims over Western Sahara is seen as a Trumpian provocation against the UN and an international law hot potato for incoming president Joe Biden, but it could also be a wakeup call for Europe.

Now that Trump has stirred the waters, there are crucial security aspects that can no longer be ignored and must be considered together with the legal elements of the situation.

If European citizens asked EU policymakers “what is our plan?”, the EU and its Member States would answer that we support the UN-led peace process in Western Sahara, as we have for 40 years.

For all that time, the peace process has been stalled, waiting for a referendum of self-determination that never came.

This is despite a ceasefire agreement which has held since 1991, with the exception of recent skirmishes at the border with Mauritania prompting the armed group Polisario to “declare war” and the Chair of the European Parliament Western Sahara intergroup to resign.

That legal impasse started ten years before 9/11. The region has since changed dramatically.

The Sahel has become home to countless Islamic terrorist cells, active in the area between Mali, Mauritania, Algeria and Libya and tied to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

In the midst of it, Western Sahara – a desert twice the size of England with fewer people than Luxembourg – increasingly became a delicate region, surrounded by countries with the most youth and hit hardest by unemployment, right in the middle of the migration route from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe.

In the meantime, the UN Security Council started admitting that a solution to the impasse must be based on realism, pragmatism and feasibility.

The act comes with arms contracts reinforcing a strategic alliance that Europe, even more than the US, desperately needs in the region. It may also support the moderate approach to Islam that Morocco has long been marshalling, based on religious dialogue – including with Jewish communities – and openness.

The Western Sahara concession may be what the more hard-line Islamic party of the Moroccan government coalition needs to swallow the Abraham Accords, especially in an election year. In turn, it may secure the last beacon of stability in the Maghreb, and one of the few in Africa, on which Europe can count.

What does Europe think about it? Strategically, it is not clear. Pragmatically, it could use a more moderate, institutional Islam to have a chance in the region, as well as a reliable partner to the south and as a bridge to the African continent – not only to manage migration but also to fight terrorism and counter-radicalisation.

The latest attacks in France and Vienna were only a reminder of how intertwined the two issues are.

If, as HR/VP Borrell said, the EU is serious about becoming a player instead of being a playing field, it needs a plan. This has been said countless times about China, and it can only be truer for a country that is 14 km from its borders.

The EU does not need to disown the UN or side with Trump, but it should not be blinded by ideology either. It should consider real, concrete security and stability aspects when applying its values.

The EU has been granting preferential tariffs to Western Sahara through its agreement with Morocco, helping the socio-economic development of the local populations. So, when the time comes it should have its priorities straight, based on its strategic interests of security, stability and development in its neighbourhood – judging acts for their effect, not only their signature.

Several questions remain: What is the EU role, if any, in Africa and its Southern Neighbourhood? Will the EU encourage a more moderate political Islam than that of Turkey or Saudi Arabia, and recognise its strategic value for its own security? And more importantly, when it will have to square international law and security : will it keep being chosen, or will it finally choose?

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