Jean-Thomas Lesueur, a general delegate at the Thomas More Institute, stressed the need for increased cooperation between the European Union and the Maghreb countries in an interview with EURACTIV France.
The figures are startlingly low, says Lesueur: intra-regional trade between the five Maghreb countries of North Africa represents just 3% of the trade taking place in the region.
"In an October 2009 report, the IMF indicated that the lack of regional integration made even more severe the impact of the economic crisis on the Maghreb region," he said.
Lesueur stressed the need for dialogue between these countries. For example, Algerian oil and gas remain in the domestic market and the intra-Maghreb high-speed motorway project has been talked about for 30 years.
Striking a more optimistic note, "some Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian entrepreneurs think that they must work together" and put political considerations aside, he said.
Lesueur said the EU had a role to play in putting an end to the conflict between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara, a 266,000 square-kilometre territory that has been a bone of contention between the two countries.
According to him, the new distribution of portfolios within the European Commission should accelerate progress, as several commissioners are concerned by the issue. He also proposed to appoint a coordinator.
"We urge the EU to reinvest itself in the region and place its relations with the Maghreb at the top of its agenda," he said.
Moreover, "the EU should help projects and business development," he said, stressing the importance of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), launched in 2008 under the French EU Presidency.
Migration and anti-terrorism policy
On migration, Lesueur explained that Morocco had problems similar to those faced by Europe in dealing with its southern neighbourhood. As sub-Sahel migrants move north to reach Europe, "Maghreb countries are transforming themselves into transit countries, and are also slowly turning into host countries," he said, remarking that thousands of Senegalese are currently living in Algerian capital Tangiers.
This, he argued, highlights the common challenges faced by Europe and the Maghreb, as he says the countries in the region may soon start experiencing ethnic tensions and even racism.
To deal with such problems, Lesueur says the EU's Frontex agency should open offices in the South Sahel region and work in close cooperation with Maghreb countries. "It is not sufficient to return illegal migrants from Spain to Morocco," he stressed.
In reality, he said the EU's migration policy "is being played out in Nouakchott [Mauritania] and Dakar [Senegal]," not on the island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily. "Lampedusa represents the failure of the EU's migration policy," he said.
Similarly, he said European security and anti-terrorism policy is not being played out at the EU's southern borders, but 3,000 kilometres away. "In the anti-terrorism area, Algeria and Morocco have pretty well cleared Al Qaeda off the ground," he remarked. But the organisation has now retreated further south to Mali, Cameroon and Senegal, he said.