quarta-feira, 9 de março de 2016
North Africa is in danger of becoming the EU’s forgotten frontier
Thanks to its crippling disunity, the EU has landed itself with the task of implementing an unsavoury, possibly unenforceable deal with Turkey to stem the tide of refugees and migrants washing up on Europe’s south-eastern shores. Largely obscured amid this wretched bargaining over human souls is the sight of the EU grappling with another set of challenges on a different frontier: north Africa.
The challenges in Algeria, Libya and Morocco are more diverse and harder to overcome than the crisis in the east Mediterranean. In some respects, they promise to be more violent. Unlike with Turkey, which is a Nato ally and a candidate for EU membership, European governments will not enjoy the luxury in north Africa of papering over internal quarrels by outsourcing their problems.
The immediate priority in north Africa is not uncontrolled migration into Europe. According to Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, 157,000 migrants used the central Mediterranean route last year to cross into Italy. This may seem a high number, but it was 10 per cent down on 2014 levels. It was also far below the 885,000 people who arrived in the EU last year via the east Mediterranean.
However, it would be complacent to assume that irregular migration from north Africa is petering out. Criminal networks that enrich themselves by smuggling people into Europe are alive and well in Libya. What is more, it was not primarily Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians who made this sea journey last year. The majority were Eritreans, Nigerians and Somalis.
In other words, ending the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and above all Syria — even if this were possible — would do nothing to ease migratory pressures on Europe from sub-Saharan Africa. To the extent that the EU’s deal with Turkey closes the east Mediterranean route, the smugglers and their clients may refocus their attention on Libya.
The fundamental problem in Libya, though, is the disintegration of state authority after the western-backed uprising of 2011 that ended in the murder of Muammer Gaddafi, the despotic ruler since 1969. Isis, the jihadi group, has amassed more than 5,000 fighters in Libya, mainly in the central coastal region of Sirte. The anarchy is spilling into Tunisia. Clashes between armed militants and Tunisian security forces erupted this week on the Libya-Tunisia border, killing 60 people.
Western governments, with Italy at the front, are toying with a limited military intervention to counter the Isis threat. But the Italians are loath to act unless invited to do so by a national unity government in Libya. How stable such a government might be, if ever it were formed, is anyone’s guess. From the EU’s perspective, the outlook in Libya boils down either to a long-term foothold for Islamist extremism on Europe’s borders, or a decision to use military force with unpredictable consequences. Either way, a new surge in irregular migration cannot be ruled out.
Europe’s main security partner in north Africa is Algeria, a strategy to which there is no obvious alternative, but which is fraught with risks nonetheless. Algeria is the Maghreb’s leading military power, an opponent of militant Islam and the EU’s third-largest gas supplier after Russia and Norway. But Algeria’s leaders profoundly disagreed with Nato’s intervention in Libya, predicting correctly that violent disorder would ensue. Algiers has no intention of serving tamely as the EU’s agent for fighting terrorists and illegal migrants.
The EU has grounds for concern insofar as the rule of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s ailing, authoritarian president, is nearing its end. The outlines of a power struggle among civilian politicians, the military and security services in the post-Bouteflika era are visible. Public discontent is simmering as low energy prices compel the government to cut the social subsidies that averted an Algerian “Arab Spring” in 2011.
Elsewhere, Morocco suspended ties with the EU last month after a lower court of the European Court of Justice invalidated an EU-Moroccan agricultural trade deal. The court did so on the grounds that the accord covered Western Sahara, a territory most of which Morocco occupied in 1975. The European Council, which groups EU governments, has lodged an appeal in the ECJ against the ruling — which, however, won applause from Algeria, at odds with Morocco over Western Sahara.
As this episode indicates, EU foreign policy often runs into obstacles in north Africa that have nothing to do with irregular migration. The region’s multiplying troubles demand a more comprehensive approach, for as each year passes they loom larger for the EU.