A return to Africa: Why North African states are looking south

European policymakers have generally looked at North Africa through a Mediterranean lens. But this vision of North Africa is outdated: North African countries are increasingly turning their attention towards the rest of their own continent. Europe needs to understand this trend as it shapes its relations with North Africa and with the continent as a whole.

A new policy brief by ECFR senior policy fellow Anthony Dworkin offers a stock-take of the African strategies of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt. The North African turn towards Africa is driven by several factors:

  • Some countries are engaged in an effort to win diplomatic support on significant questions of national interest: for Morocco and Algeria, the dispute over Western Sahara and their broader strategic rivalry; in the case of Egypt, its concern about the giant dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile.  
  • Beyond this diplomatic effort, the focus is also a response to the rising security threats and flow of migration reaching North African countries from the south.  
  • North African countries are searching for new markets and seeking to position themselves for the economic and demographic growth expected in sub-Saharan Africa in the coming years. This has been given new impetus by the continuing slow growth rates of North Africa’s traditional European trading partners.  
  • The turn to the south is also a reaction to the failure of regional integration within North Africa, where trade between countries remains low. Economic and political cooperation, for example through the Arab Maghreb Union, is held hostage in particular to the Algerian-Moroccan stand-off over Western Sahara.  

At a time when the EU is also seeking to deepen its relationship with sub-Saharan Africa, based around negotiating guidelines unveiled in March 2020, the North African turn southwards deserves greater European attention:

  • The EU should take account of the complex nature of North African engagement with sub-Saharan Africa in its relations with the continent. It will get better results from its cooperation with North African countries on migration if it understands the African context of its partners’ policies.  
  • In the field of security, the EU and its member states should welcome signs that Algeria is re-engaging in the Sahel and encourage it to build links with the G5 Sahel and to contribute actively to stabilisation and development.  
  • As the EU looks to deepen its relationship with Africa, it should naturally seek to coordinate where possible with North African continental initiatives. Commercial ties between Maghreb countries and the Sahel could help European objectives of promoting stability.  
  • There is also scope for Europe to pursue triangular cooperation with North African countries in sub-Saharan Africa, joining together on projects in areas where North Africa has relevant experience to share.  
  • At the same time, the EU should remain cautious about aligning itself too strongly with North African strategies in Africa. Triangular cooperation is only valuable to the extent that all parties genuinely share objectives and the arrangement offers added value.

Above all, European policymakers should be aware of the interests, tensions, and rivalries that underlie North African policies on the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa’s stance towards North Africa is increasingly pragmatic. A correspondingly pragmatic approach – that looks for convergence where possible but remains alive to the national agendas of powerful North African countries – would provide the best foundation for Europe’s own relationship with Africa.

About the author:

Anthony Dworkin is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He leads the organisation’s work in the areas of human rights, democracy, and justice. Among other subjects, Dworkin has conducted research and written on European and US frameworks for counterterrorism, the European Union’s human rights strategy, and the pursuit of justice in the international response to mass atrocities. Since 2011, he has also followed political developments in North Africa after the Arab uprisings, with a particular focus on Egypt and Tunisia.

Über die ECFR Deutschland GmbH

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is a pan-European think-tank that aims to conduct cutting-edge independent research in pursuit of a coherent, effective, and values-based European foreign policy.

With a network of offices in seven European capitals, over 60 staff from more than 25 different countries and a team of associated researchers in the EU 28 member states, ECFR is uniquely placed to provide pan-European perspectives on the biggest strategic challenges and choices confronting Europeans today. ECFR is an independent charity and funded from a variety of sources. For more details, please visit: www.ecfr.eu.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This report, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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