A Tunisian vendor poses as he sells white truffles at a market in the town of Ben Guerdane, 40km west of the Libyan border, in February 2016.
In the last two decades, discussions of North African integration have evoked ideas of a shared identity and a common destiny in the region. However, recent attempts to build regional blocs in North Africa, including the Arab Maghreb Union established in 1989, have been unsuccessful and remain firmly in the public consciousness. Discussions on integration have failed to overcome existing challenges that have so far thwarted attempts at North African integration. These challenges are likely to continue to frustrate any efforts at deepening political, economic, financial and social relations between the countries of the region.
This paper builds on the conclusions of the North Africa Dialogues (NADs), a series of expert roundtable discussions held in cities across North Africa, between December 2018 and July 2019. The NADs initiative sought to create a forum for constructive, policy-driven dialogue among leaders from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to debate areas of mutual economic interests and resilience. The meetings sought to explore the shared challenges and potential areas of collaboration and integration of these countries.
Rather than focus on conventional regional integration and the related challenges, this paper examines the benefits of a ‘synergistic’ approach to North African cooperation. Gradual approaches and piecemeal sectoral cooperation are a more effective way of generating opportunities and benefits than insisting on developing fully fledged plans that address all of the many obstacles and challenges at once. The synergistic approach is more practical and likely to provide a window of opportunity for broader cooperation and integration. After all, some of the world’s strongest regional organizations and major trading blocs started life as projects for industrial cooperation on one or two commodities.
Gradual approaches and piecemeal sectoral cooperation are a more effective way of generating opportunities and benefits than insisting on developing fully fledged plans that address all of the many obstacles and challenges at once.
While it is difficult for governments in the region to build ‘strong’ and ‘formal’ mechanisms of cooperation, local economic, political and institutional actors – such as municipalities, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) – may provide alternative ways of achieving non-state-led cooperation. This bottom-up approach enables smaller actors to share experiences and build transnational networks that may become sustainable structures for cooperation between North African non-government organizations.
An objective of this paper is to discuss and uncover areas of ongoing cooperation and synergy, where collaborative action across these countries allows actors to extract value, share knowledge, harmonize standards and develop joint ideas. These areas of synergy can occur on a large, national scale – for instance, joint infrastructure projects, addressing taxes and non-tariff barriers, dialogue between customs officials, and cooperation on counterterrorism – or on a smaller scale, such as collaboration between business associations, academic institutions or civil society.
A synergistic approach can free up the capacity of North African countries allowing them to consider joint action within larger forums. For instance, all North African countries are signatories to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA); all have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and, with the exception of Libya, all have economic association agreements with the EU. These North African countries also have strong security cooperation links with the G7. As a result, there are multiple platforms and opportunities for joint-planned action within these various forums, which may act as a launch pad for greater cooperative and mutually-beneficial action.
This paper highlights areas of current interest to policymakers. Firstly, security, including counterterrorism (CT), counter violent extremism (CVE), border security and trafficking. It then covers economic interests, looking at private-sector development, specifically SMEs, and the potential of the fourth industrial revolution and new technologies in the region. Following a discussion of possible synergies within extra-regional agreements, the paper concludes with a reflection on the future of North African cooperation.
Political context presents a formidable obstacle for further integration and cooperation in North Africa. Across the region there are tensions between governments, differences of political systems, and the prevalence of nationalist authoritarianism. However, this should not detract from the importance of advocating cooperation and the pooling of resources to achieve sustainable development across the region and foster more open social and political systems.