Is the current rebellion of the Arab masses against corrupt and authoritarian regimes really going to lead to the affirmation of democracy and to civil and economic growth in North Africa and the Middle East?
There are many uncertainties that still make it impossible to answer this question definitively. But three main factors emerge: the continuing precariousness of the global political, economic and financial situation; the clearly fragile outlook for integration, both regional (within North Africa) and Euro-Mediterranean; and the Europeans’ incapacity to propose an adequate Euro-Mediterranean joint development plan.
The facts before us, which we might take as our starting point, are not encouraging. The first of the three factors just listed is already so familiar and widely discussed that it hardly warrants further exploration here: we all know that hardly a day goes by without some new cry of alarm going up about the state of the world. The other two points, however, are worth dwelling on in more depth, not least because, as a rule, they are not analysed with due care and attention. Indeed, because of failure to analyse these factors properly, politics is running the risk of losing touch with reality. This is certainly what seems to be happening in Europe with regard to the crisis in the Mediterranean.
As regards the question of intra-regional integration within North Africa and inter-regional integraration between Africa and Europe, a clear picture emerges: one need only run through the data provided by UN agencies and the working committees of the African Union to see that the economies of North Africa and the Middle East are not integrated with each other, and that their eventual integration will be possible only through a large-scale and long-term plan. If oil is excluded, North Africa has an export capacity that, overall, is still only comparable to that of Switzerland. Meanwhile, intra-regional trade between the states of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) – this is one of the eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs) established by the Abuja Treaty of 1991 with a view to creating, within 40 years, an African Economic Community –, accounts for just three percent of the UMA’s entire trade (an insignificant share if one considers that in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, for example, intra-regional trade accounts for at least a quarter of the total). In short, neither the action of the Arab League and the African Union, nor the various cooperation plans promoted by the European Union have, over the past twenty years, proved able to bring about any significant change in the situation as regards intra-regional integration in the Mediterranean. The picture is no better as regards the level of integration between the North African and European countries lying on either side of the Mediterranean, given that oil and gas still account for most of the trade between these two areas.
When it comes to the role of the Europeans, the whole world can see that Europe, rather than working to resolve some of the key problems of integration, continues live in the past and act in accordance with a model that is now superseded – in short, to look back to a time when some European countries could still exercise a position of leadership in the Mediterranean and the USA was still willing to protect European interests. It is thanks to this political short-sightedness that the humanitarian military intervention in Libya has turned into a bloody enterprise and a new refugee crisis for the region (Tunisia and Egypt have had to accommodate nearly a million refugees, against the tens of thousands absorbed by Europe). And this shortsightedness also explains why the Europeans are underestimating the strategic implications of the crisis of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, which is the pivotal country between the regions of Maghreb and Mashreq and the most important in the Arab world in terms of demographic weight and political influence.
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What conclusions can be drawn from all this? It is clear that the future of peace, social progress, economic development and democracy in the Mediterranean depends on the capacity of the Europeans to initiate a process of effective Euro-Mediterranean integration able to provide real support both for projects promoting intra-regional union and for a joint development plan between the two shores of the Mediterranean. But this capacity, in turn, depends on the political will of the Europeans to act as a single entity, rather than as British, French, German or Italian citizens.
To date, this will is precisely what has been lacking. There is, however, one area in which the Europeans, if they want to retain any realistic prospect of supporting the development and growth of their own societies, economies and production capacity for the coming decades, will be obliged to make strategic choices: that of energy. These are choices that can only go hand in hand with a precise European political project, and with a concrete plan for cooperation with the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. The technical aspects of this plan have already been worked out, but the political framework in which it might be carried out has yet to be defined. Since 2009 many companies and financial groups in Europe, especially German ones (such as Deutsche Bank, E.ON, RWE, Siemens), have been involved in a new and highly ambitious energy project called DESERTEC. The aim of this project is to meet a growing proportion of the electricity needs of both African and European countries through the large-scale exploitation of solar and wind energy, to be produced in North Africa. In the wake of the accident at the nuclear plant in Fukushima and the German government’s decision to renounce nuclear energy, this project has become even more topical for Europe. The problem is that the DESERTEC project, to be carried through, will require the construction of infrastructures costing around four billion euros over the next forty years, and the involvement of over thirty governments of as many different countries, European and African. The target is to cover, by 2050, the foreseeable electricity requirements of most of the countries of North Africa and the Middle East and at least 15% of those of the European countries involved, through a network of interconnected solar power plants and wind farms stretching from the North Sea to the Atlas Mountains, and from the Gulf of Libya to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. But the question is, is this enormous undertaking compatible with the political vicissitudes of the “Arab spring”? And in any case, who is to coordinate the creation of this complex energy venture in the African deserts, intended to meet the needs of future generations of Europeans and Arabs?
In the search for answers these questions, thoughts inevitably turn to the Marshall Plan and the particular role it played in the efforts to rebuild Europe after the Second World War. The Arab countries today certainly need a Marshall Plan, promoted and supported by the Europeans. But it is not enough just to appeal for such a plan. What is necessary, first of all, is to create the two conditions that were essential to the implementation of the original Marshall Plan – conditions that remain essential today. According General Marshall, in his historic speech of 1947, the US government had to declare, publicly and unequivocally, its determination to help the Europeans (this determination based on recognition of the importance, to America and the world, of Europe’s rehabilitation); the Europeans, for their part, had to be willing to develop a joint plan uniting a number of European nations.
As yet, we have no “United States of Europe” and thus no European government. For this reason, there is no chance of seeing a manifestation of any real and effective European will in this sense. Moreover, the national policies of the European states are destined to go on dividing, rather than uniting, the Arab countries. As long as the action of the Europeans continues to be based on national policies, there can be no European Marshall Plan for the Mediterranean area.
In conclusion, the Arab revolution will succeed only if the Europeans themselves prove able to start, without delay, their own revolution: the European federal revolution. It is only by manifesting the will to overcome, once and for all, the national sovereignties, and by taking the first concrete steps towards the creation of a European federal state (albeit one initially restricted to a vanguard group of EU member states ready to take this initiative) that the Europeans might help to bring about a turnaround in relations between the two shores of the Mediterranean and usher in a new age of cooperation between continents.