GIS Dossier: Europe as a global player: The Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa

Migrants rescued from the sea by the Spanish coast guard
July 18, 2018: These men from sub-Saharan Africa were among 107 migrants rescued by a Spanish naval patrol from the Mediterranean north of Morocco (source: dpa)

GIS Dossiers aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of key topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. This survey, the last in a four-part series, considers whether Europe (primarily, the European Union) can stand on its own as a global power. Part One examines the basis and instruments of European power, Part Two looks at where and how this power has been applied in Northern and Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans and Turkey. Parts Three and Four cover the Middle East and Africa.

Migration pressure

Over the past three years, Europe’s biggest security threat from the south – with an explosive impact on its domestic politics – has been migration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose own political career was perhaps fatally compromised by the migrant wave of 2015, told the Bundestag last June that among the continent’s many challenges, “migration could end up determining Europe’s destiny.”

GIS experts have written extensively on the topic; much of their work is summarized in an October 2017 Dossier on Europe’s migration impasse. There is no question that a variety of factors – including demographic pressure, drought, poverty, political instability, civil wars, improving transportation and wireless communications – will keep tens of millions of Africans (many from the Sahel region) headed north.

The long-term causes of this exodus were examined by GIS expert Teresa Nogueira Pinto in a March 2017 report. Put simply, it is a question of demographics and economics. By 2030, she noted, Europe is projected to be the world’s oldest region, with a median age of 45, a contracting workforce and an old-age dependency ratio headed toward 50 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, will be the world’s youngest region, with a population of 1.39 billion and a rapidly expanding workforce.

Political crisis

Over the past three years, however, migration to the European Union has eased dramatically. The number of migrants arriving to the EU by sea fell from 273,000 in the first eight months of 2016 to 123,000 in the corresponding period of 2017 and 61,172 through August 2018, GIS expert Dr. Michael Leigh noted in a September 2018 report, citing United Nations data. These are numbers that can be easily absorbed in an economic bloc of 508 million people.

Non-EU foreign residents accounted for less than 7 percent of the EU’s population, a “relatively modest total” even if the concentrations can be higher in certain areas, GIS expert Professor Enrico Colombatto wrote in a separate report that same month.

Even if the migrant crisis is no longer acute, it has sparked a political crisis that is even more severe


But even if the migrant crisis can no longer be regarded as acute (at least in the short run), it has sparked a political crisis that could be even more severe. As Dr. Leigh noted, the plan cobbled together by European Council in June 2018 to set up holding camps outside the EU for asylum seekers and migrants (euphemistically called “disembarkation platforms”) came under pressure from anti-immigration parties, which has been particularly strong lately in Germany and Italy:

National elections, domestic political pressures and divisions among member states – not the surge in migrant numbers – have stymied efforts to overhaul the EU’s arrangements for processing, resettling or returning asylum seekers and economic migrants.

This internal squabbling – most obvious in the lack of solidarity with frontline states like Italy and Greece, and Italy’s desperate moves to close its ports to vessels carrying migrants, against Brussels’ wishes – “unmasks a deeper strategic malaise” at the heart of the EU, GIS expert Bernard Siman wrote in a July 2017 report.

Examples of how the migration issue has split Europe are plentiful even in the prosperous and stable Nordic countries, where Sweden on the one side and Norway and Denmark on the other have taken completely divergent stands toward migrants and asylum seekers, as GIS expert Professor Stefan Hedlund described in March 2018.

Different optics

During the Cold War and again, to a lesser extent, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, perceived security threats from the east served to buttress European unity. By contrast, the more diffuse threats from the south – primarily migration and terrorism – have proved corrosive to EU solidarity. In part, this has been due to the bloc’s own policy mistakes.

GIS experts have warned about them for years. Aside from the EU’s underfunded but increasingly effective Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), the bloc’s first line of defense would be an ability to quickly screen migrants and asylum seekers, then integrate them into the European economy. But this requires a different set of optics, treating the immigrant influx as an opportunity to reform the EU’s rigid labor markets, GIS founder Prince Michael of Liechtenstein noted in August 2014.

Map of states destabilized by the Arab Spring
The Arab Spring created more fragile or failed states (source: macpixxel for GIS)

The main problem is that an “overbearing regulatory system” has blocked entrepreneurship, left immigrants idle and encouraged a brain drain of its best talents. “Chances should be given to those wanting to work and adapt, [while] criminal behavior should not be tolerated,” Prince Michael wrote. Four years later, GIS expert Professor Enrico Colombatto noted that these issues still had not been addressed. “The problem is not immigration by itself. Rather, it is … a failure to recognize signals from the labor market, an unwillingness to reform the welfare state, and an inability to punish violent criminal behavior.”

Bad medicine

Despite the EU’s temporary success on curbing illegal immigration, the focus on interdicting transport across the Mediterranean to force the migrants back to shore “simply will not work,” as Professor Hedlund wrote in a December 2017 report. Unless the flows of people from deeper in Africa are stopped, they will simply build up in failed states like Libya, creating a humanitarian disaster that could destabilize the whole region and perhaps require military intervention.

A key point raised by GIS experts – including Prince Michael, Professor Hedlund and Ms. Pinto – is that the EU’s belief that migration can be limited by border controls and dissuasion campaigns, along with external financial and technical assistance to the countries of origin and transit, is misplaced.

Aid and investment money that reaches African families will only encourage more migration


In 2016, the European Commission proposed a “Migration Partnership” to raise 70 billion euros for investment in eight frontline countries – Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Tunisia. “Even as a stopgap,” Prince Michael observed in June 2016, “this approach is not going to work,” since “no investment program based on keeping people in a country against their will can possibly succeed.”

To the extent that aid and investment money is not siphoned off by corrupt elites and reaches African families, it will only encourage more migration. As Professor Hedlund noted, fieldwork suggests “the most lucrative investment extended families can make in poor countries is to pool their resources and send a strong young man to Europe.” What the research shows does work, according to the GIS expert, is strict immigration regulation, scrapping asylum rights, and improved integration of newcomers – but European leaders lack the will to acknowledge and attack the problem.

Long-term thinking

While the migrant crisis put Africa back on Europe’s “political and public radar,” it has not always been “for the right reasons,” Prince Michael pointed out in September 2018. Compared with Africa’s deep-seated structural problems – many, like artificial postcolonial borders, caused by European meddling – the economic and social aid being promised is just “a short-term fix.”

What is required for real economic development, according to GIS’s founder, is a long-term partnership with the “strong involvement of European business.” This, in turn, can only happen if European governments become directly engaged, “leading the host countries to respect property rights and the rule of law.”

African mothers and their children are an important resource
Instead of viewing Africa’s large families as a social and economic problem, European policymakers should start treating them as part of the solution (source: dpa)

It also involves getting to know Africa better. Too often, the EU (like other Western multilateral organizations) tends to impose textbook solutions that bring perverse results. These can range from insisting on centralized electoral systems as a means of introducing “democracy,” when the result is often to reinforce authoritarian rulers and kleptocratic clan rule, to the current stress in foreign aid on measurable “micro-projects” at the expense of crucial “macro” institutional reforms – both subjects of recent reports by GIS expert Dr. Emmanuel Martin. In both cases, Dr. Martin suggests, the better route might be to build on smaller ethnic communities and traditional institutions of self-government to foster genuine power sharing and growth.

It also involves dropping a reflexive European arrogance, visible in remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron at last year’s G20 summit that one of Africa’s biggest problems is its high fertility rate. What Mr. Macron and other leaders fail to grasp, noted Prince Michael, is that high birth rates and increased life expectancy are usually drivers of economic and social development.

This state of affairs poses an opportunity, if only Europe would recognize it. Just as high birth rates help strengthen the African family as a social unit, they also expand the workforce and fuel economic growth. Lower birth rates, on the other hand, should be seen as a result of prosperity, not a precondition.

The Maghreb countries

Fragile states are perhaps the main contributing factor to the migration and terrorist threat from the south. Just across the Mediterranean, in North Africa and the Maghreb countries, the EU is confronted with several shaky regimes. Egypt (now relatively stable after overthrowing two governments since 2011) and Libya were discussed in Part 3 of this series.

Tunisia, the catalyst and perhaps the greatest success story of the Arab Spring, has a functioning democracy but is still struggling with a corrupt, inefficient and protected state-controlled sector. The result has been a lack of economic opportunity for young people that has made the country an important recruiting ground for jihadist groups and illegal migrants to Europe.

Algeria’s options are not good – including a popular uprising that could degenerate into a Syrian-style civil war


Algeria is in worse shape – an oil-dependent regime at an economic and political impasse. Declining oil and gas revenue should force it to cut subsidies, but since these allow the poorest segment of the population to survive, it would rapidly lead to revolution, as GIS expert Charles Millon pointed out in April 2016. The political leadership is in disarray with 81-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika all but incapacitated after a series of debilitating strokes.

The result, as GIS's Bernard Siman noted in May 2017, has been a “seemingly endless succession crisis.” After successfully riding out the Arab Spring with a mix of social transfers and targeted repression, Algeria’s closed power elite (“le pouvoir”) faces a ticklish transition as it struggles for control behind the scenes. The potential options are not good – a popular uprising that could degenerate into a Syrian-style civil war, political drift that would merely delay an uprising or an open conflict among the elite more likely, or continued attempts to buy time while avoiding real political reform.

Morocco successfully weathered the Arab Spring’s turbulent aftermath because King Mohammed VI – who enjoys strong popular support – responded to protests with top-down political reforms and a sophisticated counterterrorist campaign, as GIS expert Dr. Jaime Nogueira Pinto noted in December 2015. Here Spain could be a crucial stabilizer, both in terms of investment and because it has already absorbed 800,000 Moroccan immigrants, who provide vital remittances to families in their home country. But those efforts could be blocked by Spanish vested interests, including the powerful farm lobby, as GIS’s Dr. Tomas Dupla del Moral wrote in a June 2018 report.

Areas where Western intervention is needed to stop jihadi movements
Northern Africa and the Sahel contain most of the countries threatened by the spread of jihadi terrorism and in potential need of Western intervention (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Sahel – duty to intervene

In the next tier south, the Sahel region running from Cameroon and Mali in the west through Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic to Sudan and Ethiopia in the east, a slightly different model has been followed. This is the area where Europe has been most active militarily, especially France.

As GIS's Charles Millon, a former French defense minister, noted in an October 2015 report, this is an area of failed or dictatorial states where the NATO countries of Europe and North America – “as the only group of nations willing or able to intervene around the world to enforce respect for human rights” – have a “duty to intervene.” The alternative is to abandon these territories to groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram and let them remain “a vast staging post for drugs as well as migrants.”

Yet such military intervention will be doomed to failure if it tries to “wind back the clock” and build states “along Western lines, centralized and all-powerful. Rather, it should move in the direction of respect for tribal, geographic identities” such as Libya’s three disparate regions – Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan – or the Tuareg-controlled areas of northern Mali. Failure to arrive at workable federal solutions explains why repeated Western interventions – in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali – failed to produce the desired effect.

France’s commitment to the Sahel helped stabilize strategic areas and curb the spread of jihad


A better response would be border revisions (as in South Sudan) or preferably a federal solution based on real ethnic and religious communities – “the creation of subsidiary entities within states,” Mr. Millon wrote in September 2014.

Even with these shortcomings, France’s long-term commitment to the Sahel largely succeeded in “stabilizing strategic areas and cutting off the rapid spread of jihad,” Mr. Millon noted in April 2016. While he argued that the region was too vast for these results to be sustained without help from the U.S. and other European and local allies, it has worked for now in containing Daesh. But in the medium term, the EU needs to back France up with financial and technical support as countries like South Sudan, Mali and the Central Africa Republic go from bad to worse.

Unintended consequences

The emphasis on stability and security has its own risks. One is the tendency to install “good dictatorships” supported by Western dollars and arms, which, as Charles Millon argued in a March 2015 report, is not a long-term answer. At best, such authoritarian governments can provide “an era of convenient stability for the West” that is “bound to change eventually,” as GIS expert Dr. Uwe Nerlich pointed out in July 2011. Whether to back these regimes to the hilt or keep one’s distance must in each case be a judgment call.

Sometimes the risk is well worth it. Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi offers one of the few hopes of adapting the old theocratic order of Islam to the modern world, while President Paul Kagame in Rwanda may be one of the most ambitious managers of development in Africa.

Just as elections sometimes underpin the rule of presidents for life like Cameroon’s Paul Biya, foreign aid to failed or authoritarian states can prove a “double-edged sword, giving logistical support to the warring sides even as it saves lives,” GIS's Teresa Pinto wrote in an April 2017 report.

French soldiers in Mali
Jan. 28, 2013: A French airmobile unit readies for a counteroffensive with Malian and Chadian troops against Islamist rebels. The thrust recaptured the cities of Timbuktu and Gao in northern Mali (source: dpa)

The same could be said of the West’s “war on terror,” which has unleashed hysteria and a self-destructive breach of “core European values” of privacy and individual liberty, Prince Michael noted in November 2015. Ironically, this process was only deepened by the military defeat of Islamic State, which drove the movement underground and magnified the long-term threat to Europe as foreign fighters filtered back. Fighting this “son of Daesh” will require a “sophisticated spectrum of countermeasures” and probably “decades of sustained engagement,” as Mr. Siman wrote in a July 2017 report.

Militarily, counterterrorism and expeditionary operations divert huge resources from the main mission of European and NATO armed forces – conventional deterrence. This can be seen in procurement, where “the most common European defense investments are multi-role helicopters, patrol vessels … and other hardware useful for homeland and civil defense,” GIS expert Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen wrote in February 2018.

Sub-Sahara – more fragility

Farther south, the wave of decolonization from the late 1950s to early 1970s left an even bigger jumble of multiethnic states with borders defined by the former imperial powers. Many became failed states, haunted by political instability, corruption, disease and civil wars. A classic example of such an “unsustainable unitary state” is the DRC, which has been wracked by kleptocracy and civil war since independence and the UN intervention in Katanga in the early 1960s, and could be headed that way again as embattled President Joseph Kabila attempts to hang on to power.

The answer to weak states is more independence and self-governance at the local level


The answer to weak states is “more independence and self-governance at the local level,” which can only be provided by strong leadership, Prince Michael pointed out in November 2017. In regions like Katanga and Kasai in the DRC, or Biafra in Nigeria, a good start would be to “abandon the dogma of preserving artificial states.” But Europe – perhaps because of its own issues with Catalonia and Scotland – appears reluctant to accept self-determination in places like Kurdistan and Biafra.

Great power playground

As Prince Michael noted in September 2018, the fragility of local regimes makes sub-Saharan Africa especially prone to foreign influence. As Europe’s influence has waned, an assertive China has moved in, intent on enlarging its sphere of influence and secure economic and strategic advantages – including access to minerals, rich farmland and maritime trade routes to Europe.

Not only is China a source of development aid and infrastructure, but it is becoming an increasingly important export market. The expansion of Chinese investment and even the presence of more than 1 million Chinese nationals on the continent shows that Beijing is making Africa a strategic priority, increasing its influence under the guise of “noninterference” much as Great Britain did during the precolonial period, Prince Michael noted in December 2015.

In this way, Africa may become the place where European and Chinese strategic interests collide – far more so than in Eurasia, where their spheres of influence are buffered by geographical barriers and intermediary powers like Russia and India. For the EU, this zone could become the strategic equivalent of the “first island belt” that plays such a key role in the maritime strategy of the United States, posing a barrier to Chinese expansion into the central Pacific.

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