Ghazi Ben Ahmed / Oct 2020
The President of Tunisia, Kaïs Saïed, receives European Commissioners Olivér Várhelyi and Ylva Johansson and Italy's Foreign Minister, Luigi Di Maio and Luciana Lamorgese, Italy's Minister of the Interior, August 2020
November 2020 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Process, an important milestone for the cooperation between the countries on the two shores of the Mediterranean. Back then, representatives of these countries met in Barcelona with the aim of making the Mediterranean a space of peace, shared prosperity and cultural and human exchange.
The anniversary comes at a time of great instability in the region, compounded by a pandemic with severe economic and social impacts. As the region’s economic growth falters, current account and fiscal balances are deteriorating (drop in oil revenues, remittances, FDIs and tourism) and public debt is projected to rise significantly.
The crisis that began with the Arab unrest resulted in a near universal failure to implement the long-term structural reforms required to transform rent-seeking and state-dominated economies into modern ones that embrace both digital and ecological transformation and recognise the salutary impact of competition and private enterprise. There has been much talk about structural reforms but rather limited cohesive commitment to action, as the need to confront short-term problems over long-term problems prevailed.
However, the COVID19 pandemic offers a unique opportunity for countries in the region to rethink supply chain and strengthen trade and regional integration in order to balance efficiency with resilience. Trade and integration — within the EuroMed region and with Africa can provide an opportunity to enhance regional trade relations by establishing safe and resilient regional supply chains of essential, and non-essential goods and services in the post-COVID era, and unleash forces for Mediterranean dynamism and position the Med/Africa region as a global player.
This should prompt Southern Mediterranean Neighbours (SMNs) to resume (or start) negotiations with the EU, aiming at “building the Region they want to live in: A EuroMediterranean Union of vitality in a world of fragility”. A shrewd agreement encompassing a new contract/project and focusing on hubs in sub-regions and variable geometry, could promote economic modernisation and growth, to strengthen and stabilise the region.
In this context, it is obvious that the acronym DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area) does not reflect the objectives pursued in the renewed partnership between the EU and its SMNs, and puts too much emphasis on free trade, which has had the effect of creating a climate of suspicion. In Tunisia, for instance, since October 13, 2015, the date of the launch of negotiations, progress has been limited due to apprehension about Tunisia's ability to face competition from European companies, or its ability to take advantage of “unrestricted access” to the European market, in particular in services, in the absence of an agreement on mobility. This strongly influenced the public opinion which felt, rightfully, a lot of scepticism with the Tunisian and European efforts to reach a fair agreement, compounded by failure in communication and pedagogy on the one hand, and demonization of the DCFTA for political purposes, on the other.
It would thus be appropriate to change the rebarbative acronym of DCFTA (or ALECA in French) by PAET or Partnership Agreement for Economic Transition (APTE in French), which would better reflect (i) the SMNs will for a comprehensive partnership, (ii) the essence of a win-win partnership adapted to the economic transition, and (iii) the concrete objectives underlying this rapprochement. APTE reflects above all the will to give oneself the means (the ability) to meet the increasingly complex challenges and new opportunities at regional and global levels which will shape the future of the Euro/Med/Africa area, with a strong focus on digital and ecological transformation.
On the core substance of the renewed partnership, we need to sharpen economic focus and spur recovery. In concrete terms we may envisage to promote a joint strategy to build an enhanced resilience for the region. The health crisis offers new opportunities for SMNs to serve as a regional backup for greater resilience of EU logistics hubs called upon to relocate to the region. To eliminate single-source dependencies, and to establish a flexible and adaptable supply chain, product integrators, sub-system suppliers and component suppliers will source, assemble and deliver from their own backyards i.e. Mediterranean region, and more specifically in places where their intellectual property can be protected, their talent can come together and perform production design and services. The challenge will then be for the SMNs to adapt their offer and be able to respond to any European dynamic geared towards the regional reorganization of the production and supply model.
It is undeniable that the European Union and its member states have contributed substantially to helping the SMNs since the Revolution and have kept these economies afloat. But today, the SMNs need to get out of the water, take a qualitative leap and get out of the trap of middle-income countries. “And this is the moment for Europe”. The moment to anchor the SMNs to the European area with a long-term, explicit and ambitious concerted vision, and to put in place new financial instruments that accompany the implementation of this vision.
The linchpin of a renewed Euro-Mediterranean Partnership is a long-term vision which is absolutely necessary to make the notion of partnership credible, to give the necessary incentives to SMNs to carry out a consistent set of reforms and ensure that these reforms are underpinned by the strong approbation of the broader citizenry, especially the youth, and to ease political resistance in order to secure the cooperation of SDNs on border control and management, readmission of their nationals who are irregularly present in the EU, and on reception of third country nationals (TCNs) who transited to Europe through their territories.
The most credible of the incentives will ultimately be the four freedoms (goods, services, capital and people), in a sort of “everything except the institutions”, given that SMNs are not meant to join the European Union. This could be the (symbolic) 2045 horizon which will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Barcelona Process.