Since the beginning of this year, Europe has been working on several fronts to revive its relationship with Africa, in general, and North African countries, in particular. Most of the new European initiatives are not different from the previous initiatives in terms of the goals they are trying to achieve. Almost all of Europe’s Africa initiatives revolve around the idea of Europe providing financial and technical support to Africa, with the goal to limit the troubles that Africa is exporting to Europe; such as illegal immigration, terrorism, and climate change. This makes us question whether Europe can eventually break the vicious “donor-recipient” cycle with Africa and turn it into a new form of fruitful relationship of collaboration, as described by a European Parliament statement, that was released in March following the parliament majority voted for the new EU-Africa Strategy.
In addition to the EU-Africa Strategy, the European Council approved, in April, another project with a huge budget that targets North African countries, which represent the majority of Europe’s southern neighbors in the Mediterranean. The “New Agenda for The Mediterranean” is an ambitious trans-Mediterranean project that was proposed by the European Commission in February, and the EU Council approved its conclusions, in April. The goal of the project is for Europe to “relaunch and strengthen the strategic partnership between the European Union and its southern neighborhood partners.” That is through guiding the EU's policy towards the Mediterranean region, through a new instrument titled “Neighborhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument - (NDICI).” The NDICI will work on both regional and bilateral levels with targeted countries, in the southern Mediterranean region, to implement an economic and investment recovery plan, with a budget of seven billion euros, for the period between 2021-2027, which is expected to mobilize up to 30 billion euros in private and public investments, over the next ten years.
obstacles to Renewed Action
Europe’s urgent interest in regaining its long-lost influence over Africa, and dialoguing with its immediate neighbors in the southern Mediterranean is not new. At least in the past decade, several leading voices inside major European collegiate bodies, such as the European Union (EU), the European Council (EUCO), and the European Parliament reiterated the need to strengthen the bond with Africa. However, real sustainable measures were hardly taken to put Europe’s beautifully written strategies into an effective action plan that could yield tangible results. Whether the new strategies, that were recently adopted by Europe towards Africa and southern Mediterranean countries, are expected to work in a better way is still an open question. For Europe to succeed in this mission, two obstacles need to be removed first. One of them has to do with Turkey and its swiftly growing influence over North African countries, while the second more complicated obstacle is the clear divergence between Europe’s vision and Africa’s needs.
Leading European collegiate bodies explain the renewed reawakening movement towards Africa as a practical application of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, last year. “The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the growing urgency of the climate crisis show how interdependent our two continents are, and why it is so important that both continents act urgently to seize the shared opportunities that lie ahead and to tackle the common challenges that we all face;” noted the European Commission in a communication sent to the European Parliament and the European Council, in December 2020, about the need to adopt a comprehensive strategy towards Africa.
Nevertheless, we may claim that the quick and deep dives of Turkey into North Africa, since 2019, is the actual stimulus behind Europe’s relentless efforts, in the past few months, to approach and strengthen relations with southern Mediterranean countries. Abandoned by its European neighbors and motivated by the “Mavi Vatan” concept, Turkey has been working, for years, to create a presence for itself in the North Africa region. During that time, the European Union was purposefully alienating itself from the Middle East and North Africa region, especially after the Arab Spring revolutions and the chaotic aftermath that empowered terrorism and created an immigrant crisis from the south to the north. Turkey is the only country that generously contained the waves of immigrants fleeing death in their Arab homelands towards Europe.
Winning North Africa, either for Europe or Turkey, opens the door of Africa and the Middle East with all the geo-economic opportunities they represent. But, for Turkey, the story is much deeper than that. For Turkey, regaining influence over the North Africa region, which is lost in 1923, due to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, is a significant topic of national interest. On one hand, gaining influence over the southern Mediterranean region gives Turkey unprecedented leverage in its decades-long conflict with south European countries, Greece and Cyprus, over maritime delimitations. Turkish officials label the fight for those maritime borders as the fight for the blue homeland “Mavi Vatan.”
Right now, Turkey’s economic and military influence over North African countries outweighs Europe’s influence. Turkey has successfully established various economic and military agreements with Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. For example, in December 2020, Turkey signed contracts amounting to up to 150 million dollars to export arms and military equipment to Tunisia. In September, Turkey exported thirteen “Bayraktar TB2” drones to Morocco, as part of an arms contract of 70 million dollars that was signed in April. Since January, Turkey and Egypt have been negotiating their way to reconciliation after seven years of the deep political rift. Meanwhile, last year, Egypt was sitting on the top of the list of countries exporting food, furniture, and clothing commodities from Turkey, with a trading volume exceeding three billion dollars.
Yet, Turkey’s biggest winning move against Europe in North Africa and the southern Mediterranean region was intervening in war-torn Libya, in late 2019. Turkey’s military intervention in Libya gave Turkey diplomatic and military leverage in the eastern Mediterranean conflict, and improved Turkey’s economic opportunities in Africa, especially against international economic giants like China and the United States. In December 2019, Turkey signed two agreements with the interim Government of National Accord (GNA), that were later approved by the new interim Government of National Unity (GNU), when they came into power in March 2021.
The first agreement, which Turkey signed with Libya’s GNA, is a military “training, support, and advice” agreement. Upon this military agreement, Turkey managed to deploy military troops and equipment to Libya and has been training GNA-affiliated militia and organized them into the ranks of the Libyan national Armed Forces in Tripoli. The military agreement between Turkey and Libya is reminiscent of the military agreement that Turkey signed with Azerbaijan in the 1990s, which allowed Turkey to help Azerbaijan to build, almost from scratch, a capable Azerbaijani military that managed to defeat the Russia-supported Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh battle, last year.
The second was a maritime demarcation agreement defining an Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) extending across the Mediterranean Sea from the southwestern borders of Turkey to the northeastern borders of Libya. Despite the fact that this maritime agreement does not conform with related UN conventions or international law, Turkey used it to shift the dynamics of its decades-long conflict with Greece over seabed rights in the Mediterranean. Upon this agreement, Turkey deployed a seismic research ship that operated in the Mediterranean waters for months, causing tension with Greece and European allies. This turned the mostly quiet basin of the Mediterranean into a piece of hell, last summer, as warships, submarines, military helicopters, and fighter jets from all over the world, came to participate in the ongoing tragedy, under the guise of conducting joint navy exercises.
In that sense, we may easily say that Turkey could be a glitch that hinders the gear of Europe’s ambitious plans towards rebounding with North African countries. However, Turkey is not the only or biggest glitch that Europe needs to worry about in this regard. The real reason why Turkey is winning in this competition over Europe is that Turkey adapts its strategies to meet the specific needs of each of the individual countries it targets in the North Africa region. Meanwhile, Europe’s strategies towards the region are tailored to meet Europe’s needs in Africa, with almost no regard to the priorities of targeted African states. For example, Europe has been pouring millions of euros into projects that target improving human rights and democratization in southern Mediterranean countries. Yet, the main concern for these countries, which suffer from civil wars, terrorism, and ailing regimes, is to ensure political and economic security and stability, first.
Europe has to quit viewing Africa as one whole entity, with one set of goals and one set of problems. Africa is a very diverse continent, in terms of demographics and culture. Likewise, Europe should stop playing the role of savior towards African countries, especially its southern neighbors in the Mediterranean, and rather look for what interests them and try to help them satisfy their urging needs and priorities. This is what Europe needs to internally work on, first, before pursuing its many ambitious strategies, with huge budgets, towards Africa. That is the only way to ensure that these strategies could produce sustainable results.