by Manuel de la Cámara Hermoso, EuroDefense-Spain, Madrid
In 1995, the European Union (EU) launched the so-called “Barcelona process”, a comprehensive plan whose objective was to extend the area of stability, prosperity, and development to its southern neighbourhood. In 2004, the Mediterranean partners were included in the “European Neighbourhood Policy” (ENP), which included both the EU’s eastern and southern neighbours. In 2021, twenty-five years after Barcelona, the EU issued a Communication on “Renewed partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood. A new Agenda for the Mediterranean”, confirming that a strengthened Mediterranean partnership remains a strategic imperative for the EU. The Union has assigned a budget of €7bn for the 2021-2027 period.
The huge challenges in the region
The new agenda recognises that the Mediterranean region poses huge socio-economic, environmental and security challenges for Europe: long-standing conflicts, bad governance, corruption and authoritarian regimes, millions of people suffering displacement that cause severe socio-economic consequences in countries hosting large numbers of refugees. This scenario is further darkened by exploding prices for basic staples, scarcity of water resources and desertification. Last but not least, foreign powers are interfering in the region.
Israel-Palestine: Political analysts warn that a third Palestinian intifada is possible, and that the peace process based on a “two-state solution” is no longer realistic. A new intifada could cause the collapse of the paralysed Palestinian Authority. Within Israel proper, the confrontation between Netanyahu’s government and a large proportion of Israeli citizens over the government’s legislative plans to control the judiciary may resume in the coming months.
Egypt: Mubarak’s dictatorship was replaced in 2013 by an even tougher authoritarian regime. The 2019 constitution gives considerable powers to the military that controls almost 60% of the economy, which is suffering from a big drop in foreign investment, the decline of tourism and gigantic infrastructure projects. The poverty rate currently stands at 33% and is increasing.
Syria: A 12-year-old civil war is largely frozen (and forgotten) with a death toll of 610,000 and the number of displaced persons reaching the huge figure of 14.6 million. These figures have been further aggravated by the big earthquakes of February 2023. 13 million people are in dire need of humanitarian aid, while Arab leaders (Egypt, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia) are moving to normalise relations with Assad. The return of Syria to the Arab League was confirmed at the Jeddah Summit in May 2023.
Lebanon: The delicate Muslim-Christian-Druze balance has been completely upended in recent years and the economy has entered into a free-fall, leaving 80% of the population below the poverty line. Lebanon has become a failed state.
Libya: Despite the appointment of a new UN SG’s Special Representative, there has been no progress in establishing the basis for a new constitution and conducting elections. Internal confrontation continues between the Government of National Unity (GNA) based in Tripoli, and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, with the Prime Minister supported by Benghazi strongman, “Field Marshall’’ Khalifa Haftar. No political agreement is in sight, while foreign militias, among them Russia’s “Wagner Group”, continue to be active.
Algeria: Despite the increase of revenue from oil and gas exports, the government is unable to create enough jobs for young people, many of whom choose to migrate. The regime is playing a nationalistic card on foreign policy (breaking off diplomatic relations with Morocco, blocking imports from Spain) and is engaged in a dangerous arms race with Morocco.
Tunisia: The country in which the “Arab Spring” begun has entered a deep economic and political crisis. President Kais Saied’s main efforts have been focused on consolidating his autocracy since he suspended, and later dissolved, the Parliament (March 2022) and forced through a new constitution that concentrates all powers on him. Tunisia is by far the largest sender of illegal migrants from North Africa towards Europe.
Morocco: The Western Sahara conflict dominates the country’s domestic and foreign policy, especially since Washington recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory in the “Joint Declaration between Morocco, Israel and the United States” (2020). Rabat has become Washington’s preferred ally in the region and its main arms buyer. Morocco is a crucial partner for the EU on trade, migration, and the fight against jihadism.
Türkiye: Economic difficulties have prompted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to mend fences with the Gulf monarchies, Israel and Egypt. But he has fuelled tensions with the west due to his confrontation with Greece and Cyprus over the delimitation of territorial waters and air space in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas and the blocking of Sweden’s accession to NATO. On account of its special relationship with Moscow, Türkiye has not joined Western sanctions against Russia. Erdoğan was reelected in a tight vote last May for a new five-year term.
The Sahel: This region, due to the destabilising effects of uncontrolled migratory flows, the rise and expansion of jihadist terrorism and the penetration of hostile foreign powers, mainly Russia, has become an area of great concern for the EU. Over the last two years, there have been military coups in Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali. The French troops have withdrawn from Mali and Burkina Faso.
For a revised southern neighbourhood policy
When the Barcelona Process was launched, the EU took the optimistic view that it could exert a significant transforming impact on its southern neighbours by extending to them the Union’s area of human rights, prosperity, stability, development and democratisation and attracting them by access to the European Single Market, combined with substantial financial assistance. This policy, however, ignored the reality of the south: whereas most eastern partners had the real prospect of joining the EU, the southern partners – as they are geographically not in Europe – didn’t see any chance of becoming EU members and therefore had low aspirations and ambitions. As democratisation and development there faltered, the EU and its Member States moved to preserve stability and protect their economic interests. The lofty Barcelona principles were set aside and the Union has been steadily losing influence. The penetration of foreign powers into the region – like China –
financing big infrastructure projects without demanding societal reforms, has added to this erosion of European influence.
In 2022, twenty-seven years after Barcelona, the results have been very disappointing. The EU needs to undertake a thorough review of its Mediterranean policy but should never abandon its ambition to be a “transforming power” as democracy and the rule of law are the essence of our Union, even if global trends seem to be moving in the opposite direction.
 The eastern neighbours are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine. In 2022, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine were given a
“European perspective” and the last two granted candidate status. The southern neighbours are Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Palestine, and Tunisia. Mauritania participates in the Union for the Mediterranean and Syria has been suspended since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.
 This could jeopardize the “Abraham Accords” signed in 2020 between Israel and several Arab countries, because the Arab public would not tolerate collective punishment of Palestinians.
 The Senegalese Abdoulaye Bathily.