In an effort to breathe life into a programme of Euro-Mediterranean integration, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy launched the latest version of the process, the Union pour la Mediterranee (Union for the Mediterranean), in Paris on 13 July.

The foundations of the union were first laid in Barcelona in 1995 but little has since been achieved, and Sarkozy is already finding that integrating the countries of the Mediterranean rim is far from straightforward.

Sarkozy has made it a priority of his presidency to bridge the gap between Europe and its neighbours on the southern Mediterranean coast.

Between his election as president in May 2007 and the end of the year, he made state visits to four of the five members of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) – Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco – with only Mauritania missing out. Now he is using France’s presidency of the EU, which began on 1 July, as a vehicle to promote his pan-Mediterranean vision.

Relations between Israel and the Palestinian territories are the most obvious stumbling block to the process. But the Maghreb countries also present a substantial barrier to regional integration.

Paris went to great diplomatic lengths to secure the attendance of Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Paris, sending a succession of ministers to Algiers in the months leading up to the launch.

While President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was an enthusiastic participant in the process, Rabat failed to send its head of state, King Mohammed VI, while Tripoli shunned the process altogether.

Poor integration

Most observers in North Africa say the Union for the Mediterranean is already doomed. According to the World Bank, the Maghreb is the least economically integrated region in the world, and the AMU is widely dismissed as little more than a talking shop. Algeria’s support for the Polisario, a political movement that wants independence for the Western Sahara region, over which Morocco claims sovereignty, has driven a wedge between Algiers and Rabat, and the border between the two countries remains closed.

Some economic links do exist, however. There is a reasonable amount of trade between Libya and Tunisia, not least the cheap oil exports that help Tunisia top up its dwindling crude production. When it is deemed mutually beneficial, there is even trade between Morocco and Algeria. Algeria pipes gas to Spain through its neighbour, giving Morocco
a claim on a share of the gas, which it is considering using to fuel its proposed increases in electricity production.

According to some observers, the reopening of the Algeria/Morocco border is being considered, but there have been conflicting opinions from the two capitals. The rhetoric has become part of the problem: neither party seems willing to publicly admit to giving ground in the debate. When Rabat suggested at a recent AMU meeting in Tangiers that Algiers was considering reopening the border, the result was a row between the representatives of the two countries. Some observers say that Algiers was reluctant to participate in Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean scheme because of suspicion over Rabat’s role in the process.

Uncompromising leaders

The concentration of executive power in a single person in the Maghreb’s four major states is also a complicating factor, with strong personalities not prone to compromise. In Libya, for example, the insistence of leader Muammar Gaddafi that his country follows its own path rather than being part of a regional grouping is always likely to be a barrier to closer Maghreb relations, let alone a Union for the Mediterranean.

Although Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with a pluralist political system, the bulk of executive authority is invested in the king. Among other prerogatives, Mohammed VI, the second ruler since the kingdom gained independence from France in 1956, has the power to appoint and dissolve the government and deploy the military. He also has the title of ‘Commander of the Faith’, which gives his authority greater weight with the country’s Muslim population.

Recent changes to Tunisia’s constitution mean that the door to political opposition is now ajar, but it is still essentially a one-party state in which all the organs of the state are con-trolled by President Ben Ali and his Democratic Constitutional Rally (DCR) party.

When Ben Ali came to power in November 1987, he vowed that no longer would presidents be in power for life like his predecessor President Habib Bourguiba, who had been head of state since the country declared independence in 1956.

Constitutional changes in 2002 lifted rest-ric-tions on the maximum number of presidential mandates, imposing instead a 75-year age limit on presidential candidates. Ben Ali, now 71, and having survived a prostate cancer scare, declared his candidacy for the 2009 presidential elections at the annual DCR party congress at the end of July.

In Algeria, Bouteflika is similarly unchallenged, with the country’s politics dominated by two state-sponsored parties: the Front de Lib-eration National and the Rassemblement National Democratique. Memories of the decade-long civil war that followed the cancellation of elections in 1991, which the Front Islamique du Salut party was poised to win, and the relative stability of the years since Bouteflika was first elected in 1999, have put paid to the prospects of any political opposition.

There are several parallels between the leaders of the two countries. Bouteflika, also 71, has also survived a health scare – rumoured to have been stomach cancer – and now looks set to push through a constitutional change that will enable him to run for a third term in elections scheduled for April 2009.

The pre-eminence of the four leaders has positive aspects. To varying degrees, they symbolise the liberation of their nations from colonial control. They also paint themselves as a buffer against Islamic violence and are generally accepted as such by their people.

All four countries have experienced varying degrees of turbulence in their recent history, and more recently have had to face the threat of terrorist violence from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim). Aqim has made it its stated aim to spread violence through the Maghreb region.

Although the group’s ambitions currently outstrip its capabilities, it has had success in Algeria, where several foreign nationals have been killed in suicide bomb attacks, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia and Morocco.

This is not to say that there is not a sense of frustration with political life in the Maghreb. While the four leaders see themselves as the figureheads in whom the future aspirations of their people can be invested, they also embody a resistance to change that some see as stunting political and economic development.

All four countries are suffering double-digit unemployment rates, and joblessness is particularly acute among the young. There is a stark skills gap in the region, and even those who graduate from university find work hard to come by.

At the same time, the inflationary pressures created by rising commodity prices on world markets are damaging. All four countries are subject to increased food costs, which can only be alleviated by spending government money on subsidies, creating inflationary pressure.

The rapid increase in oil prices is placing a great burden on Morocco, and to a lesser extent Tunisia. While Algeria and Libya are reaping huge revenues from the boom, this raises people’s expectations and creates the problem of how the money should best be invested. The two oil producers both have huge infrastructure development plans, but pumping too much money into the economy too quickly will only exacerbate the inflation problem.

Stalled development

Some analysts argue that the personal pre-occupations of Gaddafi and Bouteflika have hampered development plans. Gaddafi’s determination to keep his country in a permanent state of revolution is not conducive to the execution of projects. The country is still reeling from the Libyan leader’s announcement earlier this year that he would abolish the bulk of the country’s general people’s committees – the equivalent of government ministries – by the end of the year.

In Algeria, the debate over whether Bouteflika will stand for re-election has been raging since 2006 – to the detriment of the reform process, according to some. Although the recent reinstatement of highly respected administrator Ahmed Ouyahia to the post of prime minister is expected to help put the country’s stuttering $150bn infrastructure development plans back on track, most see the move as little more than the most public reflection of a behind-the-scenes deal between the president and the senior members of the security services with whom he shares power.

Whatever the cause, the Maghreb’s dis-satisfaction with its political masters is growing. In Algeria, incidences of social unrest are increasing monthly. Voter turnout in Morocco is dwindling, reflecting an increasing disillusionment with the political process in the country. And while there are few avenues to express political dissent in Tunisia and Libya, observers say there are increasing murmurings of discontent.

While there is no discernible threat to any of the leaders, they must ensure that their countries’ respective social problems do not further fan the flames of discontent. If they do, President Sarkozy will not be the only one wringing his hands in frustration.

Population

Algeria: 34.9million

Libya: 6.2million

Morocco: 31million

Tunisia: 10.4million

Source: IMF