The EU’s New Year’s Resolution for the MENA region


The EU should consider boosting the economies of MENA countries akin to how the Marshall programme rebuilt Europe

Tania Ildefonso Ocampos's picture
Tuesday 3 January 2017 11:22 UTC

Since 1995, the European Union (EU) has sought three main foreign policy objectives in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

First, the EU has aimed to encourage political and economic reform in MENA countries. Second, the European bloc has tried to reinforce existing cooperation agreements between these countries and EU member states, as well as create new regional cooperation frameworks. Finally, the EU has participated in international efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To what extent the EU has achieved these objectives remains a subect of debate. What is clear, however, is that following the so-called Arab Spring, new challenges started to emanate from the MENA region, triggering an urgent need to define new EU foreign policy objectives there. 

New challenges

According to the latest data released by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and to the latest report of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the number of people from the MENA region using illegal channels to reach EU soil via the Mediterranean Sea decreased in 2016.

'A thriving business sector, the key to improving political and social progress, would increase the level of opportunity for millions of people.'

The figures vary slightly depending on the source consulted, but it can be estimated that, in 2016, at least 360,000 people reached EU soil via illegal routes. That is approximately 650,000 fewer people than in 2015, when more than 1 million people risked their lives to find a safe heaven in Europe.

Yet, in 2016, at least 4,690 people died or were reported missing in the Mediterranean Sea, 25 percent more than in 2015.

This situation highlights the urgent need to increase pathways for admission of migrants from the MENA region, such as resettlement, private sponsorship, family reunification, and student scholarship schemes, among others, so these migrants do not resort to smuggling networks.

Furthermore, this situation highlights the urgent need to address the root causes that have triggered the migration crisis, particularly the lack of prospects migrants from the MENA region face in their respective countries of origin.

A thriving business sector, the key to improving political and social progress, would increase the level of opportunity for millions of people.

In 2016, at least 4,690 people died or were reported missing in the Mediterranean Sea (AFP)

The original Marshall plan

In 1947, almost two years after the end of the Second World War, then-US Secretary of State George Marshall announced the European Recovery Programme, which later became known as the Marshall plan for Europe.

This plan, which has been widely heralded as an example of the triumph of foreign aid on a grand scale, was less an aid programme than a targeted effort to restore the power of business as a growth engine.

Through this initiative, a regional coordinating body – the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation, which led to the creation of the EU – handled the distribution of funds among receiving countries. These funds aimed to restore production through loans to local businesses.

The owners of these businesses repaid their loans to their own respective governments, which, in turn, spent the repaid funds on restoring commercial infrastructure to boost production. Moreover, these governments made economic policy reforms to support their domestic private sectors.

By 1952, as the funding ended, the economy of every participant state had surpassed pre-war levels.

In view of this success, the EU and its MENA partners should design and implement a similar initiative to bolster MENA economies, pushing for increased public and private investment in the region.  

EU economic initiative for MENA

As Germany prepares to make Africa a focus of its G20 presidency, the German Development Minister Gerd Mueller recently urged other developed countries to support a future German-designed “Marshall Plan with Africa.”

This plan would be fundamentally different from the aid that Africa has received over the past four decades. This plan would provide a stimulus package from Germany to Africa to increase economic growth in the continent, instead of humanitarian aid.

Africa has an enormous potential in many sectors, including agriculture and renewable energy. Thus, it is most probable that this plan will call for the construction of solar power stations in Africa, which would not only create jobs, but also solve the continent's power problems.

Several EU leaders have expressed their support for this initiative. Among these leaders is Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

'Let it be the EU’s New Year’s resolution: to bring economic development to the Middle East and North Africa.'

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Rajoy said he intended to use his renewed mandate as prime minister to speak forcefully for a more unified EU, and for initiatives like the “Marshall Plan for Africa,” aimed at relieving the poverty that encourages thousands of people to risk their lives to arrive on Europe’s shores using illegal channels.

Although the potential programme and the initial support it is receiving are a step in the right direction, this initiative should also include the Middle East region, which is in desperate need for reconstruction plans.

The case of Spain

Spain can take pride in having integrated more than six million immigrants in the past 20 years, without witnessing the rise of xenophobic movements - becoming in this respect an exception to the European norm.

Unfortunately, Spain does not have the capacity to continue receiving immigrants en masse like many other EU countries that have been severely affected by the economic crisis, including Italy and Greece.

Between 2009 and 2013, Spain lost nearly 10 percent of its economic output. Although the country is on track to recover that loss next year, Spain’s 19 percent unemployment rate is still one of the highest in Europe.

Yet immigrants continue to arrive in Spain in large numbers. In 2016, Spain received at least 6,800 people from the MENA region, posing a serious challenge for Rajoy’s government.

Despite its difficult domestic situation, the Spanish government is actively participating in international efforts to tackle the root causes that encourage people from the MENA region to seek a better future on EU soil.

For example, the country just recently announced an increase of its military presence in Iraq, including 25 members of the Civil Guard, who have been specifically requested by the Iraqi government to help train its police officers who will be patrolling areas liberated from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Hopefully, in 2017, Spain and other EU member states will continue providing military support to their MENA partners, and simultaneously launch a joint comprehensive economic plan for the region in cooperation with MENA governments.

The 2017 resolution

This year will be an election year in many EU countries, including Germany. Campaigning will likely be dominated by domestic terrorism worries, and economic concerns, including pensions and the rising cost of healthcare. 

It is unlikely that EU political parties will, in the foreseeable future, devote time to a Marshall Plan-like initiative for the MENA region.  

Yet EU security depends on it, as it is directly liable to suffer from instability there.

The EU is the world’s largest provider of overseas development assistance. Also, the EU has an extensive toolbox of civilian capabilities. Therefore, the bloc does have the economic and logistical capacity to launch a Marshall Plan-like comprehensive plan for the MENA region.

Let it be the EU’s New Year’s resolution: to bring economic development to the Middle East and North Africa. 

- Tania Ildefonso Ocampos is a Spanish political analyst who specialises in EU strategy in the Middle East. She is a former Schuman trainee (Euro-Med and Middle East Unit of the European Parliament's Directorate-General for External Policies), and holds an MA in Middle Eastern History from Tel Aviv University, Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: The French and EU flags flying at half-mast in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, on July 15, 2016, the day after the Bastille Day attack in Nice (AFP)