Europe/Maghreb/Sahel: an area of opportunities and challenges


An overview of the area stretching from Ziguinchor (Senegal), Nema (Mauritania), Sikasso (Mali), Diffa (Niger) and Moundou (Chad) in the south of the Sahel to the Arctic in the north of Finland and Sweden (the northern borders of the European Union), passing through the countries of North Africa, the Mediterranean and southern and central Europe, reveals an area of more than 14 million km2, a population of just under 800 million (if we count only the 27 EU countries in Europe), a global GDP of 13.8 trillion dollars (of which less than 5% for North Africa, less than 1% for the 5 Sahel countries and the rest for Europe), a gigantic maritime area, and resources of gas, oil, agriculture, uranium, industrial products, handicrafts etc. , and of course, a rich and diverse cultural and ecological heritage.

There are certainly huge differences between the North, the Centre and the South in terms of wealth, prosperity, governance, political system, and technological advancement. But geostrategy is the art of overcoming differences to identify possible interests beyond circumstantial divides. Reflecting on geography in terms of close and distant interests requires a forward-looking approach that goes beyond the fears and anxieties of the present, fed by populism, "fortress thinking", sovereignty and isolationism - trends that are the antithesis of globalisation, one of the main sources of wealth for the countries of the North.

Seeking complementarities in this Sahel/Maghreb/Europe space is a strategic response to the challenges of the present and the future. Thinking differently means transforming borders into opportunities to open up to other horizons, risky indeed, but full of promise in terms of shared prosperity, security and a common destiny. A paradigm shift must take place so that the countries of the South no longer see Europe as an Eldorado to be "conquered", and the countries of the North no longer see the Maghreb/Sahel area as a preserve to be controlled in order to benefit from its labour force, resources and local markets on the one hand, and to externalise the management of migratory flows and terrorist threats on the other.

The time of "manifest destiny" and "civilising missions" from Europe is over. On the other hand, the countries of the South must learn to overcome the traumas of colonialism by intelligently reconciling with the past, through an exercise of questioning collective memory, and a kind of appropriation of history with its pains and its moments of glory. It is by seeking a happy medium between the demonisation of the 'white man' with proto-colonialist aims and the stereotypical images of the perfidious, violent, lascivious, even coarse Arab, Muslim or black (inherited from an orientalism that continues to nourish some European minds despite the harsh criticism of Edward Said) that a new paradigm can be built, based on shared values, respected differences and an intelligently decided common destiny.

The bad news from the Sahel (terrorism, coups d'état, ethnic conflicts, illegal immigration, human trafficking) should not overshadow sustained human development over the past two decades, including progress in health, education and the fight against poverty (see Yasmin Osman (AFD), "Sahel: beyond conflict, real economic and social development" The Conversation, 24 October, 2021. ) "Sahelian GDP quadrupled between 1990 and 2020 and, over the recent period too, the region has had one of the highest economic growth rates in Africa (around +4.8% per year on average since 2010)" notes Osman in the same article. According to the AFD economist, this dynamic is due to the growth of agriculture, the rise in investment, the dynamic of services, transport, construction and other sectors, and the high cost of "extractive raw materials" that the region produces.

The EU, in addition to Morocco, Algeria and Egypt (and why not Nigeria), must capitalise on this dynamic, in coordination with the Sahelian countries and in consultation with the populations, to put in place a real, transformative economic recovery plan, with infrastructure, improved access to services, entrepreneurship for young people and women, employment, the development of services and industry, and the upgrading of cities as its pillars. The approach must be integrated, bottom up (not top down), sustainable and durable as it would address the real needs of youth, women, marginalised groups and the middle classes. Development aid is still plagued by the famous "elite capture" (those who "know" take on the role of intermediaries and the lion's share of development aid). There is a need to invest in socially profitable development aid, based on genuine citizen engagement and sustained social accountability.

North African countries, being culturally, politically and geographically close to the Sahel, are well positioned to act as "development intermediaries". Morocco has a strong cultural and political influence, based on historical links dating back to the Middle Ages, and a growing economic interest, with public and private investment. Algeria has extensive borders with a large part of the Sahel countries. Egypt (in addition to Tunisia and a peaceful, stable and prosperous Libya) can play a role as a locomotive for the eastern part of the Sahel.

But the Sahel is not simply a region to be helped, but a potential to be developed, a pool of natural and human resources to be exploited, a space of opportunities and possible prosperity to be imagined - all assets for a Europe that is growing older and in search of a vital geostrategic space, for a North Africa that is developing and searching for itself, and will eventually join forces and create a large exchange area that will need its southern neighbourhood to pool its assets and combine efforts in order to face the challenges and decide on a common global vision of prosperity and sustainable development.

The Sahel-Maghreb-Europe is a space to be built, an idea to be developed, a project to be nurtured. A triple 5+5+5 mechanism must be created between the three areas (Spain-France-Italy-Malta-Portugal +Algeria-Libya-Morocco-Mauritania-Tunisia +Burkina Faso-Mali-Mauritania-Niger-Chad), as a regular framework for exchanges and reflection on the issues of good neighbourliness, shared prosperity and a sustainable future for all. It is within this framework that major challenges such as immigration, human trafficking, organised crime, terrorism, desertification and climate change, Islam in Europe, etc. must be addressed. This is why the major players in each region must be involved, notably Germany on the European side, Egypt on the North African side and Nigeria on the Sahel side.

It is by daring to get off the beaten track that we can transform challenges into opportunities. This great space that encompasses deserts, seas and icebergs can become a source of hope for future generations of Maghrebians, Europeans and SaheloAfricans. It is certainly a dream, but an achievable dream. All that is needed is the necessary leadership and visionary courage to achieve it