May 25, 2011 3:43 am

EU offers cash for reforms to north Africa

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The European Union has pledged more money and better market access to north African countries that embrace reform as the centrepiece of its drive to revive Europe’s relationship with the region and minimise the number of people fleeing poverty and violence.

Seeking to address nations on its southern doorstep that have been torn open by anti-government uprisings, the European Commission will on Wednesday propose a shake-up of policies that have repeatedly failed to address the southern Mediterranean’s woes.

“The EU needs to rise to the historical challenges in our neighbourhood,” says a draft of the paper to be published on Wednesday.

European governments are concerned that a failure to do so could increase the number of migrants from the region seeking work and refuge in Europe.

The relative trickle of migrants in recent months has nonetheless stoked tensions between member states and has led to the reimposition of internal border controls that undermine the bloc’s prized system of passport-free travel.

The centrepiece of the bargain involves cash and access in return for reform – and the threat of funding cuts for those that do not play ball. An additional €1.2bn ($1.7bn) in grants will be made available between 2011 and 2013, on top of the €5.7bn committed under programmes for the southern Mediterranean and eastern Europe.

Billions more would flow to the region through loans from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Immigration map

Immigration map

The policy also dangles the promise of access to the EU’s internal market through “deep and comprehensive free trade agreements” and greater visa liberalisation – something that is particularly sought after in north Africa.

The proposals, which must be approved by member states, follow a succession of failed EU initiatives for the region. Critics say previous efforts were vanity projects that were too often imposed on the area.

In presenting the proposals, Lady Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, questioned the premise that north Africans were determined to migrate to Europe. “I don’t think most of them do want to get in a boat and come over here,” she said. “They want to develop their country. That’s where they want to be.”

While a review of the so-called “neighbourhood policy” has been in the works for more than a year, the effort has taken on added urgency and importance in light of the Arab spring.

Stefan Füle, enlargement commissioner, said he was confident the revamped policy would embed a “more for more” system in which countries reap greater benefits only if they demonstrated progress towards reform, and lose them if they did not.

The EU was also hindered in the past, he said, by the need to work with authoritarian regimes.

“Despite conditionality being there, we were forced to make smaller and bigger compromises to keep the programmes running,” said Mr Füle.

Franziska Brantner, a German Green party MEP, said the plan was “courageous”, but questioned whether member states would be willing to lower tariffs, give more money and open borders. “[Lady Ashton] will only be able to deliver if member states go with her,” she said.

Lady Ashton acknowledged the scepticism with which budget-conscious EU governments would greet the plan, saying: “I think increasingly there is an expectation we will prove the money actually delivers what we are trying to do.”

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