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Development by Free Trade? Développement à travers le libre-échange?

The Impact of the European Unions’ Neoliberal Agenda on the North African Countries Les enjeux de l’agenda néolibéral de l’Union européenne pour les pays de l’Afrique du Nord

Edited By Gisela Baumgratz, Khaled Chaabane, Werner Ruf and Wilfried Telkämper

One year ago the negotiations between Tunisia and the European Union about a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement (DCFTA) had started in Tunis. Experts from both sides of the Mediterranean accepted to contribute to this book in order to foster the public debate in the North-African countries by informing actors of the civil society about the risks of this new generation of free trade agreements of the EU for the respective countries and their population. In fact, by analyzing the impact of the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria since the late 1980s followed up by the EU’s free trade policy, the authors seriously doubt about the positive effects on development and prosperity promised by the promotors of free trade. They underline, on the contrary, that it is the EU which profits from the asymmetric power-relations in order to pursue its economic and especially its security interests related to "illegal migration".

Publié un an après le début des négociations sur l’Accord de libre échange complet et approfondi (ALECA) entre la Tunisie et l’Union européenne, cet ouvrage veut contribuer au débat public dans les pays concernés et alerter les acteurs de la société civile sur les risques que comporte cette nouvelle génération des accords de libre-échange de l’UE. Les experts nord-africains et européens réunis pour débattre des enjeux de la politique économique de l’UE vis-à-vis des pays de l’Afrique du Nord mettent sérieusement en cause la promesse de développement et de prospérité du libre-échange. Analysant l’impact de cette politique entamée par la Banque mondiale et le FMI depuis les années 1980 en Tunisie, en Algérie et au Maroc et poursuivie par l’UE, ils soulignent au contraire que l’UE profite de l’asymétrie des relations de pouvoir pour poursuivre ses intérêts économiques et sécuritaires liés à la « migration illégale ».

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From Barcelona to the policies of neighborhood. Goals and consequences of the EU’s economic and trade policy (Birgit Mahnkopf)

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Birgit Mahnkopf

From Barcelona to the policies of neighborhood

Goals and consequences of the EU’s economic and trade policy

Even though there are competing visions of the EU’s territorial future, the most likely one is the “Empire of Europe”. This vision consists of a radical hierarchical pattern of concentric rings. With a central core of direct rule, more or less identical with the pre-2004 member states and a second circle where domination over subject units is combined with some internal autonomy – for some of the member states which joined after 2004. Further there is a circle emerging where overlordship and indirect rule over dependent client states is established, while territories beyond the empire’s sphere of influence, which are officially designed as “neighbors” also are supposed to form a “cordon sanitaire” around the EU against an unstable and threatening world. Today, the “ring of friends”, actually a wider border zone of defense and trade relations to ensure security and the well-being of “fortress Europe”, includes as many as 16 “neighboring countries”, reaching from Belarus to Azerbaijan, Jordan and Morocco. These neighbors are denied rights to membership, but are expected to agree to act in common with the EU on filtering and limiting migration and will be rewarded by Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) in exchange for steps taken towards the consolidation of democratic reforms.

As it will be argued in this short paper, it is essential that the European Union rethink its relationship to the countries along the shores of the Mediterranean. But it is just as important for the southern neighboring countries to strengthen their mechanism for cooperation and coordination among themselves if they are to develop a positive relationship with the EU.

1. Policy of the EU towards its southern neighbors

Since the 1990s the EU has aimed at establishing a coherent foreign policy towards the countries in the North African and Eastern Mediterranean region. It introduced several initiatives such as the multilateral Barcelona Process of 1995 (also known as EU-Med Partnership), the European Neighborhood Policy of 2007, the intergovernmental initiative of a “Union ← 143 | 144 → for the Mediterranean” in 2008 and after the Arab uprisings in 2010-2012 a so called “New European Neighborhood Policy” (EC 2012a; EUROMED; Martin 2004).

In the mid-1990s the EU’s Mediterranean policies were mainly fostering a “stability partnership” with the region’s autocratic, yet western oriented Arab governments. Not surprisingly, normative goals such as the promotion of plurality and human rights had become marginalized items in the EU’s foreign policy agenda. Even though some mutually beneficial economic and ecological projects were identified on the EU side, the most important project of this policy process was a Free Trade Zone planned for launch in 2010.

In 2004 the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) framework was initiated as a geopolitical effort to promote economic modernization, rule of law and respect of human rights in the post-soviet countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Only because Spain and Italy insisted that the scope of ENP should be extended to the Arab states that policy approach also incorporated the very different “neighbors” in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, in 2007 the Barcelona Process was proposed by the EU’s Southern ENP; even though in 2008, the former European-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) was re-launched as an intergovernmental initiative under the heading of a “Union for the Mediterranean” by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In contrast to EMP which emphasized the importance of “shared values”, the ENP approach clearly centered on EU’s interests. The EMP at least was intended to stimulate regional integration, while ENP clearly defines commercial interests as the main goal to be pursued. Following from this, the EMP encouraged cooperation both between the EU member states and Mediterranean countries as well as within the group of Southern partners. In contrast, in the ENP framework these goals were replaced with a center-periphery approach, in accordance with the EU’s hierarchical pattern of concentric rings. The aim of ENP always was to surround the EU with a “ring of friends” with whom if would eventually share “everything but institutions”.

Even though a wide range of political issues were also included (such as visa facilitation, transport policy and the fight against so called “illegal migration” and “terrorism”) the EU considered the trade part of its “Association Agreements” with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia to be the most important one. The purpose of “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements” (DCFTAs) offered to its eastern “partners” was to integrate them into the EU single market – with a limited access to the EU agricultural markets and to EU funds but without giving them any say in setting the common rules. For the eastern and central European countries the main motivation for signing DCFTAs was political; trade liberalization was seen as a first step towards full membership. Nothing similar was ever governing EU policy ← 144 | 145 → with regard to its southern neighbors. These partners never had a possibility or even an ambition to become EU member states. Further the “deep and comprehensive” free trade agreement in the EU-Med region to be set up by 2010 was not accompanied by any mechanism how to achieve this aim.

However, after the popular uprisings of 2010-2012, the EU found itself in a difficult position and attempted to adapt to the new situation with the development of a strategy for the southern region as a whole. In February 2011, the European Council declared its intention to support the transition process towards democratic governance and pluralism, improve opportunities for long-term prosperity and social inclusion and strengthen regional stability. This was supported by a joint communication of the European Commission and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (EC and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy 2011a, b). But the measures, which had been adopted, were all based on the principle of “political conditionality”, a principle which is associated in North Africa and elsewhere with IMF efforts to promote a neoliberal economic agenda. Following the “3Ms”-approach – monetary support aimed at giving aid in order to build up free market societies, increased mobility (for business people and students) and market access – “in exchange” for promising “deep democracy” including regular elections, freedom of association and expression, rule of law, fight against corruption and democratic control of security forces.

It was no surprise that the trade issue emerged to become the center piece of the EU’s strategy towards the Mediterranean region. In spite of this, trans-Mediterranean trade accounts for less than 4 percent of the EU’s external trade. However, in particular for resource poor and somehow EU-oriented countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, trade with the EU accounts for the majority of their exports; even for Egypt foreign direct investment and remittances flows from the EU are significant. Already by the mid-1990s, traditional ties such as those established in the Tunisian Association Agreement had already become conditional upon free market reforms, including the dismantling of manufacture tariffs, while getting only partial liberalization of agricultural produce given by the EU side in return. But the impact of liberalizing trade by reducing import and export barriers, opening up and deregulating markets, privatizing state-run industries, in combination with cutting back government spending have contributed to an economic and social crisis that triggered the popular uprising of 2010-2012.

Given this background, it might be asked: first, whether DCFTAs can be seen as a vital response to these uprisings, facilitating aims loudly voiced by the EU as social prosperity and democratization in North Africa, second, whether these agreements will help to diversify and modernize the manufacturing sectors in the region and foster regional integration. But before addressing the so far foreseeable impact of the DCFTAs on the EU’s southern partners, it is important to recall the characteristics of EU trade ← 145 | 146 → policy and recent trends resulting from the “new trade agenda” which is dominating EU trade since the early 2000s.

2. The offensive trade agenda of the EU

Trade has always been an important objective of EU politics. Much of what has materialized in terms of economic integration within the EU was motivated by the idea that the removal of trade barriers (through the creation of a common market) will benefit growth and welfare.

Officially liberal trade theory underpins the conceptual framework of EU trade policy, but in practical trade policy, the strategy approach of the EU is inspired by mercantilism (Raza 2007) – with the aim to maximize the proceeds from external trade on the basis of fostering exports while restricting imports. Under this doctrine, the role of the state is to foster business opportunities for domestic enterprises abroad, while at the same time shielding particular businesses from international competition. Even though, the EU state bureaucracy still occupies a proactive role in dismantling of trade barriers of third countries, often via other political means such as aid and migration policy and in the promotion of exports, it often intervenes actively abroad in the interest of European based companies; in practice EU trade policy import restrictions are applied very selectively. Where domestic economic interests call for protection against competition (i.e. in some areas of the agricultural sector or in the public service sector), the EU is still operating with a high number of peak tariffs or refuses to open the respective sector to competition from abroad. In those areas where EU companies seek to improve market access (including most manufactured goods and most service sectors) the EU’s regulatory agenda aims at the deregulation of other national regimes with regard to investment, government procurement and intellectual property rights protection.

Meanwhile, with the WTO negotiations tracking behind initial EU expectations and with the accession of China to the WTO causing dwindling competitiveness of EU (and US) companies, the EU industry lobby groups lost interest in multilateral agreements. Thus the EU actors reconsidered their strategic approach and shifted towards the bilateral track in order to pursue further market opening. With its new strategy “Global Europe – competing in the world” launched in 2006, the EU became a pioneer of liberalization beyond the WTO. The strategy aims to reduce tariffs and non-tariff barriers further. It is focusing on the necessity to “import to export”, meaning required access to resources in order to be able to produce goods and services. Further “stable and diverse (energy) sources” as well as intellectual property rights (held by European transnational corporations) should be secured; the liberalization of trade in services was to be fostered and investment conditions and opportunities in public procurement be improved (Mahnkopf 2008). ← 146 | 147 →

The objectives of the new trade agenda of the EU are first, to improve the external competitiveness of European corporations through “regulatory convergence” with most if its trading partners; second, the European Commission wants to listen to non-European corporate interests even before making decisions (on environment, health, social regulation) which are “affecting the market”; third, access to natural resources of developing countries has a “high priority”. In its new trade strategy the EU distinguishes between different types of “target countries”. A first group consists of countries with a considerable economic size and growth potential but with extensive trade barriers in place against the EU imports and investors; this is a criteria relevant for the ASEAN countries, India, South Korea, the Andean Community of Nations and Central America. With regard to its former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, the most relevant criteria for bilateral trade and investment agreements with the EU is securing access to strategic raw materials and protecting EU investments therein. For the third group of “target countries”, namely the Mediterranean countries, market liberalization for European service providers and investors seems to be the most relevant criteria for the conclusion of trade and investment agreements (EC 2006).

In this context, we might ask whether the DCFTAs to be negotiated with southern and eastern Mediterranean countries have the potential to meet the expectations of the southern neighbors with regard to their development potential (Zaafrane / Mahjoub 2007).

3. A critical assessment of the “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements” under negotiation with southern partners

One thing at least can be taken for granted: the DCFTAs will go far beyond tariffs. Their main purpose is to combine further liberalization in manufacturing with the opening of service sectors and the harmonization of the regulatory environment along EU interests and standards, including such diverse fields as sanitary and phytosanitary issues, technical regulation, customs procedures, public procurement and competition and the protection of intellectual property rights. All these areas are seen as “non-tariff” barriers to trade or so-called “behind the border provisions” which should be eliminated. Therefore, liberalization in these areas would require very substantial efforts to change the legislation of the Mediterranean countries and develop means to implement and enforce it.

The EU claims that further tariff dismantling, service liberalization and the state’s adoption of the EU “aquis communautaires” concerning customs regulation as well as sanitary and environmental standards in the production processes will have beneficial consequences for the partners in the South. ← 147 | 148 → The treaty promises “deep liberalization”: first greater foreign direct investment into the region; second, lower consumption prices of imports flowing from EU destinations, as cheaper EU goods will outcompete more expensive local products; and third, local people will benefit from a number of the environmental and hygienic impacts.

In contrast to these promises, empirical evidence from an “Independent Sustainability Impact Assessment” (SIA) of the Euro-Med Free Trade Agreement, commissioned by the EU in 2008, confirms that DCFTAs between the EU and its southern partners could easily destabilize the economic base of the latter (EC-DG Trade 2013; Langan 2014). A number of adverse impacts of the free trade agenda were identified which include: a loss in employment and increasing unemployment with an accompanying downward effect on wages and a further mushrooming of the informal economy; a loss of state revenues with potential for consequent social impacts through reduced social spending on health, education and social support programs; large increases in imports and a steady decline in domestic production of textiles and clothing, leather and footwear but, most importantly, also food production. Further environmental damages in particular due to accelerated urbanization including impacts on water resources, soil fertility and increased pollution levels were expected. The only positive impact the independent report was able to identify refers to the imports of cheap products – which consumers would be able to buy only if their demand will not be weakened due to unemployment.

But, as mentioned earlier, DCFTAs with the Mediterranean countries are supposed to go far beyond a “normal” free trade agreement. Therefore, we should devote particular attention to “behind the border provisions”: First, the required protection of intellectual property rights could make the products these countries are depending on, much more expensive. Second, the intended liberalization of services is a hot topic, since services are a potential driver of economic growth and employment. However, in the area of tourism, telecommunication and financial services EU companies do have competitive advantages. Therefore, trade unions and employees in the affected countries might be confronted with a decrease in social and labor standards. Third, the issue of government procurement which is very important to support local industries and increase employment in the region is also a hot topic important for industries from Europe aiming to access foreign public contracts. However, public procurement would be very important to support local industries and increase employment in the region. But the EU has adopted an approach that is denying their trading partners the right of sovereignty to use protectionist principles (i.e. the imposition of local content requirements) to promote industrial and general socio-economic development. With rules established which enforce “non-discrimination” in competition laws, the Southern partners will be forced to open competition for public procurement to EU companies. ← 148 | 149 →

The WTO estimates that on average government procurement contributes 10-15 per cent to GDP of an economy, making it a “significant market and an important aspect of international trade” (WTO: n.d.). In this light, the following quote might illustrate the EU’s interest in government procurement as a trade policy matter:

Most public procurement markets in third countries remain closed to EU business (…). It is important (…) to ensure that businesses in sectors where it has a so-called ‘offensive interest’ can access foreign procurement markets (…). The opening of procurement markets in several of the EU’s trading partners has been prevented by strong national agendas driven by domestic pressures from sectors that have been sheltered from international competition for years (‘protectionist hysteresis’) and in emerging economies by the desire to climb up the industrial technology ladder (‘infant industry argument’) (EC 2012b: 10-14).

Thus, it is very unlikely that there will be positive trade benefits for the Mediterranean countries since they lack the capacity to tap into the “reciprocal nature” of the agreement to tender in EU markets to supply governments with goods and services. At the same time most would lack the capacity to compete with foreign suppliers in their own domestic markets.

One might point to the fact that the DCFTAs incorporate only a “framework” which emphasizes transparency of government procurement, as opposed to required commitments. In fact any commitments would have to be negotiated bilaterally. But based on experience with other bilateral negations on EU FTAs, it is in the bilateral negotiations that individual countries come under overwhelming pressure to make commitments beyond “transparency”. Considering asymmetric power relations and with at least some of the southern countries being heavily interested to retain access to EU markets, it is likely that the government procurement agreement would be extended on a de facto basis through the bilateral ratification process. Rights of reciprocity will provide little meaningful benefits for industries from these countries to compete in foreign markets.

The EU trade and investment agenda does not only seek nearly-full reciprocity in the liberalization of trade and services and the elimination of the so-called non-tariff barriers. Under the pressure from the DCFTAs requirements concerning investment protection, numerous measures and policies in the southern region may come under pressure. The EU seeks a maximum of investment protection for transnational corporations including unlimited capital and profit transfer from all areas and investor-friendly bilateral investment treaties with dispute settlement mechanisms in place which include the right to challenge public interest (re)regulations, environmental, energy, health policies and policy related to economic crisis. All these policies can be challenged under the existing 74 Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) already in existence between Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and individual EU member states. ← 149 | 150 →

Already today, some of these countries are confronted with claims and awards over profit lost because of policy changes in the course of the popular uprisings: Egypt is facing several arbitrations from companies that the government clamped down on for alleged corruption dealing with the former Mubarak regime (TNI 2013). But Tunisia might also face investor-to-state arbitration because foreign investors could claim that they are not granted the same rights as national ones – i.e. in the agricultural sector. Also foreign equity shareholdings in the Tunisian service sector are limited and the allowance of foreign investment in state monopoly activity (in electricity, water and postal services) is restricted on special establishments or concession agreements. A similar situation is apparent in Morocco, where private ownership in the sensitive sector of phosphate mining is not permitted and in Jordan, where not all sectors are open to investment – due to the state monopoly in energy, water and parts of the agricultural sector on which food security depends. In Egypt the required joint venture in upstream oil and gas development, existing restrictions on capital transfer, the ceiling of foreign ownership of insurance capital or the prohibition of individual ownership of agricultural land – all could be seen as not granting foreign investors the same rights as national economic actors. In addition, already today foreign investors see the Moroccan national labor regulation as “too rigid”, therefore they are pressing for new regulations to lay-off staff more easily and to employ more foreign personal. In Egypt the labor laws are seen as preventing foreign companies from hiring more (than the allowed 20 percent) of non-Egyptians (see also Dimitrovova/Novakova 2015).

It is very likely that the number of arbitration cases will increase as soon as a country will enact new social and economic policies in response to popular discontent. If transnational corporations are granted the right to sue governments before international investment tribunals over policy measures that potentially damage their profitability, it will become difficult for a government to take measures to ensure employment and training opportunities for local workers or to insist that incoming investment contribute to local development objectives. In this context, while negotiating DCFTAs with the EU, the group of so called Agadir countries might be interested to revise the content of their old BITs with the individual EU member states and bring their provisions in line with their political, social and economic development objectives. Some EU civil society organizations already are campaigning for this. But any rebalancing of investors’ rights with obligations relating to investor behavior will be opposed by the EU member states because it will be seen as “reduction from protection” currently offered by their own BITs.

To put it in a nutshell: DCFTAs are said to be focused on solving the problems the EU’s Southern neighbors are facing today. EU trade policy, however, is oriented first and foremost towards the ends of EU-based transnational corporations and their dominant aim is to liberalize and deregulate foreign markets insofar as possible. For the southern partners of DCFTAs this easily might translate into quite negative developments: Firstly, ← 150 | 151 → manufacture might be undermined in the region as a lowering of tariffs is expected to lead to greater flows of imports of manufactured goods from the EU, thus displacing jobs in domestic sectors which will not be able to compete; imports flooding from the EU might especially compete out small and medium sized corporations. Secondly, continued tariff reductions in the manufacturing sector will diminish a significant source of government income. Thirdly, job displacement in the manufacturing sector will not be offset by increasing numbers of opportunities in agricultural production; since the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will remain in place, ensuring that agricultural production in the Maghreb countries will remain hampered by the stringent character of the EU’s defensive regulation (Martín 2004).

Furthermore, the countries’ alignment to the stringent “aquis communautaire” of the EU instructions can be viewed with great concern. Arguments referring to the benefits of agricultural trade liberalization usually refer to growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) through extended market access, increases in farmers’ welfare through income growth and the elimination of poverty in rural areas. However, liberalization may also cause huge losses of income for small-scale farmers and threaten food security, something most of the Arab countries already have experienced. Thus fourthly, most important are concerns that further liberalization will also worsen current social inequalities and political tensions.

Certainly, the effects of trade liberalization differ from one country to another in terms of their macroeconomic conditions, domestic policies and reform areas and agriculture is one of the delicate fields in this context. However, recent experience shows that liberalization of markets in developing countries has not been as beneficial as expected. Only if groups of states are very active in the regulation and in the implementation of FTAs with a strong focus on its distributional effects, can the Free Trade Agreements have some benefits for the smaller and weaker economies. But since the EU is keen to negotiate bilateral agreements with its individual partners, it is more likely that fifthly the DCFTAS would not only increase the trade deficit of many of these countries but might even further weaken regional integration at the Southern and Eastern shore of the Mediterranean.


Within the new EU ENP with North Africa (and MENA) countries certainly some carrots are offered – such as financial support for governments and civil society organizations. But these “carrots” are inadequate to meet the expectations of new governments in the region. Financial resources and technological cooperation are still insufficient to support government needs for large scale infrastructure development and in the urgently needed move towards sound models of economic, social and ecological transformation. ← 151 | 152 → Even worse, with regard to the non-tariff issues included in the DCTFAs, all impacting on the sovereignty of national governments in the region, carrots will come together with a stick and this will not help to push the countries towards a sustainable and equitable development model.

On the other hand, the idea that an EU-Med area will be centered on Europe is less convincing than before. The EU simply has to adapt to a new geopolitical reality of the region. It is still relying on its “ring of friendly” countries. But if this ring is set on fire, it will not function to protect the center as it has done so far. Therefore, the EU should have a major strategic interest to question whether the Mediterranean is “mare nostrum”, a space where only sharing, learning, communication and cooperation – but not distance, domination, competition and the use of force will help to find solutions for problems emerging on both shores of the sea. Stronger intra-regional cooperation in North Africa would be important not only for the region itself but also for stability and security that the Europeans can no longer pretend to supply themselves.

No question, throughout the region there is a need to increase social investment in order to deal with the growing frustration of the populations. Given the importance of public investments for human rights and inclusive development, it is imperative that the governments of the southern neighbors explore all possible alternatives to expand the fiscal space. Thus EU trade policy should allow the southern neighbors to increase tax revenues (on high incomes, corporate profits, property and natural resource extraction), to eliminate illicit financial flows and also to restructure and re-negotiate existing debts – as essential preconditions to finance social programs which could expand social security coverage for all the people, including those depending on informal economic activities.


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Dimitrovova, Bohdana / Novakova, Zuzana (2015): “Re-thinking the EU’s development paradigm: views from Morocco and Tunisia”

EC (European Commission) (2006): Global Europe Competing in the World. A Contribution to the EU’s Growth and Jobs Strategy {SEC (2006) 1228} {SEC (2006) 1229} {SEC (2006) 1230} /* COM/2006/0567 final */

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