Europe must look south, not east

The greatest challenge facing the EU lies not in Eastern Europe but in the rise of fundamentalism in the Maghreb, argues Michael Sheridan
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The Independent Online
Britain will come under new pressure within the European Union later this year as France and Spain push for a crucial shift in focus from the countries of eastern Europe to the troubled Muslim nations on the southern shores of the Mediterranean - across the "new fault line" that has replaced the old iron curtain.

The southern European members of the EU are pressing for the biggest change in priorities since the collapse of eastern Europe in 1989 and for a re-examination of the enormous political and financial commitment since made to the new governments in the east.

Frightened by the civil war raging in Algeria and the threat of hostile Islamic regimes taking over along the whole coast of North Africa, they are urging the Union to act before it is too late.

"There is a kind of paranoia around which can give rise to fatalistic pessimism," says the Spanish Foreign Minister, Javier Solana. "Look at the disparity in incomes between north and south, combine that with population growth and you have the ingredients for the conflict between Islam and Europe that has made up so much of the unhappy history of the Mediterranean."

The French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, also argued strongly for a change in priorities at recent meetings with Prime Minister John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. France has been traumatised by the Algerian conflict, which has cost 30,000 lives. The French government, apparently powerless to influence events in a country it ruled for 132 years, is now seeking to "Europeanise" the problem. France and Spain are powerfully placed to influence policy because Paris holds the presidency of the EU for the first half of this year and Madrid takes over for the second half. Mr Solana was speaking at a conference in Barcelona last weekend which was clearly seen by the Spanish government as an opportunity to set out the Mediterranean agenda and to prepare the ground for a grandiose regional summit in the city in the autumn.

But there is a simple flaw within the European Union's strategy. It focuses on the hopeful notion that economic improvement can resolve political unrest. Yet the true reason for upheaval in the Muslim world is a crisis of legitimacy in the political systems installed at independence. Most are secular dictatorships or monarchies rejected as heretical and invalid by "Islamists" - Muslims who see in their religion the only valid blueprint for governance.

Nowhere has this revolutionary change in popular psychology proved more dramatic than in Algeria. Once held up as a model of Third World independence and non-alignment, Algeria today provides a nightmare that has shaken the entire north African establishment and thrust itself into the heart of French domestic politics. Under assault from an armed fundamentalist uprising, the security forces have fought back with a terrifying display of brutality and the draconian suspension of civil liberties. Unable either to enter a compromise dialogue or to win an outright confrontation, both the hardline military-backed government and its fanatical Islamist foes are locked in a stalemate.

Although Algeria's vital output of oil and natural gas appears undamaged so far, its society is set on a downward spiral towards fragmentation and bloody chaos. Two critical effects could flow from the breakdown of order in Algiers: the installation of ahostile, extreme Islamic regime and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Algeria's secular, French-speaking middle class, as they become the boat people of southern Europe. The big question for the foreign ministries of France, Spain and Italy is willAlgeria be the domino whose fall sets off a collapse throughout the region?

The Islamist movements certainly hope so. And while Europeans bicker and argue over budgets, priorities and contingency plans, the inexorable forces of change are sweeping across the region. In the western Arab states, known as the Maghreb ("the lands onwhich the sun sets"), the principal problem is the rapid growth in population which outstrips economic growth. The result is poverty and corruption, together increasing popular anger at the lack of legitimacy inherent in authoritarian governments. In the eastern Arab nations of the Mediterranean, the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict remains cause and catalyst of political upheaval.

The common factor in both cases is the upsurge of religious zeal as the Islamists - often young people, city dwellers and the disenfranchised poor - seek a new way of life to replace the outworn dogmas of Arab nationalism and state socialism. They rejectwestern cultural values and rejoice in the confrontation with Zionism, regarded by militant Muslims as a form of imperialist invasion.

If the Algerian domino falls, what of its neighbours? Morocco, remains stable under the long rule of King Hassan, who claims descent from the Prophet Mohammed and who has manipulated the merchant class and clergy to underwrite his rule. But illiteracy and high unemployment have not been cured by Morocco's economic development.

Fundamentalists have not made much progress in Morocco but they have mounted a determined campaign in Tunisia, where women were emancipated a generation ago and economic reform is bearing fruit. Tunisia's secular elite has chosen to repress militant Islam with ruthless means and to try to ride out the storm. Cosmopolitan and well-entrenched, it has naturally adapted to trade with the EU. Tunisia needs closer ties with Europe and would benefit from the judicious use of development aid. But a triumph for Islamist guerrillas in Algeria would renew the battle by Tunisia's fundamentalist exiles - some of them based in London - against the regime of President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali.

The bridge between the Maghreb states and the Middle East is formed by Libya, for which the EU possesses no known strategy. Bombed by the United States in 1986 in retaliation for its involvement in "state terrorism", Libya has receded into the silence ofthe pariah. Its comparatively small population languishes under the erratic rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and the country is under UN embargo because it refuses to extradite two intelligence agents wanted in Scotland for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

After Algeria, Colonel Gaddafi's neighbour, Egypt, poses the next big question for policymakers in Europe. The government of President Hosni Mubarak is waging a war against fundamentalists second only in brutality to the battle in Algiers. Egypt's rapidly growing population and economic underdevelopment parallel Algeria, while the regime's iron fisted response to terror - hanging militants and violating human rights - is destined only to create new martyrs and intensify the zeal of its foes. Most European countries continue to support Egypt but have quietly placed its government on the "at risk" list.

The faltering Middle East peace negotiations and the recent wave of "martyrdom" suicide bombings have spurred on the Islamic opponents to Yasser Arafat and pushed Israeli public opinion away from any further compromise. That is bound to have an effect onthe ideological and religious battles from Suez to Casablanca.

It is hard to see what influence Europeans can exercise over such a profound and irreconcilable contest. The European Commission wants to support economic modernisation in countries that agree to open their markets. It believes that Brussels should also help structural adjustment in countries that cannot yet afford to take the risks involved in free trade. It wants to "strengthen north-south economic and financial co-operation" and to support the Middle East peace process.

But Britain and Germany, net contributors to the EU coffers, are certain to oppose any plans that dramatically increase spending in the south and do not want to see new institutions created. "We don't believe that money alone can solve these problems," is the instinctive reaction of Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary.

If money cannot, then what can? Perhaps, argue some, the Europeans should stand back, await the inevitable sea-change on the southern shores and then deal realistically with the Islamist governments which emerge. To the westernised middle classes in the countries of North Africa, that is but a counsel of despair.

It is clear, whatever the choice, that the European Union cannot escape involvement. A violent collapse could well have ensued in Algeria by the time presidents and prime ministers assemble for a Mediterranean summit in Barcelona next autumn.

By then the agenda may not focus on economics but on military intervention - perhaps to safeguard expatriates or protect vital petrochemical installations. The one certainty is best expressed by Andre Azoulay, a senior adviser to King Hassan of Morocco, who urges western Europe to examine its interests without delay. "We don't have the time," says Mr Azoulay, "and you don't have the time either."