With a mixture of curiosity and irony tinged with concern, the countries of the Maghreb have observed the development of the European crisis. In cities like Algiers, Tunis and Rabat, the man in the street may not understand the subtleties of the struggle over austerity in Brussels, but everyone is aware of one essential fact: the near bankruptcy of Greece.
It is a subject that regularly features in the North African media, which also warns its readers of the risk that the contagion will spread to other European countries: to Spain, Portugal, and even Italy and France. For Algiers tobacco shop owner Ali Chafiq, “Greece has been treated like a third-world country by its own European peers. In the Maghreb, that makes you stop and think. Isn’t Europe supposed to mean solidarity no matter what happens?”
“Increasingly wary of the euro”
For Chafiq and many other North Africans, the truth is out, and the reality of the old continent — that is to say, a territory traversed by a fault line between the rich (and selfish countries) of the North and the poor countries of the South — is now in plain view.
But even more than the fate of Greece, it is the possible collapse of the eurozone and the resulting risk of the disappearance of the single currency which is a recurring theme in conversations. There is no denying the reason for this concern — in the three countries of the Maghreb, many people have savings in the European currency, either in cash or lodged with European banks.
“Several dozen million euros in cash are currently circulating in the Maghreb, notably in the informal sector. Everyone is afraid of the end of the euro, because to be reimbursed, they would have to justify the source of their deposits,” explains a Moroccan banker in Casablanca. The problem is particularly serious in Algeria, a country which for 40 years has been home to a thriving parallel market for currency.
“People changing dinars on the black market are increasingly wary of the euro, and are more likely to opt for Swiss francs or the American dollar,” points out a foreign exchange dealer. He goes on to explain that until recently, the European currency was perceived as a safe haven — particularly by Algerians who were convinced that it was less subject to counterfeiting than the US dollar. Of course, those with off-shore investments are also worried.
”Fairytale of a united Europe”
“Our North African clients who have accounts abroad are asking questions. They want to know what exactly will happen in the event of a eurozone break-up. But to date, we have yet to see massive withdrawals or transfers to other financial centres like London, Dubai or Singapore,” explains a Parisian banker who manages major foreign accounts and wishes to remain anonymous.
Looking beyond the fate of the euro, the European crisis has also provided North African political and economic elites with an opportunity to present a more critical position with regard to Europe. A case in point is the Moroccan diplomat who told us that North African states “have never been convinced by the fairytale of a united Europe that stands together in its dealings with countries to the south of the Mediterranean, and thus have always attributed greater importance to bilateral relations with European capitals."
With this in mind, the apparent weakening of the institutions of a Europe whose contours have always appeared blurred in the Maghreb amounts to something of a vindication for those who had doubts about the relevance of a regional dialogue between the Northern and Southern Mediterranean
“When Europe is not doing well, it shuts itself off from the rest of the world and demonstrates that it simply does not have the means to implement a proper regional policy. What ever happened to the Union for the Mediterranean?” remarks an advisor to Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia.
“Europe has sought to promote democracy”
In the wake of criticism from the countries of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, and accusations of favoritism with regard to its treatment of Eastern Europe, the European Union is now reviled as an entity on the verge of implosion.
Amid increasingly vocal calls for greater “diversification” of economic and political partnerships, the ruling Tunisian Ennahda party and the ruling Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD) have officially recognised the need to turn towards “other growth centres”, including China, the Gulf States and Brazil.
According to some secular democracy activists, this policy development which has been presented as a politically realistic means to obtain economic efficiency also has another more discreet objective: to overcome the obstacle of Europe’s insistence on respect for democracy and human rights.
“For what its worth, in spite of its faults and its selfish behaviour with regard to the Southern Mediterranean, Europe has sought to promote democracy, the rule of law and positive values. The serious crisis that has now struck the continent will unfortunately undermine the credibility of this humanist message,” complains an executive of the Tunisian General Workers Trade Union (UGTT), which is the country’s largest workers’ organisation.
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