Report EU–Mediterranean

On the other side of the Med

In these times of economic crisis, the countries of the southern Mediterranean are displaying unexpected dynamism – a trend the EU is beginning to shore up with regional cooperation projects, reports El País.

Published on 17 March 2010 at 11:06
Crisis? What crisis? Europe seen from the Mediterranean's southern shore. Photo : S@m Image

Immersed in our often sterile internecine squabbles, we run the risk of ignoring what’s going on just a stone’s throw away, on the opposite shore of the Meditteranean. Much is happening down there in the way of economic dynamism. In 2009, while Spain was sinking into the morass, Morocco enjoyed 5% economic growth, a budget deficit of only 2%, a trade deficit of 4% and only 1% inflation. That was largely owing to a bumper crop last year, but also to increased public spending of revenue generated by rising consumption in the emerging middle class.

And the financial sector, being pretty much sealed off from the outside world, at least proved immune to Wall Street viruses, so “the crisis passed us by,” proclaims Moroccan minister of the economy Salaheddine Mezouar. Not only was Morocco spared: the whole southern coast of the Mediterranean “weathered the international crisis well”, with comparable GDP growth rates driven by increased consumption, concludes economist Fathallah Sijilmassi. How long and how fast they will grow remains to be seen, but this trend points toward what may be the end of a sorry tradition: that of the South getting worse as the North gets better – divergence instead of sorely needed convergence.

Trouble spots are now windows of opportunity

The South got worse because it was suffering from both economic stagnation and a population boom, with the same amount of pie to share out among more hungry mouths to feed. In the last 40 years of the 20th century, Morocco’s population doubled, but not so its GDP. The ratio of Moroccan to Spanish nominal per capita income was 1 to 4 back in 1970; by 2009 the gap had widened to 1 to 14. (In terms of per capita income at purchasing power parity, the ratio was 1:7). Even when the demographic explosion starting slowing down in the ’90s, resulting in a rise in per capita GDP, the EU as a whole made greater economic strides. So the North-South divide widened still further, triggering emigration.

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But since the crisis this asymmetrical trend seems to be coming to an end. The erstwhile divergence is turning into a hint of hesitant convergence. And lo and behold, we find that the emerging countries are not only Brazil, China and India, but also, albeit on a more modest scale, some of our disdained and disregarded Mediterranean neighbours, especially those at the two extremities: Turkey and Morocco. What once seemed mere trouble spots are now bursting onto the scene as windows of opportunity – for doing business, among other things.

Alaouite kingdom in European Economic Area

Two recent and hardly-hyped events provided an adequate geopolitical backdrop to the current economic scenario. One was the EU-Moroccan summit in Granada. Even while calling for the democratisation of Moroccan society, the conferees agreed a scheme to admit the Alaouite kingdom into the European Economic Area under the Neighbourhood Policy banner, which reads: "Share everything except institutions." For starters, the emphasis will be on aligning Moroccan laws with EU legislation, then on progress towards unfettered free trade. In return, Brussels is to help improve transport infrastructures there and cooperate on other joint projects.

The other event was the inauguration of the Union for the Mediterranean’s headquarters in Barcelona, and the election of its secretary-general, the Jordanian Ahmad Masadeh. Replete with six very concrete priority projects on its agenda: “The de-pollution of the Mediterranean Sea, the establishment of maritime and land highways, civil protection initiatives to combat natural and man-made disasters, a Mediterranean solar energy plan, the inauguration of the Euro-Mediterranean University in Slovenia, and the Mediterranean Business Development Initiative focusing on micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.” So these nations that used to be at daggers drawn are now pooling their forces to take on the tasks at hand. It's a miracle.

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