«Growth and migration, time for a true Euro-African alliance». An interview with EU’s Stefano Manservisi
Simone Disegni 2 October 2019

Ea pars quam Africam appellavimus dividitur in duas provincias, veterem et novam, discretas fossa inter Africanum sequentem et reges Thenasusqueperducta, quod oppidum a Carthagineabest.

According to our Roman ancestors, as stated with cartographic precision by Pliny the Elder in his Historia Naturalis, Africa was nothing but the northern part of the continent we now know, which flourished around the strategic city of Carthage – very close to today’s Tunis – to then extend to include Numidia, roughly coinciding with Algeria and part of Libya. An African root for today’s Maghreb too often forgotten by its own inhabitants as well as by Europeans. What if in the face of the decades-long challenge of migrations and economic development we were to take that spirit back and re-view Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria as bridge players within a truly new Euro-African alliance?

This is the idea proposed in this long conversation with ResetDoc by Stefano Manservisi, formerly chief of staff to Mario Monti (1995-2000), then to Romano Prodi during his presidency (2000-2004), and more recently to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, before becoming European Commission’s Director General for Internal Affairs and then for International Cooperation and Development. This until just yesterday, when he ended his long career at the head of EU institutions. The ideal occasion, on the eve of the publication of Reset’s book Mediterranean Challenge on the future of Euro-African relations, for a vivid exchange on the EU’s international position and the future of democracy, both north and south of the Mediterranean.

Mr. Manservisi, almost nine years after the immolation of the peddler Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisia has effectively remained the only country that has “survived” that wave of anti-authoritarian protests called Arab Spring. And yet ongoing economic difficulties continue to jeopardize its social and political stability. How could such a scenario be avoided?

Let us begin with the data. According to the latest Afrobarometer, an opinion poll on what is happening in the region, support for democracy was at 71% in 2012 in Tunisia in the aftermath of the Revolution, and fell to 46% in 2017. What does this mean? It means that once the impulse to be free of an old, paternalistic, rigid and also repressive system was exhausted, there has been a lack of benefits in terms of the growth and transformation of this system into social cohesion. In other words, a number of expectations in terms of democracy, growth and social justice were clearly not adequately met in Tunisia. This explains why, in spite of a degree of stability and credibility achieved by Tunisian institutions, there is an immense underlying vulnerability and hence the elections now being faced by this country are not only political but also concern the overall growth model. This basically because the poor and the excluded of 2011 are still poor and excluded today. These elections will therefore test the axiom of a clear correlation between democratization and economic growth and the distribution ripple effect of its results.

A very bad sign at a time when the liberal democratic model is suffering ruthless competition from other major global players. Shall we really envisage that closed or even authoritarian systems could guarantee more effective socio-economic results?

There is no doubt that on a global level, as all contemporary analyses on the subject indicate, we are today witnessing a reduction of countries governed by liberal democracies and the parallel success of authoritarian or autocratic democracies. This points to a number of problems on which Europe must be the first to reflect. On the one hand, the complexity of the problems and fears created by polycentric globalisation require institutions to be able to act quickly, effectively and visibly. Now, that can clearly not always happen, generating the short circuit in which populism or authoritarian forms that one sees taking root around us find consensus. On the other hand, it is evident that disappointment arises from a democracy that may perhaps allow greater freedom, but does not address issues concerning social cohesion, wealth distribution, but simply creates a new class of wealthy people replacing previous elites without providing ordinary people with new opportunities. This phenomenon has without doubt favoured authoritarian democracies. However, if one questions whether they are ultimately really capable of governing such complexity, I would say that there is a short-term illusion but that the results are far from being verifiable. They are often short-term and containment operations, which in my view prove something fundamental; that democracy must reflect on its ability to be not only formally legitimate, through elections, but essentially accepted in order to provide tangible results. In the absence of these, populists of all kinds will prosper, in Europe as elsewhere.

Following the amazing domino effect of the winter and spring of 2011, the EU launched an ambitious response with the so-called Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean. What has happened to that “macro-regional”?  And who has betrayed the promises of a North African renaissance?

With all respect for our partners, those mainly responsible are the new ruling classes of these countries. In too many cases they have created a short circuit by competing for power, but also trying to use it in their own best interests with poor results. Data provided by the aforementioned Afrobarometer is worrying in this sense. If consensus for democracy fell from 71% to 46% in course of five years, this means that Tunisian politics and institutions were in primis a disappointment. As far as we are concerned, the European Union immediately reacted to those uprisings, although perhaps not always understanding in depth the nuances of those phenomena, by proposing that Partnership. Over the last five years, we have invested about 1.5 billion euros in North African countries so as to strengthen institutions, create jobs and foster social cohesion. But it must equally be said that, especially since 2013-14, migratory pressure from Libya and terrorist attacks have generated a significant self-defence phenomenon in Europe. Our own local populists, as well as restrictive policies, have played a significant role. Since the key demand from the young in those countries was and remains freedom of movement, I cannot forget that in those years, when I was Director General for Internal Affairs, speaking of visa liberalization or facilitation for those wishing to leave North Africa was almost blasphemy…

In short, changes in political sensitivity conditioned the EU institutions’ ability to provide an ambitious response to requests coming from the South.

Exactly. There have been objective conditions on both sides of the Mediterranean which, despite good faith, have disallowed the only real answer to the question: true integration. To explain neighbourhood policy, especially towards North Africa, in the simplest term, Romano Prodi coined the expression “Everything but institutions”. What he meant was effectively aiming for full economic integration, the only way to anchor those economies and institutions to Europe, and thus facilitate sustainable development on both sides of the sea. It looks clear that we are a long way from fulfilling that motto.

Stefano Manservisi (Photo by A. Roque / AFP)

Let us broaden the horizon to both continents. Within the next two decades, as a a soon-to-be-published book by ResetDoc describes, Africa’s population will exceed 2.5 billion people, three times that of Europe. What kind of relationship should we have with the “giant” in the south?

The demographic differential between an ageing Europe and an ever-younger Africa is already a central component of the report; 60% of Africans are under the age of 35. As time goes by, the trend may evolve in different directions depending on whether or not birth control and family planning policies are also implemented in Africa, but the scenario is clear. As the Commission, we believe that the solution is an alliance between Europe and Africa; not just sub-Saharan Africa, the whole of Africa. We are working, while maintaining differentiation between neighbouring countries and others, in order to have a political dialogue with all of them at the same time so as to address continental issues in a differentiated manner, but in one single place. The last time this happened was in Abidjan with the Europe-Africa summit (in November 2017, editor’s note). We must be clear: either that differential frightens us, or it drives us to see opportunities and potential. A young continent is a continent of people who are more easily rendered enthusiastic about inventing and innovating and more inclined to create businesses than in the Far East, where new technologies expand very quickly. Today in Africa there is more than one smartphone per person and these phones are not only used for “private” phone calls, but above all for economic activities, exchanges, etc. Let us therefore build a real alliance with Africa. The first is investment – going beyond the concept of old “development aid” – which must be geared towards the objective of creating employment: work that creates sustainable and distributable wealth. Secondly, climate change, which brings with it shared opportunities and challenges and is already having an impact on migratory flows. Thirdly, let us adopt pan-African policies and approaches, in the sense that they take into account that dimension of the African internal market that is being built, and for which we can share our experience. Fourthly and lastly, address young people and women, both majority groups within those societies that must be given more space and opportunities.

In the short term, however, there remains the colossal issue of managing migratory flows in an orderly manner. Is this feasible or utopian?

Once clarified that the majority of those flows are now taking place within the African continent, with problems involving integration and racism that are at times not unlike our own, there is no doubt that the implosion of Libya in particular has created a very acute problem for us compared to pressure that has always existed. I think the first answer lies in thinking of the migration issue as a common factor, for which everyone has a degree of responsibility. In other words, African countries must be capable of managing their own territory. I am not talking about repression, but awareness that one cannot close one’s eyes to human trafficking, perhaps deluding oneself of benefiting from the money sent home by those who emigrate. We must work together to combat the traffickers. Now, so far we have worked together – investing 3.5 billion – on the reintegration of those who return home, on job creation, on strengthening capacity to control the territory. But as far as the other issue is concerned, that of promoting legal immigration, we have done too little; on the one hand because of the difficult political context in Europe and on the other because when one enters this field, EU competences are very few, so we were unable to present very bold proposals. I am convinced that much more needs to be done in this area in the years to come, because the way to discourage illegal migration consists of real albeit difficult legal migration. And I would add that European institutions would be stronger in doing so if the same companies, which need labour and compete on the global market for brains and professionalism, were to assume a more proactive role by proposing a European migration policy themselves. On this basis, if the political context were to allow it, there would be room for a great step forward.

European interest in such a partnership with Africa is clear. But are we sure that the other party is equally committed, or would we risk “losing” the development of that great continent to the benefit of other global competitors such as China?

On the African side there is great interest, indeed it is those same countries that often tell us, ‘wake up, you are no longer our “natural” partner, we already see things from a global perspective’. In recent years Africa has become aware of itself and of the fact that, in a multi-polar world, opportunities for establishing relations with “other” powers are multiplying. If it is true that we remain by far Africa’s first trading partner, the top holder of investment stocks as well as the largest donor of development aid, we must stop thinking in an egocentric manner, as if Africa were by definition looking to us. What must progress with investments is the impact that we are able to have in terms of job creation, opportunities for young people, the transfer of know-how, training, improvement of the business environment. But the real leap forward lies in the integration of African space into what we would once have called productive decentralization. It is a question of perceiving investments in a fully-fledged Euro-African economic area. To do this, Africa needs to be seen as far less as the continent of poverty, drought, war, disaster, or commodities. It is a reality that exists but there is, as I said, much more, since we are talking about an area in which growth amounts to 4.5%, where there is hunger for technology as well as for the creation of small and medium-sized enterprises. And in this the Africans are very sensitive, because of course other partners move much faster than we do, but they work in conditions of an almost absolute lack of financial transparency, as well as very limited local growth. Some of those countries, especially if they have worked a lot with China, are beginning to ask themselves serious questions about debt sustainability. From this point of view, to return to the starting point of the discussion, the added value of the North African countries is fundamental. In our relations we have always considered them as Mediterranean but very little as African, while instead their level of development and capacity can be a fundamental factor in this Euro-African partnership that needs to be set up. Morocco is the best example of this; it is a true Mediterranean-African country, one that works with us perhaps in the most advanced way in the whole Maghreb area also in terms of security and management of migration flows, but at the same time deeply anchored in Africa through well-targeted policies.

So could the next frontier consist in overcoming of a neighbourhood policy to include Maghreb countries in a real Euro-African alliance?

I think so. Neighbourhood policy remains one of the most important, but nowadays, in geopolitical terms, our neighbour is the whole of Africa. Within that framework, we may of course adjust relations in different ways, with the countries of North Africa as the protagonists of a closer cooperation plan.

We are on the eve of swearing in a new EU government, but also of a new multi-annual financial framework. Over the next 5 to 7 years, should we expect a Union that is more open to the world or more willing to “protect” its citizens from it?

That’s a difficult forecast, as it depends on many factors. Ye certainly at an operational level in the Multiannual Financial Framework for the next seven years, we have tried to simplify as much as possible the instruments for external action to increase their coherence and effectiveness. Secondly, I believe that the answer to this question can only be linked to the concept of sustainability. The context of international objectives within which we work is that of the Sustainable Development Goals, i.e. the 2030 Agenda for sustainability at a global level decided in 2015. That is what inspires all our development policies: mobility, migration, the battle against poverty, social cohesion – all policies and actions must be formulated in an integrated manner looking at those objectives. And soon-to-be president Von der Leyen has said very clearly that if we make SDG the horizon of EU action, we send a very strong message not only internally, but also to all our partners.

However, both internally and externally, many forces are now working on the disintegration of the European Union. If you look at the Europe of 2040, are you worried that everything that has been so painstakingly built so far may fall apart?

The fact that there are negative forces at work is perfectly normal and legitimate. However, I believe that, in terms of the sustainability of alternative proposals, they are not credible. There is talks of an alleged G2, underlining a new configuration of great powers. If the answer to all this is a return to European statelets, someone will have to explain where the logic is. The Brexit issue, stuck in a short circuit more than two years after the vote to leave the EU, clearly shows this lack of an alternative vision. I therefore believe that these forces express unease as well as criticism of the European institutions that needs to be taken into account, but that they do not have a great future. Unless Europeans should decide to destroy themselves as they have already done in the past. On the other hand, the last European elections sent us an interesting message with more voters, more young people, and conditional but not free credit for Europe. To respond to these demands, there is only one path we can follow, not only to become integrated, but to prove that our policies produce more employment, more social cohesion and more effectiveness.

On October 1st you came to the end of an amazing career at the top of the EU. Who was, in conclusion, the political leader with the most ambitious European vision you ever met on your journey?

Having worked alongside them, Mario Monti and Romano Prodi have, I believe, shown the more structured and structuring vision of what is and can be the concept and reality of Europe, and how to discover the paths to lead the EU to become what it is not yet.


(Cover photo by I. Sanogo / AFP)

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