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EU cooperation with the countries of North Africa and West Asia harms the progressive left.

«Wir sind alle Hayat!»
"We are all Hayat!" The violent death of law student Hayat Belkacem while attempting to reach Spain in September 2018 became a symbol of protest against the brutality of the border regime. Hayat Belkacem (Youtube)

Since 2011, the European Union has intensified its cooperation with the countries of North Africa and West Asia on the issues of migration, economy and women’s rights, yet often in a self-serving manner that harms local progressive forces. This was the recurring theme at the conference “Connecting Resistances”. 

Hayat Belkacem wanted to escape Morocco’s lack of opportunities and begin a new life in Europe. Instead, the young law student was shot by the Moroccan coast guard during her attempt to reach Spain via sea. The violent death of the “Migration Martyr”, as Belkacem was dubbed by local media, triggered spontaneous demonstrations not only in her hometown Tétouan but also in other Moroccan cities. Adopting the slogans of the 2011 mass protests in North Africa and West Asia, demonstrators chanted for days on end: “We are all Hayat” and “The people want to give up their citizenship!”

While the Moroccan participants at the conference “Connecting Resistances” closely follow the news from home, only little of the grief and rage on the other side of the Mediterranean finds its way into European media. At almost the exact moment that Balkacem is being taken to her grave, Shoshana Fein of the British think tank the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) delivers a presentation on European migration policy in North Africa. “Some lives are worth more than others”, Fine says in reference to the American theorist Judith Butler. No sentence more fittingly expresses the cynicism with which the European Union continuously shifts its external borders deeper into the African continent.

A Question of Management

Morocco is a good example of this cynicism: in the wake of the closing of the Balkan Route and the EU-Turkey agreement in 2016, intensified cooperation between the EU and Libya, and regime changes in Italy and Spain, Morocco is becoming an increasingly important transit country for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. However, like Hayat Belkacem, more and more Moroccans are leaving for Europe as well. Protests against corruption, police violence and economic scarcity have been occurring throughout the northwestern African country with increasing frequency since late 2016.

These developments have not gone unnoticed by European politicians. As recently as July 2018, the EU agreed to provide Tunisia and Morocco with 55 million euro to surveil the North African border, primarily earmarked for training and outfitting local coast guards. This money comes from the “EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa” (EUTF), which has set aside just over 913 million euro to finance various “migration management” projects from Algeria to Tanzania since its establishment in 2015. More than 425 million euro are intended for North Africa alone.

According to Shoshana Fine, these institutions embody three interrelated rationalities that shape the discourse on migratory movements from the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region while rationalizing and dehumanizing how migrants are dealt with. First among these is “bureaucratic rationality”, which shifts the responsibility for and the regulation of migratory movements to the southern periphery. This is done intentionally and can be seen especially in the attempt to stop smugglers, who are constructed as the incarnation of evil, by deploying the European Agency for Border Patrol (FRONTEX). According to “surveilling rationality”, smugglers are viewed as the consequence of a chaotic legal situation that needs to be controlled. After all, according to the “rationality of efficiency”, ultimately not all migrants can be accepted given that recipient countries have limited resources (such as jobs).

Operating based on these three rationalities, German and European foreign policy in North Africa has focused almost entirely on migration policy since 2015 at the latest, as Die Linke politician and long-serving Member of Parliament Jan van Aken emphasizes. Even development projects, which are also funded by the EUTF, often degenerate into mere attempts to fight the root causes of migration. When it comes to repressive regimes like the one in Sudan, previously existing lines in the sand are crossed: “Omar al-Bashir was an international leper for years”, van Aken says of the Sudanese president, against whom the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued a warrant for crimes against humanity. It has now become acceptable to negotiate with the dictator, albeit via middlemen.

Economic Relationships Despite Lines in the Sand…

Regulating migration is only one of Europe’s priorities regarding the WANA region. For years, van Aken has scrutinised the numerous arms deals that German companies in particular have made with the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Van Aken emphasises that Germany takes advantage of its suspect image as an unimportant colonial power in the past and a peace-loving partner today in its economic relationships. However, what many do not realise is that “Germany is the biggest weapons exporter in the world after the US and Russia”.

According to a short survey of the German federal government conducted by van Aken’s fellow party member Sevim Dagdelen in February 2018, four countries in the WANA region were among the top ten importers of German weapons exports in the past five years. The biggest customer in the last two years was Algeria, which imported 1.3 billion euro worth of weapons in both. The TPz Fuchs, an armoured transport vehicle manufactured by the German company Rheinmetall, has been particularly in demand for some time and is now even produced in an Algerian factory. In addition to Algeria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are two importers of German weapons which also count among the main actors in the alliance against the Houthi rebels in the ongoing war in Yemen.

The anti-Houthi alliance has come under intense criticism particularly for its tolerance of numerous civilian casualties in the Yemeni War, which has claimed thousands of lives thus far and unleashed the largest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. Yet Saudi Arabia and the UAE treat even domestic critics of the war ruthlessly, to say nothing of the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was murdered in Istanbul. The German government actually established in its coalition agreement that it would not permit further weapons and military equipment deliveries to states involved in the Yemeni War, as Van Aken underscores. Nevertheless, deliveries that were arranged before the coalition agreement continue to take place.

Also involved in the Yemeni War is Egypt, which spent approximately 708 million euro in 2017 to become the second-largest importer of German weapons that year. Yet Germany is not the only European country providing Cairo with training, weapons and other equipment. A recently published report by Amnesty International examined France’s arms deals, which totalled 1.3 billion in 2016—up from 9.8 billion in 2011. Here, the main export commodity was also armoured vehicles, which were deployed in the 2013 Rabaa massacre and in numerous other instances to crush demonstrators. However, policy makers in Paris claim that weapons exports are being used to fight terrorism in northern Sinai.

…and at the Expense of Progressive Forces

Weapons exports are not the only factor weakening oppositional forces, as one Egyptian participant in the conference pointed out. Political motivations also presumably lay behind the construction of three gas power plants in Egypt by the German company Siemens. “Access to electricity was one of the main concerns of Egyptians during the transformation phase”, the activist clarified.

Electricity thus became a symbol of economic scarcity and corruption, especially during the regime of deposed president Mohamed Morsi. In addition to weapons exports, large investment projects also demand companies make moral calculations before taking on contracts. Yet when persistent human rights violations are swept under the carpet and symbols of resistance depoliticized, companies harm local activists.

Continuing on, the same activist invoked Italy, another example in which economic interests has clearly been given precedence over the protection of human rights. While the outrage may have been substantial when Cambridge University PhD student Giulio Regeni disappeared without a trace during a research visit to Cairo in 2016 only to have his corpse turn up shortly thereafter bearing signs of torture, the incident had no effect on the economic relationships between Italy and Egypt. On the contrary, business is booming like never before at the Italian firm Eni, which operates several gas fields in Egypt, while the parties responsible for Regeni’s death have yet to be brought to justice.

Percentages are Everything

Another example showing how cooperation between EU states and countries in the WANA region entails questions of power distribution, sustainability and empowerment was detailed by Ebtihal Mahadeen, reader in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Mahadeen called into question the approach of EU-financed projects aiming to pry open patriarchal barriers in Jordan.

According to Mahadeen, the EU ostensibly made an effort to place more value on gender mainstreaming with regards to its developmental work in cooperation with the Hashemite Kingdom in past years. Yet when allocating funds and negotiating necessary projects, Brussels would mostly only work with the Jordanian National Committee for Women.

Founded in 1992 by the aunt of Abdullah II, the current King of Jordan, the omnipresent Committee is not receptive to progressive feminist grassroots demands, as Mahadeen argued. Moreover, the current measures aimed at gender mainstreaming are too short-sighted, as their myopic focus on the percentages of women in politics and on the job market is underscored by a neoliberal market logic. Meanwhile, deep-seated social power imbalances relating to gender remain unaddressed.

How to Proceed?

The multi-layered connections between Germany and Europe on one side of the Mediterranean and the WANA region on the other were made clear at the “Connecting Resistances” conference. Taking stock of the current state of affairs, however wretched these may be, played an important role in this.

Yet what also became clear is the need for people in Germany and Europe to get active, critically interrogate decision makers, take positions and implicate relevant actors. As repression is currently increasing in many countries in the WANA region, it is particularly important now to forge alliances and stand in both ideological and practical solidarity with activists in the WANA region and in exile.

Translation by Adam Baltner