British and European Policy on the Maghreb countries – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia : Call for Support for President Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Union Initiative
Speech in the House of Commons
12 June 2008
I turn now to the issue of the Maghreb—the countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria। There is a debate about the extent to which Libya should be considered a fully Maghrebian country, but for the sake of my remarks, I will refer just to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Those three countries are indispensable future partners for Europe, and I therefore very much welcome the initiative by President Sarkozy. When he announced what the French would do during their presidency of the EU, he said that they would create what he called a union for the Mediterranean.
That raised certain eyebrows and met with opposition from parts of the EU that felt that the proposals were about the French seeking to put themselves in the driving seat in relation to their corner of Europe—the western Mediterranean. It was thought that that would somehow undo the so-called Barcelona process and the Euromed work launched in 1995. Be that as it may, new energy and a new initiative were needed to get Mediterranean and European economic and diplomatic relationships going again. Of course, the supreme prize is peace in the middle east, but rather than trying to climb the Mount Everest of middle east peace without oxygen, it might be better to attempt the rather lower mountains of the Maghreb countries. I hope that the Government will support President Sarkozy, and I am sure that they will be represented at the conference that he proposes to call. I also hope that we will somewhat upgrade our economic, political and diplomatic relations with the countries in the area.
The three Maghreb countries are all tricky. Algeria is an enormous potential source of energy—particularly gas—for the EU, but since the early 1990s it has faced a non-stop assault by ideological Islamists, which is aimed at destabilising the state. In that respect, it remains a mark of shame that Britain—its legal system, the Home Office, Liberty and all the other libertarian organisations—protected a man called Rachid Ramda, who was the financier behind the Algerian Islamist onslaught on the Paris Metro, which killed several innocent people in 1995. That was a forerunner of what happened in Madrid and in our own London tube bombings in July 2005. It took 10 years for this terrorist thug to be sent back to face his accusers in Paris and he is now, correctly, serving a life sentence because the evidence—with or without 42 days’ discussion with him—was incontrovertible.
That is what the Algerian state has faced. It is a nationalist state run by the military, so it is not my cup of tea in human rights terms. However, we should encourage it to take the same path as other parts of the world, such as Taiwan and Korea, as well as some of the Latin American and south-east Asian states, which started off in an authoritarian way but evolved over time.
Morocco has functioning political parties. It has a young king, who is trying to maintain order without wanting to lose the control and authority that all kings have before they understand the benefits of a parliamentary system. He works closely with the Jewish community in the country, just as the President of Tunisia does with the Jewish community there. Morocco’s king is seeking a different relationship with Europe. Sadly, there are not enough British contacts down there. We see the Maghreb countries as being a bit of a French backyard. The Spanish and the French have significant disagreements about Western Sahara and the Sahel. There is not, for example, any trade between Morocco and Algeria, which is as absurd as having no trade between Germany and France.
We should be taking the argument for what we have achieved in Europe in the past 40 years and saying that it would be a way forward, although we must be careful not to patronise. Of course we should make demands for freedom of expression and human rights, but it is a huge pleasure to walk around in Tunis, for example, and see Tunisian women not being obliged by a patriarchal religious order to wear strange costumes covering them, and to be normal women who hold down Government, ministerial and professional jobs.
President Sarkozy’s initiative faces difficulties such as whether Muslim Government leaders will be prepared to sit down in the same room with the Prime Minister of Israel, and the question of Turkey.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend alluded to Western Sahara, in which I take a particular interest. Surely the French could do more to persuade Morocco that its performance over Western Sahara, in direct contravention of all UN mandates, is disgraceful. It is about time that we recognised that. The British have a much more progressive attitude towards Western Sahara—that it is a country in all but name and should be treated as such.
Mr. MacShane: The UN has commissions in the region, and the very distinguished Baker Commission is working on the issue. I am very glad, at times, that we did not have debates of this kind when the American South chose to secede from the Union in 1861. Such issues of identity are sensitive and difficult. In 1987, the Labour party election manifesto contained more about Polisario than it did about Europe. When people go on visits and meet dear friends from different movements around the world, they can get very focused on those issues. We need an agreement and peace, but Algeria also needs to stop supporting people whom the Moroccan Government see as being against them. All three of those Governments need the maximum support to stop what is now called the Maghreb branch of al-Qaeda. Whether that name is self-taken, or really represents any intervention by al-Qaeda, I am not qualified to judge; but we need more intervention, visits, investment, trade and commerce. Those three majority Muslim nations—not quite Arab, because the people are Berber—are future big partners for Europe.