Three Questions with Taieb Baccouche, Secretary General of the Arab Maghreb Union

In January 2020, IAI/GMF Fellow Dario Cristiani met in Tunis with the secretary-general of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), Taieb Baccouche, a long-serving academic, politician, and human rights activist from Tunisia. They discussed the conflict in Libya, NATO’s role in the Mediterranean, and the future of the AMU. As minister of foreign affairs in 2015-2016, Baccouche helped keep Tunisia on its feet after the terrorist attacks in Bardo, Sousse, and Tunis. Since he became AMU secretary-general in 2016, he has worked to promote a greater integration between Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. The AMU is also one of the very few political actors regularly talking and mediating among all sides at a local level in the conflict in Libya, an element often forgotten in the West. This interview was conducted a few days before the Berlin conference on Libya.

With the Berlin conference, Germany and Europe want to regain a say in the Libyan conflict. However, European divisions and inaction allowed other countries, such as Turkey, to significantly increase their role. What’s your view on the European role in the Mediterranean?

I find the role of the EU in the Maghreb dull, as the organization struggles to listen to local actors and forces. I would mention two examples: the EU meeting on migration organized in Bratislava in 2016 and the Berlin conference on Libya. Europeans often talk only among themselves, while ignoring the Maghreb and the Arab Maghreb Union general secretariat, which regularly monitors the situation and prepares documents and recommendations for the structures of the Arab Maghreb Union and its ministerial councils. Doing so represents a failure for the EU. We are far from the spirit of the Barcelona process. European leaders must bear in mind that the Mediterranean and the Euro-Maghrebi space, with its African extension, are all areas that are bound to cooperate in spurring shared development, which is justified both by history and the future.

As for Libya, I am afraid I have to disagree with those saying that the issue is more and more linked to the dynamics of the eastern Mediterranean. On the contrary, the Libyan problem concerns more western Mediterranean dynamics than those on its eastern side. Europe should learn from the failure of its policy in Syria, so as to avoid another failure in Libya, after President Nicolas Sarkozy’s mistake. This mistake was to promote a military attack against Libya while negotiations were underway with the opposition and almost at a point of reaching a political solution.

Maghrebi dynamics are linked to the changes underway throughout the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean region. As such, changes in any of these areas inevitably affect the entire Maghrebi region. Against this backdrop, the Turkish intervention may further complicate not only the Libyan situation, but also the broader regional dynamics.

After the latest NATO summit in London, the final communiqué mentioned Russia, China, and space as crucial issues for transatlantic security, but there was no mention of the Mediterranean. Russia and China are becoming increasingly important in the Mediterranean, while the United States seems to be losing interest. What’s your view of these dynamics and the role that NATO has played in the Mediterranean region and with Maghrebi countries over the past few years?

When I was minister of foreign affairs of Tunisia from 2015 to 2016, I thought that NATO was very interested in the Maghreb, since I was invited to Brussels to speak at a meeting with all the NATO ambassadors, which was followed by an engaging and intense discussion. However, I must say that this impression has changed since I took over my current position. NATO has not been united on specific issues since the arrival of President Donald Trump, who seems to be more interested in Asia (Iran, North Korea, etc.). Indisputably, the United States is behind this shift by NATO and its more significant interest in Asian dynamics. Moreover, it’s important to note the differences existing between the United States and the EU on the Iranian nuclear issue, climate change, and many other issues. However, the United States cannot turn away from the Maghreb, the Mediterranean, and Africa. The Maghreb is the bridge between Africa and Europe, especially Western Europe. As for the emergence of new powers, yes, it is true: geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. However, the presence of other powers promotes a greater balance. In any case, the interest of the Arab Maghreb Union is to be a friend of all, and the organization wants to pursue its interests by promoting win-win logics with everyone.

In 2019, the Arab Maghreb Union celebrated its 30th anniversary. For many reasons, 2019 was a challenging year for all the countries in the organization. What’s your view on the current and future challenges for the organization? What’s your main hope for the future of the UMA? And what keeps you awake at night on the future of the organization?

To celebrate the 30th anniversary, which had a symbolic value, I have multiplied the initiatives since 2018 to finally organize the 7th summit of the organization, which has been blocked now for a quarter of a century. This was the main challenge for me to give new impetus to the Arab Maghreb Union. However, the majority of the member countries were going through a period of change. Last year saw changes in the leadership in Mauritania, Tunisia, and Algeria, while Libya was sinking into the crisis. I hope in 2020 there will be favorable conditions to meet this significant challenge. The main hope is to be able to ultimately organize the 7th summit, the absence of which has partially weighed down the organization. What I care about the most is to go beyond old disputes and that everyone stops recalling the past, stirring up old wounds, so as to look at the future and work together to complete the construction of the Maghrebi project. I would like to see the full application of the agreements reached and for the people of the region to become aware of the fact that Maghrebi integration is the lifeline that will ensure sustainable development and decent employment for our young people, and that will contribute effectively to the development of the African continent.