The ‘Union for the Mediterranean:’ The Next Generation of Europe-Middle East Cooperation?

Navtej Dhillon
Navtej Dhillon Former Brookings Expert

August 14, 2008

Editor’s Note: Navtej Dhillon and Diana Greenwald argue that, despite a difficult political climate, the ‘Union for the Mediterranean’ can exceed expectations by convening European and Arab leaders around a pressing and shared interest: the need to improve economic outcomes for millions of young people in the broader Middle East.

“Tunisian children have the same aspirations as French children. They want a good education, a good job, a nice family and the possibility of social promotion…I am convinced that the youth of Tunisia and the youth of France, who share so many values and dreams can, by combining their efforts, build a world of peace and stability. And I am convinced that the youth of Tunisia and of France can inspire the rest of the youth in Europe and the Mediterranean to make this Union a reality. And I promise you this: that if this Union for the Mediterranean becomes a reality, this union will change the world.”

Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France
National Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology, Tunis, Tunisia April 30, 2008

The world recently saw the launch of the “Union for the Mediterranean,” a vaguely defined platform to promote the shared strategic interests of Europe and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), pioneered by President Nicolas Sarkozy. While touting his grand vision during a speech in Tunis in April, the French leader mentioned the abstract possibility of establishing a “Mediterranean Office for Youth.” He compared this effort to a Franco-German youth office established after World War II that “played a decisive role in reconciling two people who fought each other tooth and nail.” Such models of cultural reconciliation are no doubt critical to bridging the divide between Europe and its predominantly Muslim neighbors. Yet leaders from both Europe and the broader Middle East should not miss this opportunity to take action on their most pressing challenge: the need to create better social and economic outcomes for millions of Middle Eastern and North African youth.

The new union is the latest incarnation of the Barcelona Process, started in 1995 to improve relations between Europe and its southern neighbors. It is comprised of all EU member countries plus an assortment of southern European and MENA states. Proposed areas of cooperation range from sea depollution and nonproliferation to immigration. Political wrangling has defeated many of the preliminary, ambitious aims for the union promoted by President Sarkozy, however those who have been most shortchanged to date are the MENA region’s young, who are in search of higher-quality education, more promising career paths, and stronger support in their transitions to adulthood.

The Middle East and North Africa’s “Youth Bulge:” Why Europe Should Care

The MENA region is experiencing its greatest “youth bulge” in modern history. The challenges facing youth – devaluation of educational credentials, poor prospects for entry into the job market, and the financial stress of finding housing, getting married, and starting a family – have implications for Europe in the areas of security, migration and immigration, to name a few. Recent research shows that many young people in the region are eager to migrate to Europe: when asked “To which country would you like to move?,” France topped the list (12.2%). Italy, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Netherlands were also among the most popular responses.[1]

A large youth cohort in the Middle East and an ageing population in Europe present new opportunities and challenges for both regions. High levels of unemployment in the MENA region drive many to seek employment in Europe, often through clandestine and risky means, and also impose huge economic costs on the Middle East, amounting to as much as $25 billion per year. Those young people who do manage to leave the region impose further costs on societies by compounding the “brain drain.” To date, Europe and the Middle East have not worked to actively manage these challenges so as to maximize benefits and minimize risks for both regions. For example, granting qualified youth from the Middle East easy, short-term access to European labor markets can alleviate the burden for some young people and provide them with human capital gains while fulfilling Europe’s demand for skilled and unskilled laborers.

In addition, the new Mediterranean union provides a ripe environment for knowledge sharing between the transition economies of southern Europe and the Middle East. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia – all members – are tackling the similar challenge of high levels of youth unemployment. Further, prioritizing youth and development issues will mobilize greater support for the union’s programs from Arab countries, for whom youth inclusion is a central concern.

European and Arab leaders must realize that a base for stronger cross-regional ties cannot be built without its benefits extending to the young people who are the future of the Middle East. Despite the strains inherent in bringing together such a large and diverse coalition of countries – and recognizing that many existential and procedural issues have not been resolved (including how this new union will integrate with the existing Euro-Mediterranean programs launched in various stages of the Barcelona Process) – every effort must be made to take advantage of this new framework to promote the economic welfare of the millions of youth in the MENA region, whose exclusion threatens to undermine development and economic progress across shores.

[1] Gallup World Poll 2007.

Diana Greenwald contributed to this commentary.