A Maghreb 'union' hasn't brought its members closer

Tomorrow is the 21st anniversary of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), founded in the Moroccan city of Marrakech in 1989.

Tomorrow is the 21st anniversary of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), founded in the Moroccan city of Marrakech in 1989. The union is a grouping five North African countries - Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania - in response to "our peoples' aspirations in unity and economic integration", as its inaugural official statement stated. However, more than 20 years later there is less economic integration, and far less unity, among the AMU members than at the outset. In fact, outright enmity between two of the founding states, Algeria and Morocco, has made the news far more often than their promised unity.

The AMU's last summit took place in Tunisia in 1994, and since then the presidency transferred to Libya after Algeria declined to take its turn as president. In his capacity as head of the AMU, Colonel Muammer Qadafi, in his frank and sometimes embarrassing style, has said "the AMU should be put in the freezer", citing its failure to make any progress on any level. But Col Qadafi was only expressing his frustration openly while everyone else whispered their own.

Citizens of the five AMU member states are supposed to be able to travel freely within the union. But the borders between Algeria and Morocco have been closed for 15 years. The only occasion the border was opened was last year when the British humanitarian convoy Gaza Lifeline passed through it. People on both sides of the crossing point were disappointed in their hopes that the crossing would remain open. Families a few kilometres inside Algeria cannot see their loved ones in Morocco, and vice versa.

What has plagued relations between Algeria and Morocco for decades still freezes the workings of the AMU: border and land disputes between the two major AMU members. The two neighbours fought what is known as the Sands War in 1963 because of Morocco's claim of sovereignty over two pieces of land in the Tindouf and Bechar areas, which France integrated into Algeria during the colonial era. Then came the Western Sahara issue to further poison relations between the two countries, dealing what many observers saw as a deadly blow to any hopes for a North Africa union. Morocco claims sovereignty over the Western Sahara, while an independence movement known as the Polisario Front has declared its own state in the region, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, with strong Algerian support.

Many analysts view the 1960s war as the main reason behind Algeria's financial and political support of the Polisario state declared in 1976. The Sahrawi Republic is recognised by more than 70 countries in the world, but it's not an AMU member. Regardless of the bilateral claims and counterclaims between the two major North African countries, the result is that the AMU is completely paralysed, clinically dead and just awaiting a formal burial. None of its many projects or joint initiatives have taken root and some of them did not even get off the ground. The latest of these projects is the Bank of Investment and Foreign Trade set up in 1991. The bank is still not operational eight years after the 2002 launch date.

The idea of a unified Maghreb dates back to pre-independence years when, in April 1956, representatives of political parties from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco met in Tangier to call for the integration of their respective countries into one common market with a unified foreign policy. The AMU's closest model is the newly established framework of the European Union, with its presidency and united position on foreign policy issues, at least on major issues such as immigration, and the free movement of people and goods. For years the EU has been negotiating with each AMU member individually over shared problems such as illegal immigration, fishing quotas, energy supplies, and border control.

Expectations for a common policy - which would enable the region to negotiate as a bloc - have long since faded away, although the EU would prefer to deal with the AMU as well. One of the last diminished hopes is that the AMU can simply help to prevent another war between Morocco and Algeria. The aspiration was to forge a common identity in North Africa in addition to closer economic integration and the freedom of movement across borders. But of the numerous accords and agreements signed over the years, the AMU's website now lists only four that have supposedly been enacted. None of them has any real life consequences for the majority of the people in whose name the AMU is founded. The only effect on people's daily lives has happened within the limited relations between Tunisia, Libya and Algeria, relations that are founded on traditional ties rather than the union.

The trilateral relationship does offer some promise of a union of sorts. The loose border control between the three countries has taken their integration to unprecedented levels in terms of trade, tourism and cultural exchanges. Millions of Libyans flock to Tunisia every year for medical treatment, economic activities, tourism and family visits. The same goes for the flow of people and goods between Algeria and Tunisia. Those relations have made a difference for millions of lives, but it's a limited model of union that is outside the larger scope of a united North Africa, whether its called the AMU or anything else.

If the AMU is ever to work and real economic, social and cultural benefits realised for the millions of people in its member states, it requires a much stronger statement of political will. The belief in a unified, strong Europe gave birth to the European Union. By the same token, strong political will and a renewed belief in the mission of the AMU are required before any progress can be made towards a union. Even if the Western Sahara dispute is solved, the goal of a unified North Africa will remain frozen in time if nobody believes in the AMU.

Mustafa Fetouri is an academic and political analyst based in Tripoli