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President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen gives a press conference on the Global Gateway in Brussels, Belgium, 01 December 2021.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a press conference on the Global Gateway Initiative in Brussels, 01 December 2021.

The EU Global Gateway and North Africa: Practical and Moral Challenges

Blog Joint Futures 31, 04.12.2023

The EU’s Global Gateway infrastructure investment programme is a new paradigm for cooperation with Africa. Mark Furness & Annabelle Houdret argue that European and German policymakers need to address the practical and moral dilemmas of investing in infrastructure with authoritarian governments, especially in North Africa.


Development policy in times of increasing autocratisation is a major discussion for European and German cooperation with Africa. In practical terms, Europe has given up on using its development aid and other economic instruments to incentivise democratisation in non-European countries. This change has become inevitable, as non-EU countries have rejected the notion of Europe driving particular forms of state-society relations, especially in former colonies. At the same time, European security and migration management interests, which are often at odds with democracy promotion, have been prioritised over programmes that support risky transformation processes.

This change in emphasis has been particularly notable in the EU’s cooperation with North African countries, where increased financial and rhetorical support for political change in the years following the 2011 Arab Uprisings has given way to pragmatic support for social, political and economic stability, especially since Tunisia’s democratic experiment was suspended in 2021. 

The change in emphasis has also been accompanied by a new policy framework. The Global Gateway infrastructure investment programme is becoming the new paradigm for European cooperation with the ‘Global South’. The Global Gateway cooperation model re-conceptualises development aid as a catalyst for investment, prioritises development projects that serve ‘mutual interests’, places principal focus on the ‘hardware’ of physical infrastructure and de-emphasises ‘software’ aspects such as governance, inclusion and rights.

Practical and moral considerations

The fact that investment partnerships are being formed with state actors in authoritarian countries raises important practical and moral questions. On a practical level, issues arise around transparency and efficacy. On a moral level, there are unanswered questions about the kinds of values that Europe wants to promote with its development cooperation and especially the issue of who should benefit: societies, or established autocratic elites. 

The EU has touched on these practical and moral questions in its communications around the Global Gateway. In her contribution to this blog series, Commissioner Urpilainen noted that ‘Global Gateway takes centre stage in strengthening the Africa-EU Partnership, with valuable support from various partners, including Germany. This partnership embodies the ideals of a more interconnected, collaborative world and shared values.’ The European Commission lists six ‘core values’ on its website, the first two of which are ‘democratic values and high standards’ and ‘good governance and transparency’. The Commission does not offer much detail about how these principles should influence investment projects in authoritarian partner countries.

As the Global Gateway gathers momentum, the practical and moral questions are becoming more relevant for Germany as well. Germany is a key financer and influential broker of EU-level decision-making. Germany is a key ‘Team Europe’ partner in several Global Gateway projects, both running and planned. In this context, the German government would be well advised to elaborate strategies to deal with inevitable trade-offs and to make effective use of its influence at the EU level.

The Global Gateway in North Africa: Democratic Oversight, Environmental Sustainability & Geopolitics

As Werenfels and Lacher discussed in this blog series, the EU has different interests in North Africa than in Sub-Saharan Africa. These are shaped by proximity and shared concerns about rapid global warming, energy security and demographic change. Moreover, as most North African countries already have closer economic relations with Europe than their sub-Saharan neighbours, cooperation across the Mediterranean under the Global Gateway is likely to be deeper, the Gateway’s whole-of-Africa ambition notwithstanding.

The EU – and therefore Germany – faces significant challenges in implementing the Global Gateway in North Africa. These range from the economy to social and environmental sustainability issues and geopolitical considerations, which raise practical and moral dilemmas for cooperation.

The first major challenges that arise stem from the inherent risks of doing deals in countries where not only the business environment and the investment climate lack transparency and accountability, but where political stability may be a mirage. The social and economic pressures that drove the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010 and 2011 have not been addressed, and in some countries have even worsened. Anti-government protests from late 2016 in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria were only suppressed by the COVID-19 pandemic, regime repression and electronic surveillance. Commissioner Urpilainen’s assurances about‘democratic values and high standards’ and ‘good governance and transparency’ are welcome, but clear definitions are missing and related monitoring and control mechanisms still need to be developed.

A second set of challenges arises around authoritarianism and environmental sustainability – a central objective of both Global Gateway and the European Green Deal. Trade-offs between sustainability and authoritarianism arise when trying to reconcile environmental standards (for instance for biodiversity or natural resources protection) with local needs of populations. In authoritarian settings, environmental policies tend to reproduce governance patterns, but if centralized top-down approaches do not consider local concerns, solutions may not be sustainable in the long term and produce negative side effects. The exclusion of relevant stakeholders and disregard for negative environmental impacts in Tunisia’s green hydrogen strategy is a case in point.

Furthermore, the Global Gateway’s investment guarantees are likely to support authoritarianism in North Africa, where governance systems are based on the rent-seeking behaviour of elites. The new rents may reinforce these patterns as well-connected businessmen grab market opportunities in green technologies. This raises serious questions about the equity of the so-called ‘just transition’ and thereby the legitimacy of Europe’s agenda.

A third set of challenges arises from the Global Gateway’s geopolitical ambitions. North Africa has witnessed several shifts in economic influence since independence, where prevailing economic ties with former colonial powers are increasingly replaced by extended cooperation with former Cold War allies (such as Algeria and Russia), regional partners such as Turkey and the Gulf States, and of course China. The Global Gateway is both an imitation of and a competitive response to China’s belt-and-road initiative. China has considerably expanded its presence in North Africa through infrastructure investments and the control of cyberspace, and will not be dislodged easily. The same goes for major Gulf investments such as the Saudi Green Initiative.

Build Credibility Along with Connectivity

The Global Gateway attempts to sidestep the reality of cooperation with authoritarian governments by focusing on infrastructure and mutual interests. Most European policymakers would still want to realise the ‘ring of friends’ vision of the European Neighbourhood Policy, and an open and democratic North Africa would be a major part of this. However, after several decades of half-hearted democracy promotion efforts, European leaders are well aware that they do not have the power to force transformation, nor the will and moral backbone to support regional forces of change when established elites resist.

While the rise of anti-democratic populism in European politics is not going unnoticed in North Africa, the universality of democratic values was evident in the Arab uprisings, and more recently in the pre-Covid protests in Algeria especially. The likelihood that these values will again surface in a region where social, economic and environmental tensions remain unresolved is high, and Germany and the EU would be wise to be prepared for this.

In theory, the Global Gateway may have significant potential, both for treading the path of least resistance and for providing momentum for positive change in North Africa. The EU has used cooperation on critical infrastructure to foster European integration and enable the free movement of goods, capital, expertise and people. This process was not without practical and moral dilemmas, and they were not easy to resolve even within Europe. In most cases, however, European dilemmas were not simply ignored in the hope that they would go away.

For Germany and the EU, openly articulating and addressing the challenges mentioned above would be a major contribution not only towards more effective implementation of the global gateway but to Europe’s credibility as a legitimate and reliable partner in turbulent times. With the necessary honesty regarding practical and moral challenges, the Global Gateway could provide opportunities for addressing double standards, historic responsibilities and broken promises. Germany, as a major player within the EU, could seize the opportunity to shape the initiative in this direction.

Both authors, Dr Annabelle Houdret and Dr Mark Furness, are Senior Researchers at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), where they are part of the research and advisory project team ‘Stability and Development in the Middle East and North Africa’.

Responsibility for the content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.