From Neutral Pillar to Strategic Partner

Towards a Comprehensive EU-North Africa Policy in the Age of a Rising China

European Union (EU) – North Africa relations are at an inflection point in the age of a rising China. While Beijing’s efforts in the European Mediterranean countries are mainly restricted to signing Memorandums of Understanding regarding China’s Belt and Road Initiative with local governmental officials, and acquiring significant stakes in the ports of Istanbul, Piraeus, Genoa, Marseille and Valencia, activities in Northern Africa are far more comprehensive.

EU Members states have individually reck- oned with decades of their colonial legacy in North Africa as disruptions to geopolit- ical order have become the norm across regional relations over the past decade. As a broad overview, a sovereign debt crisis of 2010, migrant and refugee flows beginning 2014 and subsequent far-right domestic backlash against North African migrants in the EU, and finally the COVID-19 crisis, have led to delayed and spotty vaccine distribu- tion from the EU across North Africa. Peri- ods of trade liberalization coupled with heavy burdens on irregular migration flows have resulted in structurally asymmetric relationships between the EU and North Africa over the past decade of political and economic relations.


In contrast, China’s relationship with North Africa has only become increasingly signii- cant as American security, economic, and political presence in the region has waned and Chinese companies take an increased – albeit patchwork – interest in finan- cial engagement in North Africa. Chinese military still lack the overseas experience necessary for large-scale intervention and are unlikely to intervene abroad unless a direct threat is posed to China’s borders and/or sovereignty. While China’s Minis- try of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) theoretically play leading roles in regulating Chinese corpo- rate activity overseas – a landmark 2021 study by Andrea Ghiselli and Pippa Morgan found that Chinese companies are often unlikely to listen to risk analysis provided by government sources and experts and can remain surprisingly resilient to chang- ing geopolitical risks in the region;1 even under circumstances of duress wherein EU and/or American counterparts may other- wise back down. As China’s role grows in the geostrategic region of North Africa, local government leaders will likely spend the next decade faced with multiple potential partners on trade, technology, and political capital for sources not limited to China, the EU, and the United States, including those who might be increasingly populated by the UAE, Russia, Turkey, and other middle powers and/or emerging markets. At the same time, the European Union and North Africa have the potential to seize the momentum of EU-Af- rica relations already set in motion when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that she would make the continent a priority. To distinguish the priorities of each North African nation from of the rest of the continent – via the European Union Strategic Partnership, and the post-Cotonou agreement – a deeper look at each North African country’s unique economic, military, technological, and diplo- matic priorities – as well as the role of foreign actors therein – will be integral to evaluating the EU’s next steps.


As North African nations become presented with options from multiple geopolitical and diplomatic partners globally there has never been a more urgent time to ask: How should the EU change its approaches to intervention in North Africa considering increased Chinese competition globally, domestic priorities of individual North African nations, and China’s existing ties in the region?


This report uncovers how China-EU rela- tions are unfolding on-the-ground across six different North African countries: Alge- ria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tuni- sia. Leveraging country-specific analysis, the report traces growing trends in China’s relationship with North Africa across three thematic areas of increasing concern to the EU’s domestic and international prior- ities: economic and military, technology, and diplomacy. The extent to which these relationships present opportunities and/ or risks for China’s relationship to the EU is discussed throughout. The report makes three concrete recommendations for EU institutions’ future engagement with the EU:

  • Increased funding made available for research into for-profit entities of particular interest to EU bodies, such as the role of key Chinese technology companies whose growth is set to expand in the region including Huawei, Norinco, and Sensetime.
  • A robust and coordinated EU- approach to public diplomacy programs tailored for individual North African nations’ unique needs - bridging gaps between EU values and local leadership of North African nations that accounts for a differing approach between China and the EU to security risks. 
  • As greening Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects wane in the region, the EU can seize the opportunity for North Africa to become a space for increased focus regarding the Strategic Part- nership for the Implementation of the Paris Agreement (SPIPA) that facili- tates exchange on climate policy option and good practice between the EU and non-European major economies and supports the European Union ́s efforts on climate diplomacy.