Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Algeria’s Ambition in Europe: Between France’s Legacy and Spain’s Hesitation

Algeria's Ambition in Europe
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune meets with the visiting French Foreign Minister (unseen) in the capital Algiers on January 21, 2020. Le Drian arrived to Algiers for a brief visit to discuss bilateral and regional issues, starting with the Libyan crisis and the Sahel. RYAD KRAMDI / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

Algeria has been trying to position itself as a significant energy exporter to the European Union. Although it recently celebrated 60 years of independence from French colonialism, that did not prevent it from repeatedly clashing with its former occupier.

These disputes happen over various issues, starting with migrants to combating terrorism along the African coast after France withdrew from there.

Colonial Crimes

On the 19th of March, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune gave a speech on the Algerian 60th anniversary of the cease-fire agreement with France. He stressed that Algeria would not neglect its rights in the face of the crimes of French colonialism before adding that these crimes “will not be subject to the statute of limitations.”

Addressing the Algerian people, Tebboune said: “That day the Algerians began to confront the horrible mass devastation, and the heinous crimes of colonialism, none of which will be forgotten or be subject to the statute of limitations.”

In what seemed like an outrageous bill for the years of the French occupation, he added: “We will relentlessly insist on our country’s right to recover the archives, and to disclose the fate of the missing documents during the glorious war of liberation.” He also added “we will demand reparations from France for the victims of nuclear tests and all other atrocities happened during the occupation.”

Incidentally, the tension between Algeria and France has been brewing since Tebboune ascended to power. The understanding he appeared to have with French President Emmanuel Macron did not seem to come into play to “pacify the memory of the French colonialism and the Algerian war.”

In a statement issued by the Élysée Palace, Macron said that he was always ready to work on this issue with his Algerian counterpart, especially with the search for the missing and reinstating the European cemeteries in Algeria.

Previously, Macron accused the Algerian “political-military” regime of adopting what he described as a “remembrance” policy regarding the Algeria-France war, despite his “acknowledgement” of the Algerian-born French during the colonial period and of the two “massacres” that occurred after the Évian Accords that ended the Algerian war in 1962.

Victory Day

Algeria's Ambition in Europe
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a reception to mark the National Day of Remembrance and Reflection in memory of the civilian and military victims of the war in Algeria, sixty years after the signing of the Evian Accords, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on March 19, 2022. GONZALO FUENTES / POOL / AFP

The French colonisation of Algeria lasted between 1830 and 1962. Algerian authorities and historians claim that this period witnessed the murder, displacement and pillaging of nearly 5 million people.

After two years of difficult and faltering negotiations between the Algerian Revolutionary Council and the French government, discussions continued between representatives of the two parties in Switzerland and France, while the National Liberation Army escalated its operations across all fronts to force France to return to the negotiating table.

Negotiations between March 7-18, 1962 concluded with the Évian Accords. That meant a ceasefire, and the establishment of a transitional period, followed by the self-determination referendum.

The March 19, 1962, was then declared as the cease-fire date all over Algeria. After that, a referendum was held on July 3, and the overwhelming majority voted “Yes” in favour of complete independence from France.

In his research, French Occupation Politics in Algeria (1830 -1954), Aqila Dhaifallah, from the Institute of Political Sciences and International Relations, laid several economic, political and cultural reasons that prompted France to occupy Algeria.

He said that during the 19th century, France had plans for the occupation of Algeria, and the French kings and leaders had long thought about it even before 1830.

Problematic Past

However, as Salim Hamidani mentions in his paper, the French-Algerian discourse is muddied by the French nostalgia and the Algerian struggle to prove they can stand on equal footing.

The decades following Algeria’s independence reflected a nationwide hostility towards colonial France. The Algerian politicians repeatedly attempted to capitalise on managing their relations with France and to obtain some gains by exploiting the past internally with a desire to transcend that past in building relations with France.

Two years ago, Algeria received the remains of 24 fighters who were killed in the early years of French colonialism. After 170 years of display in the Homme Museum in Paris, France finally agreed to hand them over.

Algeria, which argues that France is not doing enough to resolve its colonial past, formally requested, for the first time, in early 2018, the return of skulls and records from the colonial archives.

The Algerian regime wants to reopen the case of the “missing” people during the war of independence (1954 – 1962), who numbered more than 2,200, according to Algeria, as well as the case of the French nuclear tests in the Algerian desert, “which caused and have been causing victims.”

According to a report about colonialism and the Algerian war delivered to Macron in early 2021, freedom of thought and history research represent an indispensable solution to extinguish the flames of memory, especially among the youth.

However, this did not prevent researcher Hamida Ibtisam from noting, in her memoir titled “The Algerians Immigrants in France and Their Role in the Algerian Revolution,” how the revolution managed to sabotage the French economy, also how the Algerian revolution weakened France’s budget and paralysed its economy by increasing its expenses and causing significant losses, which in turn accelerated negotiations and independence.

The Immigrants Issue

Algeria's Ambition in Europe
A woman waves an Algerian national flag on October 17, 2012, on the Saint-Michel Bridge in Paris, during a rally to commemorate a demonstration by pro-National Liberation Front (FLN) Algerians, on October 17, 1961 in Paris. On that day in 1961, at the call of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), which was fighting for independence from France, between 20,000 and 30,000 men, women and children from Algeria protested in Paris against a police curfew. Thomas SAMSON / AFP

The tension that dominates Algiers’s relations with Paris also appears to be linked to the presidential election campaign in France and Macron’s quest to gain popularity among the extreme right voters.

While there are about 5 million Algerian immigrants or French with Algerian roots, constituting the largest and most important mass of Algerians abroad, the issues of returning Algerian illegal immigrants and reducing the number of issued visas sparked a dispute between Paris and Algiers.

The tightening of visa requirements for citizens from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia is because, France justifies, these three countries refuse to receive the illegal migrants currently present in France.

In 2019 Macron reduced the visas granted to Algerians to curb illegal immigration. That resulted in the number of visas granted to Algerians going from 504,000 visa applications in 2018 to 274,000 in 2019. It’s noteworthy that the three French consulates in Algeria granted 412,000 visas in 2018 when the number of applications reached almost half a million.

According to the former director of immigration at the Algerian Ministry of the Interior, Hassan Qasimi, Paris uses this issue to blackmail and bargain with Algeria. In an interview with the Anadolu Agency, he indicated that France “repeatedly pressures Algeria with the issue of mobility and visas for economic and political reasons.”

In a statistic presented by Qasimi, the Algerian intelligence services annually prevent 40,000 illegal immigrants from 23 nationalities from entering Europe. This narrative is corroborated by the former Algerian Interior Minister, Noureddine Bedoui, who confirmed that Algeria witnesses an average of 500 attempts to enter its southern borders by immigrants illegally seeking entry to Europe.

Gas Expansion During the Ukrainian Crisis

Amidst fears of the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on energy in Europe, the Algerian oil and gas company, Sonatrach, has expressed its readiness to supply the continent with additional quantities of gas through the gas pipeline linking Algeria and Italy if Russian exports are reduced.

Toufic Hakkar, the CEO of Sonatrach, stated that they are willing to supply European countries with additional quantities of gas through the gas pipeline linking Algeria and Italy if Russian exports were reduced due to the war in Ukraine.

However, Abdelmajid Attar, the former energy minister who previously spearheaded Sonatrach, recently told the AFP that Algeria alone could not compensate for the decline of Russian gas.

This sentiment is consistent with what an Egyptian expert concluded: Algeria cannot compensate Europe if Russian gas runs in short supply.

According to Sameh Noman, the Egyptian engineering professor, Algeria, which supplies Spain and Bulgaria with about 60 per cent of their gas needs, cannot provide additional supply to the rest of Europe because it is also committed to future contracts. However, it may be able to raise its production next year, stressing that it won’t be enough to cover the 45 per cent that Russia provides.

Tension with Spain

Algeria's Ambition in Europe
A demonstrator wears a label on his forehead depicting a Western Sahara flag and reading “Sahara is not for sale”, during a protest against the Spanish government support for Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara, in Madrid, on March 26, 2022. Pierre-Philippe MARCOU / AFP

But the energy pipeline sparked controversy between Algeria and Spain. It hinted at a new diplomatic crisis, especially when the Algerian Foreign Ministry has recalled its ambassador to Spain after “surprising statements of the highest authorities in Spain on the issue of Western Sahara.”

The Algerian move coincides with Spain and Morocco’s attempt to resolve their diplomatic dispute.

Reuters quoted a government source saying that Spain informed Algeria of its position “in relations to Western Sahara” and considered that “For Spain, Algeria is a strategic, priority and reliable partner with whom we intend to maintain a privileged relationship.”

In response to a letter Spain addressed to Morocco where it considered the 2007 Western Sahara Autonomy Proposal “the most serious, realistic and credible basis for settling the dispute,” an Algerian diplomatic source described the new position towards Western Sahara as a “betrayal of the Sahrawi people,” and considered it an “unexpected” shift from its previous neutral position, which was in line with the United Nations plan to hold a self-determination referendum.

According to analysts, Algerian-Spanish relations have been calm for decades, primarily since Madrid relies heavily on Algerian gas, making it immune to the global gas crisis after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Last year alone, Algeria supplied Spain with more than 40 per cent of its natural gas through the Trans-Mediterranean pipeline “Medgaz,” with a capacity of 10 billion cubic meters per year. This pipeline also supplies gas to Portugal.

Until October 2021, some of the Algerian gas reached Spain and Portugal via a pipeline that crossed Morocco. Still, Algeria stopped using it after the political situation with Rabat deteriorated in August of the same year.

Because Algeria is a major gas supplier to both Spain and Italy, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luigi Di Maio, recently visited Algeria to request an increase in gas supplies to offset a possible decline from the Russian side.

Di Maio told reporters that his government is “committed to increasing energy supply, especially gas, from various international partners, including Algeria, which has always been a reliable supplier.”

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi had announced his country’s intention to diversify its energy sources “as soon as possible” to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, knowing that Italy, which imports about 95 per cent of the gas it consumes, is one of Europe’s most dependent countries on Russian gas.

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