Algiers — Maghreb Union officials are calling for greater economic integration between countries as a way to circumvent political hurdles.
The Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) still faces obstacles 24 years after it was first established.
During a seminar at the University of Algiers on Monday (February 18th), UMA Shura Council Secretary-General Dr Said Mekedem called for holding a Maghreb summit as soon as possible to examine proposals to activate the union.
Mekedem said that reviving and activating the Arab Maghreb Union would necessitate a review of certain founding articles.
He advised the promotion of the UMA's Shura Council to a Maghreb parliament with broad powers. He also called for electing Maghreb legislators through a direct popular vote. This way, the Maghreb parliament's decisions would have weight and force on the executive level.
Mekedem suggested giving priority to economic trade between Maghreb countries as a way to overcome political obstacles. He noted that among the Union's Secretariat-General's priorities is the establishment of a Maghreb market for free trade.
Inter-Maghreb trade exchanges are currently estimated at 3%, compared to 65% between the Maghreb Union countries and the EU.
During the conference, the chairman of the Algerian National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee and former head of the Algerian Division in the UMA's Shura Council, Brahim Boulahia, stressed the need to update the Maghreb legal system.
Boulahia highlighted the importance of the peoples' participation in building this Union.
"The peoples' dream... is the biggest achievement that has been made since the establishment of this Union," he noted. "The Maghreb Union has concluded 37 co-operation agreements... in economy, trade, finance and culture."
On the occasion of its creation on February 17th, 1989, the Union's Secretariat-General stressed the need for a more effective Arab Maghreb in light of current regional and international events.
The UMA's Secretariat-General is proposing new approaches to get past the political disputes that impede this bloc. This would involve giving priority to economic aspects and mutual benefits in terms of trade exchanges between Maghreb countries.
In a statement on the occasion of the UMA's 24th anniversary, the Secretariat-General stressed the need to increase trust between all Arab Maghreb peoples and achieve rapprochement and harmony so that Maghreb region "will continue to be an integrated region thanks to history and civilisation."
Experts deplore the lost potential of a unified Maghreb.
"The losses that Arab Maghreb countries have incurred in the past 24 years are more than 37 billion euros, i.e. over 5 billion euros a year," economist Selim Abdel Rahman said.
UMA countries "have all the necessary qualifications that would allow them to realise integration and establish a common Maghreb market in several sectors", he noted.
Economic expert Abderrahmane Mebtoul added that Maghreb integration could achieve growth for the region of 3 to 4 % of the gross domestic product (GDP), excluding the hydrocarbons sector.
"This would create more jobs and absorb unemployment," he stated.
A study conducted by the UMA's Secretariat in 2009 showed that economic integration would generate profits of about 3.7 billion euros in investments, including 2.2 billion euros in direct foreign investments.
Still, despite the delay in integration, Maghreb tax officials announced on Tuesday (February 19th) in Algiers that they would start sharing information in order to effectively combat tax fraud and evasion.
The meeting, whose goal was to prepare for the next Maghreb Finance Ministers Council conference, also addressed drawing a joint training programme with the participation of the Customs Economy and Tax Institute (IEDF).