The great push into the Atlantic
The European Commission has committed to funding a three-year collaborative research project, called Atlantic Future, that will be developed by 13 research institutes globally — including South Africa — to evaluate the potential for developing the Atlantic basin as an economic unit.
Atlantic Future says on its website that although the West is experiencing a hard time, Asia is showing spectacular growth and the Atlantic space is experiencing a major reconfiguration.
"The North America-Europe link continues to be the strongest and largest of the relationships between any two continents. But their decline in relative terms is slowly being matched by the rise of Africa, Latin America and a newly energised Arab region, all of which are increasing their interregional links and gaining weight in global affairs."
Atlantic Future's aim, it says, is to study the rationales of co-operation in the Atlantic area and to suggest strategies to the European Union on how to engage with the wider transatlantic relationship in the context of the ongoing redistribution of power around and in the Atlantic space.
One of the think-tanks involved in the study is the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), which has its origins in the grand plan to reconstruct a devastated Europe after World War II.
The GMF hosted the two-day Atlantic Dialogues conference last weekend in Rabat. About 300 delegates from 57 countries came together to discuss regional links, challenges and opportunities.
The continent is growing fast
The context, the GMF says, is that while the North Atlantic partnership between the US and Europe represents the biggest economic bloc in the world, it remains stuck between a fragile US recovery and an ongoing crisis in Europe.
Topics covered at the conference included security, energy, trade, demography, infrastructure, financing, democracy, health and information technology.
Africa is a key component of the story.
It is well-understood that the continent is growing faster than most and attracting significant investment from across the globe.
Bilaterally, it is also flourishing. The World Bank reported earlier this year that Brazil and Africa were re-establishing a robust engagement after a hiatus of more than 200 years.
Brazilian trade with Africa has jumped from $4.6-billion in 2000 to $27.6-billion in 2011, the Atlantic Future website reports.
Brazil is Africa's third largest trading partner after China and India, the website says. Oil-producing Nigeria and Angola account for 50% of these trade flows.
China-Africa trade grows more than tenfold
At the same time, China-Africa trade, driven by commodities, has grown more than tenfold over the past decade, doubling every three years in nominal terms.
The European Commission's Atlantic Future study is co-ordinated by the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs and partnered by research institutes and universities in Wales, Mexico, Germany, Morocco, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the US and South Africa.
Lorenzo Fioramonti of the University of Pretoria says the Atlantic Futures project aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the potential of the Atlantic macro-region as a new centre of political and economic activity in the 21st century.
"As globalisation evolves and various forms of regionalism tend to grow in relevance, it is indeed likely that the Atlantic will re-emerge as a leading hub."
Fioramonti says the current global economic crisis, which impacts on emerging economies, creates the potential for a new framework for the governance of climate change with associated new forms of taxation
. This could lead to regional and macro-regional markets gradually replacing global markets as the key focus of economic activity.
China forced to focus on its region
"This would even be more likely as the Chinese economy slows down, forcing China to refocus more on its region [East Asia and Asia-Pacific]."
Based on the discussions in Rabat, no one is suggesting that the way forward is simple or that there is only an upside in the future.
There was widespread agreement that the world has become a more complex place and, certainly for some regions, a less predictable and secure one. The Arab Spring has destabilised a set of countries that at one time were stable, if repressive, and for many of these countries, political outcomes are as yet unknown.
In at least one of these countries, Syria, the destabilisation of the ongoing conflict is having dramatic repercussions beyond its immediate borders.
While Europe has for a long time had a quiet backyard on the other side of the Mediterranean, it is now noisy and, in some cases, violent.
The result has been an influx of refugees and migrants, some dying tragically in the process of fleeing.
Emergence of drug smuggling and terrorism
The weaker political order has seen the emergence of drug smuggling and terrorism.
The recent kidnap of the prime minister of Libya by a faction unhappy with his government is seen as a manifestation of this.
But many at the conference say citizens have new and unprecedented power in the form of social media technologies, which have played a part in these uprisings and are a means of quickly spreading information that repressive governments may not want their citizens to have.
How this plays out over the longer term is yet to be seen. If the US and the EU, which dominate Atlantic trade at present, wish in the longer term to welcome the South Atlantic into the fold in order to build their own economic power relative to that of Asia, they need to finalise a new free-trade deal.
This is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which by some estimates could save the US and Europe between $200-billion and $300-billion collectively a year.
Brazil's Trade Minister Daniel Godinho said that Brazil preferred a multilateral approach to trade negotiations, so that the agreed trading regime was a favour to all, rather than favouring powerful nations.
Brazil negotiates a set of bilateral trade deals
Godinho acknowledged, though, that Brazil was busy negotiating a set of bilateral trade deals of its own.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Uri Dadush likens the deal to the bad old days of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, where powerful trading nations made the rules that they then expected the rest of the world to follow.
He adds, though, that the new, simpler, harmonised standards that emerged from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership could benefit all countries and that, where tariffs applied to partnership, they were likely to be low, allowing nations with lower production costs to still compete effectively.
A question for South Africa is how the possible adoption of a pro-Atlantic strategy will fit in with its growing relationship as a member of the Brics group.
Fioramonti says Europe and the US, as well as some key African and Latin American countries, would find a comparative advantage in strengthening economic ties across the Atlantic shores.
"The Brics need not necessarily be an obstacle. It may very well turn it into another alliance of key regional powers, which means that each of them will represent regions already involved in regional markets [thus not superimposing a global alliance on a macro-regional framework]," says Fioramonti.
Kevin Davie was a guest of the GMF in Morocco.