CHANGES in Europe and northern Africa have generated a new north-south dialogue across the Mediterranean Sea. Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal are creating an informal link between themselves and the five-nation Arab Maghreb Union - Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. The arrangement, based roughly on the structure of the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, comes at just the right time for both groups.
As East-West relations thaw, regional problems are taking on new prominence. Trade and other issues will increasingly be shaped and resolved through regional blocks, alliances, unions, and groupings.
The Maghreb nations are concerned about the future of their economic relations with Europe. They see multiple causes for uncertainty: the reunification of Germany, the economic integration of the European Community by 1992, and newly liberated Warsaw Pact nations offering a new labor and manufacturing base. North Africa doesn't want to be frozen out.
At the same time, southern European states worry about regional stability. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in northern Africa, a skyrocketing birthrate, urban poverty, and easy access to the shores of Europe present a troublesome picture. The combined population of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia is expected to jump from 56 million today to 127 million by 2025. The European states rightly want a voice in developing policy on immigration, economic aid, and security.
The international conference now taking shape adds a further postscript to to the history of colonialism. For the Mahgreb nations - former colonies that became fiercely independent in this century - the forum offers a new kind of working relationship. To work, the forum must not be perceived as motivated primarily by a European desire to keep North Africa at bay. Active involvement on both sides of the Mediterranean is what's needed.
Participation in the forum should help strengthen the Maghreb Union. Democratic impulses have surfaced in some parts of the region; they'll need cautious assistance.