WHEN hundreds of illegal immigrants showed up on Spain's beaches last year after short but treacherous boat rides from Morocco, Europeans confronted a troubling image.
"We discovered that, like the United States, we too have our wetbacks," says Juan Miguel Moratinos, director of the Spanish Foreign Ministry's Institute for Cooperation with the Arab World. "Suddenly the Mediterranean didn't seem so big. It resembled more the Rio Grande."
The arrival of North Africans in Spain last year added to intense concerns among French, Germans, and others about migration from the South and the East and its impact on a Europe with economic woes of its own.
It is not so much the magnitude of North African immigration that is causing Europeans to focus on the Mediterranean's southern rim - the numbers pale in comparison to what the US faces from Mexico - as it is worries over the region's potential for instability and what a major blowup might produce.
Unemployment touches a high percentage of North Africa's youthful population (more than a quarter of Algeria's 26 million people are out of work) while Islamic fundamentalism continues to rattle the region.
"If the FIS [Algeria's outlawed Islamic fundamentalist political party] ever takes over in Algeria, we're certain to have 1 to 1.5 million Algerians arrive on French shores seeking refuge," says an economics specialist on the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) in Paris.
Meanwhile, Europeans and North Africans have watched the US, Mexico, and Canada work out a North American free-trade zone bigger than the European Community's new single market.
For the nations of the western Mediterranean - Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal in the North, and the Maghreb countries in the South - it was time to reexamine the nature of their relationship.
"By following a policy of stabilizing Mexico, the US is acting much more intelligently than Europe is toward the Maghreb," says Abdel-Madjid Bouzidi, economic adviser to Algerian President Ali Kafi. "The old relations in this region must be replaced with a partnership."
Most North Africans say their region is not seeking handouts from its wealthy neighbors, but a partnership recognizing mutual interests.
"The US is developing a coherent strategy with its south, but we don't see anything like a strategy coming out of Europe," says Nadji Safir, a sociologist at the University of Algiers. He says Europe will only begin seriously dealing with the Maghreb when it decides, as the US has with Mexico, that it must do so out of its own interest.
The US wants to strengthen Mexico as a "buffer country" against the South beyond it, says Mr. Bouzidi. Yet even though Algeria already faces an illegal immigration problem from African countries south of it, he adds, Europe is not really working to strengthen its southern neighbors. Europe closes itself off
The problem, some European analysts say, is that Europe is tempted to close itself off from the South out of fear - and that "self-interest" arguments don't readily overcome that fear.
"Where are the compelling interests?" asks Arab and Maghreb specialist Remy Leveau of the Paris Institut dtudes Politiques. "For manual laborers? We don't need them any more. For energy? There are other suppliers. A market for our goods? Interesting, but mostly long-term potential. To stop the flow of immigrants," he concludes, "like the Americans and the millions of Mexicans? There are no millions of Maghrebins coming, only the fear of millions." (Experts estimate that tens of thousands of illegal immig rants try to enter Europe from the Maghreb each year, not hundreds of thousands as in North America.)
The fears exist on both sides as stubborn vestiges of the colonial period, says Salah Hannachi, Tunisia's secretary of state for international cooperation. "On the south, there is still a post-colonial complex that varies in intensity depending on the country and current events," he says. "In Europe, the advancing sentiment is that the Maghreb is a very foreign, even hostile world ... and that we're back in the era of war between the cross and the crescent." (Islamic groups are gaining influence in North
Africa - especially Algeria. Algeria canceled free elections last year when it seemed certain the Islamists would win.) Historical links
The way out of this syndrome, Mr. Hannachi adds, is a realization that "what links us is not just geography, but history and civilization."
He points to a distant past, when the Roman Empire circled the Mediterranean and considered the Sahara Desert and the Danube and Rhine rivers its outer limits. The deep, historical ties in this ancient region make the stakes even higher than those in North America, as well as making the pursuit of mutual interests more difficult.
Mexicans have complaints with the yanquis, says Benjamin Stora, director of the Maghreb-Europe Institute at the University of Paris, but unlike their North African counterparts, they were never colonized by their northern neighbors.
Also, the western Mediterranean marks the border between the Orient and the West. "The Maghreb is Islamic," Mr. Stora notes, "with all the demons that conjures up in the West. The US and Mexico are both Christian cultures," he adds, "and that gives them a unifying, rather than divisive, civilizational base."
The challenges are great, but more optimistic observers insist that the region's common destiny leaves little choice. "Christians and Muslims are both people of the book," says Mr. Safir. "That should be seized on as an invaluable element of understanding and basis for cooperation."