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Europe aims to build links with Mediterranean neighbors

International Herald Tribune | May 20, 2008

Europe aims to build links with Mediterranean neighbors

By Stephen Castle

BRUSSELS: Projects to clean up the Mediterranean Sea, establish new sea routes and highways, and harness solar energy could be at the heart of new European efforts to engage with southern neighbors, according to the first set of concrete proposals published Tuesday.

Less than two months before the debut of a new Union for the Mediterranean, pioneered by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the European Commission sought to put its stamp on the plan with a series of recommendations.

While its call for big spending projects in the region will be welcomed in Paris, the document issued Tuesday also proposes a further dilution of Sarkozy’s original aim of giving the European Union’s southern states a bigger role in the venture than northern EU counterparts.

That is just one of several issues that have provoked acute tension between Paris and Berlin since Sarkozy first outlined his "Mediterranean dream" last year, and said that the EU’s southern states and their non-EU neighbors should "realize that their destinies are tied together."

Fearing that Germany would be sidelined, Berlin watered down the initiative in March, insisting it be anchored within EU structures.

What is not disputed is the thinking behind the plan: that previous initiatives have largely failed.

Since 1995 the EU has engaged with southern neighbors through the so-called Barcelona Process but with few tangible results.

The new document concedes that the Barcelona Process suffered from "weak visibility and the perception by citizens that little is done to tackle their daily problems and real needs."

European diplomats hope the new organization, known officially as the "Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean," will give southern Mediterranean countries a greater stake because they will be on a level of parity with the EU.

Critics point out that a central problem will remain: the diverse southern Mediterranean membership, which includes Syria and Israel.

The commission said the new union should hold summit meetings every two years, but avoided endorsing any location for its headquarters. Tunis, however, has emerged as a prime candidate.

The commission called for two parallel sets of co-presidencies - to be held by France for an initial six months on the EU side. Thereafter this would be held by the new president of the European Council or high representative for foreign affairs - posts established under the new Treaty of Lisbon.

In March, Paris and Berlin agreed on a formula under which southern EU countries would hold the first co-presidencies in rotation.

Speaking in Strasbourg, the European commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, denied that proposing a different solution was "a declaration of war" against Sarkozy. EU heads of government will be asked to endorse the commission’s plan at a summit meeting in Brussels next month before the official launch in Paris on 13 July.

The commission’s paper suggests that non-EU nations choose their co-presidency by consensus - a difficult task given the range of nations and the poor state of relations among some of them.

The document released Tuesday called for improved maritime and road infrastructure, including new sea routes and upgraded port facilities, and a new road to link the Arab states of North Africa - Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

The new body should reinvigorate a plan approved in 2006 to clean the Mediterranean Sea of pollution, a 2007 program to develop solar power, and a proposal for a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010, the document said.

The commission called for private sector and EU bilateral funding but made it clear that the new body would be able to call on funds now directed to the Barcelona Process.

But analysts remain skeptical about the new body’s potential to achieve substantial change.

"There is no institutional process that the EU can set up that will solve the Israel-Palestine problem," said Clara O’Donnell, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform, based in London. "If we lower expectations and have a longer-term perspective, there is room for greater trade and investment."

O’Donnell added that achieving democratization of the region was more difficult because the EU has relatively little leverage over the countries concerned.

"We have been trying to promote conditionality with countries that have limited interest in our incentives," she said.