EU foreign ministers and their Mediterranean counterparts are headed today to Marseille to take stock of their five-year-old Euro-Mediterranean (Euromed) partnership conference, trying hard to ignore the violence flaring between Israel and the Palestinians.
Barring a sudden letup in the fighting, which has left 223 dead, most of them Palestinians, since violence broke out in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel on September 28, the ministers were likely to accent economic and social cooperation, leaving politics for another time.
However a spokesman for Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine of France, which holds the EU presidency until the end of the year, said Vedrine intends to devote the two-day meeting's opening dinner Wednesday night entirely to the Middle East peace process. "The results of that discussion will figure in the conclusions the presidency will put forth at the end of the conference," he said.
The European-Mediterranean Partnership was created in Barcelona in November 1995, to foster economic, social and political cooperation among the EU's 15 nations and their 12 Mediterranean partners: Algeria, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. A Euromed free-trade zone was envisioned by 2010.
But five years on, the meeting in this Mediterranean port city is to be held in a hair-trigger atmosphere, against "a particularly difficult political backdrop," said an EU source. But he added it could still play a role in "peace-making and a resumption of contacts" between the warring parties.
In the context of the Barcelona agreement, the EU has already signed association accords with Tunisia, Israel, Morocco, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Negotiations have been concluded, but not yet signed, with Egypt. And talks are under way with Algeria, Syria and Lebanon.
The EU is accentuating development of exchanges among its Mediterranean partners, seeing this as essential to attract foreign investment to the region's south — meaning the non-EU partners — and foster economic development.
An improvement in existing EU aid programs to the Mediterranean countries is also on Brussels' calendar; 3.435 billion euros ($2.954 billion) were ear-marked for the MEDA-I that ran 1995 to 1999, but only 26 percent of those credits — 890 million euros — have been used. The EU has proposed a rationalization and simplification of the mechanics of the program, even as negotiations are going on over the size of the MEDA II program for 2000-2006, for which the European Commission has proposed 6.7 billion euros.
Last September the commission, which is the EU's administrative arm, called for a "new momentum" for the Euromed partnership as a signal that eastward enlargement was not the EU's only priority.
Some Arab countries in recent days have asked France to put off the meeting here until the Middle East calms down. Not a chance, Vedrine said Monday on the sidelines of a Western European Union meeting. “It is clear that the meeting is going to be held in an unfavorable context," he said.
"But as EU presidency, we believe that Euro-Mediterranean cooperation is important enough in and of itself that it can go on irrespective of the vicissitudes of the peace process. We know that the holding of this meeting poses problems for certain Arab countries," he conceded, "but we think it should be held."
Mediterranean Arab countries said Friday in Qatar, where they were gathered for an Islamic summit, that they planned on attending the conference. Syria and Lebanon have already decided to boycott the meeting in protest against the violence, and the presence of Israel, according to diplomatic sources.
Syria's foreign minister will boycott the Euromed conference because the European Union has not adopted a firm stance on the situation in the Palestinian territories, an Arab diplomat said Tuesday. Faruq al-Shara has "decided not to go to Marseille," the diplomat told AFP, adding that other Arab countries were to attend the conference at ministerial level.
"Some last-minute talks (amongst Arab leaders) took place overnight, but with no success on a full Arab participation," he said, explaining the meeting was cut short because of Damascus' opposition to attending the conference in the absence of a "firm European Union position" on the Palestinian territories.
The talks, which have taken place over the past several days in Doha on the sidelines of the Islamic summit, "took a turn for the worse because of differences between the Palestinian and Syrian delegations on whether to take part in Marseille. The decision by the Palestinian Authority to participate in the conference even in Syria's absence has raised tension between the two parties."
An unhappy Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "interrupted his participation in the Islamic summit and returned home Monday before the summit's closure", the diplomat said. Assad decried the split amongst the Arab countries on whether to take part in the Euromed forum or not, "especially as Syria had been named coordinator of the Arab group", he said.
Syria and Lebanon have both backed postponing the conference because of the bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which they said would make a meeting with the Israelis "extremely difficult".
Libya announced Sunday it will not attend the Euromed conference in Marseille because of Israel's participation and urged other Arab nations to follow suit. "Libya will not participate in the ministerial meeting," said Libyan foreign ministry official Hassuna Shaush, saying the conference was aimed at "integrating Israel" into the Mediterranean community.
He called on Arab nations to boycott as well because the conference would mean European hegemony over the Mediterranean region. "The resolutions of this meeting have already been made clear," said Shaush, who characterized some of the measures as "colonialist."
He warned of any partnership between "the European Union, a close-knit bloc, and the Arab countries, which are divided and lack strong ties."
Libya may be concerned that the conference will be held in France, where the judiciary decided October 20 to go ahead with an investigation of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi in connection with the downing of a French DC-10 of the UTA airline in 1989, which left 170 dead.
Libya is not a full member of the group but enjoys a special status and was invited to the Marseille meeting by France, current head of the European Union. — (AFP)
© Agence France Presse 2000
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)