Burgeoning Middle East violence threatened to steal the limelight Thursday at a Euromed meeting of EU ministers and their Mediterranean counterparts, which was to take stock of the five-year-old economic, social and political partnership between the EU and its non-EU Mediterranean neighbors.
As it stood late Wednesday, Syria and Lebanon were still boycotting the meeting, in protest at on-going Isreali-Palestinian violence. However Libya, a non-Euromed member with "special guest" or observer status did a last-minute turnabout and sent a six-member delegation headed by its foreign minister, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, to the two-day meeting beginning Wednesday night in Marseille, France. But a week ago, Kadhafi said that Libya would boycott the meeting and urged all other Arab members of Euromed to do the same.
Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine of France, which holds the EU presidency until the end of the year, acknowledged that this fourth Euromed meeting was being held in a "very unfavorable context."
He told reporters late Wednesday that Palestinian minister for international cooperation Nabil Shaath had set out the Palestinian position with "force and conviction" in the opening session, as did Israeli acting foreign minister Shlomo ben-Ami for the Israeli side. Vedrine said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's call Wednesday for a cease-fire was "a positive statement.
"Anything that moves in the direction of implementing the commitments of Sharm el-Sheikh by the Israelis and Palestinians... is good and encouraged by the European Union," said Vedrine, referring to a US-brokered meeting in Egypt last month attended by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Vedrine said in an opening speech that fighting in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel since September 28, which had left 223 dead, mostly Palestinians, had stirred "disappointment, worry and anguish." The peace process, he said, had deteriorated into "a language of hatred and calculated or desperate acts of violence."
"There have been too many victims," he said, "who have paid the price of peace in these past weeks." But for the European Union, he said, there was still only one way to go: "dialogue and a quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, peoples whose destinies are intertwined."
Shaath said on his arrival to Marseille that he intended to press for "active protection" against what he termed the "Israeli siege" in the Palestinian territories. "We expect Europe to listen carefully to the Arab side, particularly to the Palestinians," he said. "Martyrs are falling, assassinations are being committed by the Israelis. ... How can we talk about cooperation while the Israeli forces are surrounding the Palestinian territories?" Shaath asked.
A spokesman for the French foreign office said the bulk of Thursday's sessions would deal with the economic and social aspects of the five-year-old cooperation pact. In Brussels Wednesday, the EU approved a six-year (2000-2006) MEDA-II aid package of 5.35 billion euros ($4.6 billion) for its Mediterranean neighbors, up from 3.435 billion euros for the five-year MEDA-I (1995-1999).
Euromed was established in 1995 in Barcelona, the first EU-Mediterranean summit 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. — (AFP, Marseille)
© Agence France Presse 2000
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)