Syria and the European Union (EU) will pick up again on negotiations over an association accord Monday, April 23, against a backdrop of misunderstandings of both a political and economic nature.
On the political side, Syria, which has been ruled since 1963 by the pan-Arab Baath party, suspects the EU of wanting to "dictate" democratic reforms to Syria, which is vehemently denied by the European side.
"We believe that the development of democracy should be based on the national development (of the country) and not result from foreign diktats, and that is where one of the problems in the negotiations lies," Syria's state planning minister of state, Issam Zaim, said recently.
The head of the EU delegation in Syria, Marc Pierini, has said he is "perplexed" by such comments, stating that "there was nothing in the substance of the project for an (association) accord, nor in the character or style of the negotiations which could lead one to think of a diktat."
On the economic front, Syria has accused the EU of agricultural protectionism, of wanting to push it to speed up economic reforms without taking into account the social and fiscal consequences, and the official press in Damascus often relays opinions saying European competition will have a negative effect on Syrian industry.
In preparation for the new round, the EU has published a text to clarify the situation: "Syria has decided itself that it needed to reform its economy," and the EU "is not trying to impose any kind of formula on it."
"The EU," the text continues, "says only that a sustained rhythm of reforms is an essential signal to the outside world, which will have an important influence on the development of investment" which Syria needs to relaunch an economy that has been stagnating for the last 20 years.
Pierini also gives the assurance that agriculture and food production is on the negotiating table and that they will be part of the accord, but that Syria must bring its exports up to world level and make efforts towards commercialization to take advantage of that.
"If Europe fixes a tax-free quota on imports in one category, let's say olive oil, that does not guarantee a place on its market: Syria must then compete against other exporters," he explains.
As far as industry is concerned, the accord plan sets out measures to protect newly-established Syrian industries, and a timetable for Syria to reduce its tariffs on imports according to different categories, running for up to 12 years. This timetable will allow Syrian industry to adapt progressively to European competition, says Pierini.
He ascribes the misunderstandings to the fact that the negotiations between the EU and Syria, which started in 1998, are already going ahead, while Syrian efforts at economic reform have only just begun.
"With Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, negotiations began when the reforms were well underway. In Syria, they are still looking for the right path" to best direct the reforms, he adds.
The association accord will give the EU preferential access to the still very closed Syrian market and should lead to a free trade zone, in a maximum of 12 years from the accord coming into force.
Syria can hope that by linking itself economically to Europe that it will see an increase in foreign investment.
Zaim heads the Syrian delegation to the negotiations, which end Tuesday, while the European side is lead by Peter Zangl, the European Commission's director for the Mediterranean. — (AFP, Damascus)
by Maher Chmaytelli
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)