The sixth European-Mediterranean Conference kicked off in Naples Tuesday. Talks between EU foreign ministers and their Mediterranean counterparts focus on immigration and security issues.
Euro-Med: The neighborhood is smaller than it may first seem
Italy, which is hosting the meeting of EU foreign ministers and their colleagues from Mediterranean states bordering the bloc, recently felt the brunt of difficulties posed by illegal immigration from its Mediterranean neighbors and beyond. In October two boats of refugees washed up on its southern shores, at least 13 of whom were dead.
At the top of the agenda of the two-day meeting in Naples is immigration and security.
Last week the Italian government said it was concerned that influxes of illegal economic immigrants could be infiltrated by Islamic extremists planning attacks in Europe. And Chris Patten, EU Commissioner for External Relations, emphasized the necessity for economic and political stability in the region to foster valuable partnerships for fighting terrorism.
The foreign ministers are expected to agree on a reinforced lending facility by the European Investment Bank to encourage private investment -- and stimulate jobs -- in the region. "Forty million jobs have to be created over the next decade if employment rates are to be maintained at only their current levels," explained Patten.
Clouds on the horizon
Christian Leffler, the EU official responsible for relations with the Mediterranean goes a step further when explaining the significance of the Euro-Med partnership. "The stability and development of the (Mediterranean) region is one of the main goals of the EU, also regarding the numerous clouds that are thickening on the horizon because of the conflicts in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean area."
Italy's Deputy Premier Gianfranco Fini
And there are certainly clouds on the horizon. The stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as well as the war in Iraq, set an ominous backdrop to the talks. Italian Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini's recent remark that Israel's building of a security wall was an act of self-defense incensed Amr Mussa, head of the Arab League. To show his displeasure at what he sees as Italy's bias toward Israel, he chose to stay home from the Naples meeting and send his deputy instead.
"This is an act of protest against Italy but not against the European Union," a spokesman for EU External Relations Commissioner Patten told Reuters when asked about Mussa's absence.
Touching on geo-strategic issues
In spite of the current turmoil, others see the EU-Med conference as a unique opportunity for these states to touch on vital geo-strategic issues. "I think we should take advantage (of this meeting) because it's the only forum at which Israel, the Arab states, Turkey, and the Europeans all get together," emphasized German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer at last year's meeting on Crete.
Besides immigration and security, talks are to cover the establishment of a Euro-Mediterranean parliamentary assembly and final preparations for a foundation to foster dialogue between European and Mediterranean cultures.