Stability in the Middle East and the fight against terrorism top the agenda at a meeting between EU foreign ministers and representatives from southern Mediterranean states in Dublin on Thursday.
Europe and North Africa: so close and yet so far.
Just one day after a meeting of the Middle East quartet in New York, the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers met face to face on Wednesday as they joined a string of fellow ministers from Europe and the Middle East for high level talks in the Irish capital.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his Palestinian counterpart Nabil Shaath were among three dozen ministers visiting the Irish capital as part of a two-day Euro-Mediterranean gathering convened by the European Union. The meeting in Dublin castle will focus on prospects for bringing peace to the Middle East and European relations to the 12 southern Mediterranean states.
The event comes at a crucial time for Israel and Palestine, following on the heels of Tuesday's meeting of the quartet of Middle East peace sponsors (United Nations, United States, Russia and the EU) and coming ahead of a summit of the Arab League in Tunisia later this month.
Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, whose country as the current holder of the EU presidency is playing host to the Euro-Med conference, acknowledged the difficulties of bringing the two parties together, but said it was important for the peace process in the region. "We need to use this forum, and there are very few where Israeli and Arab ministers can sit down and discuss issues," he told reporters after an informal working dinner Wednesday evening.
"We need to ensure that we get these parties together and try to get a ceasefire going. We need a ceasefire in the Middle East to give a chance to these parties to work together," Cowen said on behalf of the EU.
Stability crucial for Euro-Med Partnership
Since the Mediterranean dialogue kicked off in Barcelona in 1995, bringing together the 15 countries that then made up the EU with Algeria, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey, the conflict in the Middle East has been a constant topic of discussion. Diego de Ojeda, the spokesman for EU's External Relations Commissioner, Chris Patten, admitted the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians has been an undeniable "burden" for the forging of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, often detracting from the other areas of cooperation.
The Barcelona process of bringing Europe and the Mediterranean states closer together has succeeded primarily in areas not readily apparent in the political restructuring of the Middle East, Ojeda said. Chief among these are the many projects the EU finances to help build democratic institutions and promote economic development. The EU has, for example, set up a training center for Arab managers, funded youth exchanges, sponsored archeological excavations, renovations of villages and film projects -- all at a cost of about a billion euros a year.
Critics say that the Barcelona process has been progressing too slowly, that it is no nearer to its goal of bringing democracy to North Africa and the Middle East. But Poul Nielson, EU Development Commissioner, dismisses such criticism. Europe's politics with regards to its neighbors is based on the principal of equality, he said.
"Political and economic reforms cannot simply be grafted onto the region. Successful cooperation flourishes only on the foundation of common interests among equal partners."
Since the recent bomb attacks in Madrid, Istanbul and Morocco, and even dating as far back as those in 2002 on the Tunisian island of Djerba, the threat of an increase in terrorism from extremist Islamic circles has pushed the EU and the neighboring Mediterranean states into a closer working relationship. Much has been made of the fact that after the train blasts in Madrid in March, Morocco immediately sent experts to the Spanish capital to assist with the investigations. Things were quite different after the terror attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
EU ministers point to the improvement in cooperation as a signal that they are on the right track. One way to fight extremism at its roots, they argue, is to reduce poverty. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has come out strong in favor of promoting economic ties to North Africa to give the people, especially the 40 million youth, a perspective.
In order to do this, the EU has negotiated preferential trade agreements with all the Euro-Med countries. Whether the goal of establishing a free trade zone for the entire Mediterranean region by 2010 will be achieved is still uncertain. And as for inviting the 12 southern neighbors to join the EU, Poul Nielson has warned the Mediterranean countries not to get their hopes up.
"We're not closing the door, but we're also not talking about further enlargement," he said.