At a meeting of 10 Mediterranean countries, Europe agreed to boost ties between the wealthier northern states and the poorer south and to help in the fight on terror and stemming the flow of illegal immigration.
Just a boat's ride away from Europe, North Africa is still world's apart socially and economically.
On Saturday European leaders attending an unprecedented summit in Tunis vowed to help North Africa overcome poverty and to combat factors that breed Islamic extremism. Leaders from the western Mediterranean countries, including France, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain, agreed to bolster economic ties in the region and to "strengthen security cooperation between the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) and European Union countries."
The AMU, which comprises Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, was established in 1989, but due to regional rivalries it has been essentially ineffective since its creation.
"It is necessary to bridge the gap of social and economic disparities between the two west Mediterranean shores," the Tunis Declaration stated.
Although short on specifics, the text adopted after the two-day summit, called for the creation of a Maghreb free trade zone. French President Jacques Chirac called upon the states in North Africa to put aside their disputes with one another and work together with the EU in developing a "zone of peace, cooperation, security and stability."
Chirac said better regional integration in the Maghreb would allow it "to fully benefit from its trade association with the European Union."
In exchange for improving economic ties with North Africa, the European leaders stressed that its southern counterparts must share part of the burden and increase efforts to stem the flow of illegal migrants heading to Europe.
Washing up on Europe’s shores
A group of would-be immigrants from North Africa wait aboard a small boat after being intercepted by Spanish civil guards. The illegal aliens were trying to reach the southern Spanish port of Tarifa but were stopped before even reaching shore. The Spanish government in conjunction with the European Union has begun intensifying its efforts to catch illegal aliens before they enter the country. The port city of Tarifa is one of the most popular entry points.
North Africa, with its population of some 80 million, is an impoverished region where the majority of people earn less than €2,000 a year. Located just a boat’s ride away from Europe’s El Dorado, the Maghreb has become a transit point for tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans seeking a better life in the West. Many set sail packed into make-shift boats that wash up on Europe’s shores and have to be rescued by coast guards.
An estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants enter the EU each year and their numbers are growing. The issue of clamping down on immigration is a crucial one, especially for Spain and Italy, which bear the brunt of the tide. In the previous months, EU leaders have increased their demands on North African states to do more to prevent illegal immigrants from leaving their country. But leaders from the region, particularly Libya’s Mummar Gaddafi, have said they need more financial help from the EU to alleviate poverty, which is the primary cause for migration.
The Tunis Declaration reflects this shared responsibility: "The fight against illegal immigration and human trafficking requires joint action and cooperation.
Partner in the fight on terror
Recognizing the link between economic development and security, the 10 leaders also stressed the need to reinforce stability in a region plagued by a decade of Islamic militant violence in Algeria and recently hit by suicide bombings in Morocco and Tunisia.
In an effort to allay worries that the EU has turned its back on the southern neighbors in its focus on integrating 10 new members from eastern Europe in 2004, Chirac stressed that the EU "will not turn away from its southern bank."
North Africa is a key ally in the fight against terror. Many of those accused of being behind the 9/11 attacks and recent suicide bombings have come from North Africa, where social inequalities and poverty have pushed many disenfranchised youths into the arms of radical Islam.