European and Mediterranean-rim leaders gathered in Barcelona Sunday for a first-ever summit between the regions, but the absence of most Mideast chiefs clouded hopes of relaunching a 10-year-old partnership.
Protesters have shown up, but few Mideast leaders
The summit is designed to bolster political and socio-economic links between the 25 European Union states and 10 of their southern neighbors, but only two of the Arab partners and Israel sent their heads of state.
Summit co-host British Prime Minister Tony Blair hoped to focus the two-day gathering on immigration and the fight against terrorism. But after Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika added his name to the mushrooming absentee list overnight, there was increasing speculation about the reasons behind the no-show.
"The Arabs turn their back on Barcelona," said Spanish daily La Razon, although most of the EU's partner nations were to be represented at senior ministerial level.
"Definition of terrorism hits Barcelona summit," added the El Pais daily in a front-page headline, suggesting that Spanish and British attempts to slant the talks toward terrorism rather than development had annoyed partner states.
Only Abbas and Erdogan expected
The summit is meant to go on through Monday
News that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had pulled out Saturday was accompanied by reports from Egypt that political circumstances at home and the wider region -- an apparent reference to the controversy over alleged Syrian involvement in the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri -- had forced his hand.
Of the Middle East states, only Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will attend.
"They all have their reasons" for not attending, an EU spokeswoman said Sunday.
Far-ranging effects of terrorism
Hours before the summit, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero met Erdogan in Mallorca to set in motion the much-vaunted "alliance of civilizations" bringing together Western and Muslim states in the fight against radical Islam via the founding of a high-level UN group. Both men were then to hotfoot it back to Barcelona for the start of the summit Sunday evening. Zapatero was also due to meet Blair for pre-summit talks, while Erdogan was to meet freshly-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel, making her debut on the international summit stage.
The Sept. 11 attacks slowed down Euromed (Photo: Chao Soi Cheong)
When the Barcelona Process began in 1995 the idea was to accelerate efforts to set up a free trade area covering the EU and the Mediterranean, but since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States terrorism has forced its way to the top of the agenda, followed by clandestine immigration.
Euromed free trade area?
British officials said ahead of the summit Blair will seek pledges from his European and Mediterranean partners to endorse a "Code of Conduct on Countering Terrorism," as well as greater cooperation such as sharing intelligence and managing borders. But with Arab leaders not showing up and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also staying at home ahead of an election, organizers must now redouble efforts to make the gathering a success.
The Euro-Mediterranean partnership started in the 1990s
A key goal of the partnership has been to create a Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area (EMFTA) to spur economic growth in the region, but analysts say a 2010 target date is unlikely to be met. The EU has also poured some 9 billion euros ($10.5 billion) of aid into the region and a similar amount in European Investment Bank loans.
Security was tight for the summit, with protests expected, and some 6,000 police patrolling outside the venue just a stone's throw from the Mediterranean shoreline.