Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The latest Euro-Med jamboree

By Clara Marina O'Donnell

On July 13th, President Sarkozy, surrounded by 42 EU and Mediterranean leaders, launched his pet project, the Union for the Mediterranean. The Paris summit was a success. The turnout was impressive and the mood constructive. Israel declared that peace with the Palestinians was closer than ever, while Syria and Lebanon announced they will open embassies in their respective countries. But many of the positive steps are the result of peace efforts unrelated to the new Union. And it doesn’t look like the French initiative addresses the obstacles that have limited the success of past EU policies in the region.

Because of its proximity, the stability and prosperity of the Mediterranean is of crucial importance to the EU. For many years, the EU has been working with the region, trying to replicate the soft power approach which proved so successful in Eastern Europe – it has encouraged regional cooperation and domestic reforms in exchange for deeper relations with the EU. In 1995, at a summit as ambitious as Sarkozy’s recent jamboree, the EU launched the so-called Barcelona Process – a multilateral framework designed to encourage peace, democracy and economic development through regional integration. In 2004, to the confusion of many Mediterranean partners, the EU introduced an additional policy, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), designed to deepen bilateral cooperation between the EU and the Mediterranean partners, and to give an additional impetus to reform.

The Barcelona Process has created the only regional forum with Arab and Israeli participants. But Barcelona and the ENP have failed to fulfil expectations. Democratic reforms and economic development have not materialised, and the various conflicts remain unresolved.

Two main challenges have hampered EU efforts in the Mediterranean. First, the benefits that the EU can offer Mediterranean governments are limited, so the EU has little leverage to encourage reforms. The EU’s most effective incentive, membership, is not on the cards, and with the exception of Morocco, most countries are not interested in joining in any case. EU leverage is further reduced by its reluctance to offer things which are attractive to the region’s governments, such as greater access to the EU’s labour market and free trade for agriculture.

Secondly the EU is trying to encourage cooperation across a region riddled with conflicts. The Arab-Israeli conflict is the most intractable dispute, but serious tensions also exist between Morocco and Algeria, and Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. The different tensions obstruct most efforts to cooperate and have seriously undermined the Barcelona Process.

The Union for the Mediterranean has the merit of putting the region at the top of the political agenda and giving badly needed impetus to Euro-Mediterranean relations. The Union aims to strengthen the Barcelona Process by focusing on projects of regional cooperation (such as cleaning up the Mediterranean and building motorways). But it risks getting stuck in the same quagmire as previous EU initiatives. Regional projects were already part of the Barcelona Process and are therefore unlikely to provide a breakthrough. In addition the Union doesn’t address either of the main challenges. There are no new incentives to encourage Mediterranean leaders to reform. The EU will not even provide additional funding for the new projects. And while the different Mediterranean partners might have seemed constructive at the recent summit, it is largely because several difficult questions were put off until November. Among other things there is still no agreement on how to staff the Union’s new independent secretariat (which in principle should have officials from all the countries involved). Many officials think it will be unfeasible to have Israelis and Syrians working side by side, and many Arab governments have made clear they do not want the Union to lead to a normalisation of relations with Israel.

New institutions are not the answer to the region’s problems. If the EU wants to have a bigger impact on the Mediterranean it must offer its partners some of the things they care about – greater financial assistance and freer trade in agricultural goods would be a good start. Even then, the EU should lower its expectations and acknowledge that it is dealing with partners who have a very different analysis of the costs and benefits of reform than Eastern Europe had.

The EU should also increase its diplomatic efforts towards the different conflicts across the region. It should build on the momentum of the Paris summit so that the following summits of the Union no longer merely benefit from steps towards peace but contribute to them as well.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform

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