A dispute over trade barriers has resulted in this week's scheduled talks on the association pact between the European Union and Syria being postponed until mid-April.
Syria is the only one of the EU's 12 Mediterranean ‘partners' not yet aboard an ambitious drive to create a Euro-Mediterranean free trade area within the coming decade. “The eighth round of talks has been rescheduled to the second half of April in Damascus,” said Gunnar Wiegand, the European Commission's external relations spokesman.
He pointed to the unrestricted movement of industrial and agricultural goods, a vital component of the pact, as the major stumbling block holding up a breakthrough in the negotiations, which began in 1997. “Attempts by the Syrians in their latest proposal to keep in place certain import restrictions and prohibitions after the agreement goes into force have not helped progress,” Wiegand noted. “We are expecting a revised offer from the Syrians in the next round.”
The EU typically provides its Mediterranean partners with a 10-12 year period of grace, during which they gain unrestricted access to EU markets, to undertake European-backed reforms to prepare for the heightened competitiveness of free trade. Despite clocking up a trade surplus with the EU, prompted by earlier interim agreements, Syria fears the potential social and economic fallout of a free market ethos on its socialist-style command economy.
“The Syrians are weary of the experience of other countries that undertook rapid liberalisation,” a Brussels-based Arab diplomat told me. “So they are moving along with reforms gradually and systematically because they want to avoid the pain of sudden change that has afflicted others.”
With all but one association agreement sealed, the EU is keen to shift the focus of the ‘Barcelona Process' on cooperation with Mediterranean states from bilateral free trade towards political dialogue and accelerated inter-regional economic integration – measures it hopes will help restore stability to a volatile Middle East. Sluggish progress on the Syrian front has caused a degree of frustration. “We are still very far away from concluding the talks,” Wiegand confessed. “It's important to have a deal with Syria…we wouldn't like to see it fall behind its neighbours.”
Despite its reluctance to embrace sweeping reforms, Syria is keen to court the EU both politically and economically. “The Syrians are very serious about partnership with the EU because they are committed to a process of opening up to the world and modernising under Bashar Al-Assad,” the Arab diplomat said. He cited Syria's appreciation of the EU's stance towards the Middle East peace process and its eagerness to promote economic growth.
This article appeared in the 11 March 2002 issue of European Voice.