Eleventh-hour diplomacy salvaged a gathering of Euro-Med foreign ministers seeking to ensure that economic and political cooperation is not derailed by the Middle Eastern crisis.
Despite tensions between Arab and Israeli delegates and the absence of Syrian and Lebanese representatives at a gathering in Valencia, ministers reached agreement on broad issues and Israel eased up slightly on its resistance to EU mediation in the conflict.
European Commission officials were upbeat about the outcome of the talks: “The Valencia conference has once again shown the resilience of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership process despite the current drama in the Middle East,” Gunnar Wiegand, the executive's external relations spokesman, told me.
Wiegand referred to what he called an unprecedented consensus in adopting a broad action plan to take the seven-year-old ‘Barcelona Process' forward. The plan is to forge a Euro-Med free trade area within the next decade, beyond bilateral association agreements, promoting north-south trade, economic reform, political dialogue and security cooperation.
Prior to Valencia, Algeria and Lebanon had yet to sign the agreements they had initialled in recent months, leaving Syria as the only country without a deal. Algeria decided at the last minute to sign its agreement on the sidelines of the conference after Lebanon, which was scheduled to ink its deal, withdrew from the forum.
Although the first day saw Arab foreign ministers storm out of a speech by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, the second was crowned by a minor diplomatic breakthrough when his boss, Shimon Peres, invited EU High Representative Javier Solana to visit besieged Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.
Peres explained that a ‘misunderstanding' was behind Israeli refusal earlier this month to allow EU access to Ramallah and the visit went ahead yesterday. Peres, who had earlier criticised what he called EU ‘anti-Semitism' while addressing AIPAC, an Amerian pro-Israeli lobby group, sounded a conciliatory note in Valencia, saying he recognised that there was a role for the EU to play alongside Washington in ending the spiral of violence.
Nevertheless, experts are divided over whether the Barcelona Process can achieve prosperity and stability in the Euro-Med area without a satisfactory settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, some fear the conflict may undermine the process as the EU's partners spin further apart.
Despite the Commission President Romano Prodi's recent declaration that he wanted to use the Barcelona Process to help resolve the conflict, the executive has so far resisted calls by MEPs and activists to suspend the EU's preferential trade agreement with Israel and has, instead, preferred to engage in “a dialogue of civilisations” with its Mediterranean partners.
Eberhard Rhein, a senior adviser at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think-tank, says the Commission is using the wrong tactics: “The Barcelona Process is not the right forum for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was never meant to be. It should focus on the key issues of socio-economic and political reforms in the countries in the region and how the EU can help with that.”
Other analysts argue that peace in the Middle East is of huge importance to the survival of the Euro-Med partnership. ”The Euro-Med process is based on a false assumption that it is possible to separate economics from (regional) politics,” Alain Dierkhoff, senior research fellow at the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales in Paris, said at a recent seminar in Brussels.
This article appeared in the 25 April 2002 issue of European Voice.