Med states treated as poor relations for too long

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Series Details Vol.7, No.37, 11.10.01, p9
Publication Date 11/10/2001
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Date: 11/10/01

By Simon Coss

Extremist ideas have always prospered where people are poor, desperate or feel they have nothing to lose, so it should come as no surprise that the turmoil which has gripped much of the southern Mediterranean for years has proved a fertile breeding ground for the kinds of fanatics who apparently carried out last month's atrocities in America.

Of course, any lasting solution to the southern Mediterranean's problems can only come from the states in the region - the most urgent need being a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

But the West, and in particular the EU, can and should do more to encourage the reform process. For despite the flurry of declarations made since 11 September, the southern Mediterranean has not been among the Union's priorities for more than a decade. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the EU's overriding foreign concern has been the central and eastern European countries (CEECs), a process which has evolved into a policy of preparing them for EU membership.

No one seriously disputes the wisdom of this approach: the next enlargement of the Union will be arguably the most important development in the EU's history since the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

But some analysts argue that in its drive to respond to the challenge of enlargement, the Union has taken its eye off the ball in other regions. Eberhard Rhein, an expert on Middle East politics with the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC), recently criticised what he saw as the "lack on the part of the EU to get more profoundly involved in the reform process of the Med countries as it did in the case of central and eastern Europe".

He points out that the EU spends roughly 10 times as much per capita on helping the CEECs ready themselves for Union membership as it does on encouraging reforms in the southern Mediterranean.

The relative importance the EU gives the CEECs compared to its southern neighbours can also be seen in the way the European Commission is organised. While an entire directorate has been set up to deal with enlargement, relations with the southern Mediterranean are handled by two small departments.

The first, directorate F of the Commission's directorate-general afor external relations (DG Relex) deals with programming and policy development for the region. The second, directorate B in the newly-created EuropeAid office, is tasked with ensuring that the policies and all programmes are carried out properly on the ground. Both are understaffed.

Directorate F should have five full-time senior officials dealing with different aspects of the EU's policy in the Mediterranean. But at present only two of these posts have been filled; the others are occupied by stand-in staff. This means that DG Relex has no permanent senior expert on Israel and the Mashrek (Egypt, Jordan, Palestinian Authority, Lebanon and Syria), the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) or region-wide issues. Directorate F also has no full-time director.

The EuropeAid office has around 100 officials working in the region, but they have to oversee around 8,000 separate contracts in 12 different countries. "The Commission has between three and four times fewer staff to deal with projects in the region compared with other international agencies,"

one EuropeAid official who asked not to be named told European Voice. Commission workers say this lack of personnel is by far the biggest problem hindering EU action in the southern Mediterranean.

Unlike Rhein, they insist that the EU actually has a relatively generous budget managed under the MEDA programme. This was set up following the EuroMed agreement between the EU and 12 southern Mediterranean states in Barcelona in 1995.

It is designed to encourage democratic and free market reforms and has a budget of around €5.3 billion for 2000-2006. But one of the consequences of the understaffing is that much of this money may never get spent.

In a recent report for the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, Italian MEP Cristina Muscardini pointed out that 74 of the €3.4-billion MEDA budget for 1995-99 still has not been used.

She called for a "realistic increase" in staff in Brussels and the Commission's Mediterranean delegations. Muscardini agrees with Rhein that the Union should spend more of the €5.3 billion allocated to MEDA for the next five years, saying that it needs to "restore the correct relationship between the funds earmarked for the central and eastern European countries and those earmarked for Mediterranean partners".

Other critics of the current approach to regional development in the Middle East say that member states are only really interested in the southern Mediterranean when there is a crisis. Last week it was almost impossible to avoid bumping into a western foreign minister, secretary of state or EU troika, for example. But the regular ministerial meetings which have been an integral part of the EuroMed process since 1995 have proved less enticing for the big shots. "Half the ministers fail to turn up," one Commission official admitted. The EU could improve its policy in the southern Mediterranean with relative ease. The framework for action already exists.

What is needed is the political will and the resources to make MEDA work as its architects intended. That could mean governments thinking the unthinkable and agreeing to increase the Union's budget.

The events of 11 September proved beyond doubt that the Union's policy in the southern Mediterranean is no longer just a question of regional development. For member states, it is now very much a matter of national self-interest.

Major analysis of the EU's policy towards the Mediterranean region.

Countries / Regions ,