Looking south instead of west

 
 

As Europe develops relations with her African neighbours; David Uwakwe examines what this will mean both inside and outside the EU.

On the 3rd and 4th November, a meeting of EU Foreign Affairs ministers in Marseilles drew up a final declaration for the ‘Barcelona Process: Union for Mediterranean’.

Here they signed off on the agreed institutional structures for a closer partnership between the EU and ten North African and Middle Eastern states, the aim of which is to promote greater economic, political and cultural ties within the Mediterranean and between that region and the rest of Europe.

It is the culmination of a process that began with the Barcelona Declaration in 1995 signed by the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the (then) 15 EU member states and the non-member states of Algeria, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey.

The main objective of this new initiative was to add to the traditional bilateral EU-Mediterranean relations the requisite social, economic and political structures to better achieve an area of peace, prosperity and cultural understanding. The long-term goal being the creation of free trade area encompassing all 37 states by 2010. In July of this year, at a meeting in Paris an appraisal was made of how far the process had advanced, what weaknesses needed addressing and what strengths could be built upon.

It was agreed that the visibility and public awareness of the project should be enhanced and the political imbalance between the EU and its partner countries redressed in order to instill a sense of co-ownership of the enterprise. To this end two new institutional bodies were created. A co-presidency of two years shared between the President of the European Council and a representative from the Mediterranean partner countries.

The other measure was the creation of a Brussels-based Joint Permanent Committee composed of appointed representatives from each member state, the Mediterranean partner states and the European Commission. These will in future complement the existing Secretariat and Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary assembly.

Although it would be generous to attribute the 6.4 per cent growth rate in North Africa entirely to the Barcelona Process, most of it was due to high oil and commodity prices and market reforms. The nearly 20 billion euro spent to date by the European Commission and the European Investment Bank on projects relating to the partnership was undoubtedly a contributing factor. A further six billion euro has been budgeted for Union for the Mediterranean from 2007 – 2013.

The benefits of this are mutual and manifold. Security of energy supply and a desire to wean Europe off Russian oil and gas, for both political and environmental reasons, is upper most on the EU’s agenda. One of the provisions of the Union and a significant restriction of civil liberties.”

Saudi Arabia remains an unusual place; Saudi identity remains closely linked to its position as the guardian of Islam’s two holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina. However, the Kingdom’s oil wealth and close relationship with the United States has given radical movements cause to doubt the religious sincerity of the Saudi regime.

The region is primed to capitalise on the next economic upswing when it comes and position itself favourably in the predicted new world order that sees the decline of US power and the rise of Asia and Russia

The Saudi ruling family finds itself caught in a dilemma and seems unsure how to best to resolve it— on one hand, it enforces a draconian set of laws on its citizens, on the other, it maintains a strategic partnership with the US and Europe. The danger now exists that American and European leaders will ignore the broader causes of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, in favour of greater stability in oil production during an economically troublesome period.

British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown led a trade delegation to Saudi Arabia at the start of November. Given the recent credit crunch, he was calling on Middle Eastern countries to contribute to the International Monetary Fund’s bailout reserves. The IMF has been depleted by over $30 billion of late as Iceland, Hungary and the Ukraine made emergency cash calls.

Brown met with King Abdullah in Riyadh; a spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office claimed that the two men discussed business matters only and that any other topics of conversation would have been inappropriate given the reason for the meeting.

It is amongst the backdrop of the financial crisis that the 72 hunger strikers have chosen to take their stand – Saudi Arabia has never looked as economically powerful as it does now and the West desperately requires financial assistance from cash rich Middle Eastern countries.

Furthermore, the West remains overwhelmingly reliant on OPEC, the oil cartel, to serve its energy needs. At a meeting of the cartel on 24th October, it was agreed that given the falling price of oil worldwide, production cuts must be made. Saudi Arabia, the largest supplier of oil in the cartel cut production by 500,000 barrels for the Mediterranean calls for the creation of an integrated gas market.

This will go a considerable way towards ensuring a more secure energy supply and will also lessen Europe’s dependence on Russia. The creation of a free trade area where a market economy is fostered, taxes and tariffs reduced or abolished and red tape is slashed, will further augment the economic growth and cooperation of the last decade.

In the Middle East peace process, the Union for the Mediterranean could also have play a very significant role. The hope in this regard is to replicate the conditions that have ensured that no war has been waged on European soil for over 60 years, based on the dictum that the more politically, economically and socially integrated countries are, the less likely they are to be hostile.

The Union for the Mediterranean is in the unique position of hosting nearly all the interested parties and observers of the conflict in a regular and intimate forum that constantly seeks to encourage ever more cooperation amongst its members.

The big issues underpinning the Arab-Israeli conflict will no doubt often be addressed, but should they trip over the same hurdles that they have been for decades, it should not stall the continuing process of economic integration in the hope that the mutual benefits accrued from this might, with time, ameliorate ethnic antagonisms.

In 2006 an estimated 30,000 Africans tried to make it into Spain on desperately overcrowded, ramshackle vessels, many losing their lives in the process. Those that do make it are often subject to exploitation; eking out a precarious living and in constant danger of deportation, many turn to criminality playing neatly into the hands of xenophobes and racists leading potentially to social unrest.

From the EU’s point of view a prosperous and stable southern Mediterranean offers a growing market for its goods and services, a safer haven for foreign direct investment and tourism and clean energy opportunities. Stronger economies in the south mean more jobs and hence, less illegal migration to Europe, in search of work and a better life.

Clearly the Union for the Mediterranean is timely in its arrival and comprehensive in its approach. If many of its ideals are loftier than its reach it can still make some real differences in the lives of people in the region. It could also become the main peace broker in the Middle East with the advantage that whatever, if any, agreements are reached in the Arab-Israeli conflict will have come from the region itself and not appear to have been imposed by the ‘West’.

This would provide a consensus on its legitimacy in the Arab world that might be lacking otherwise. With a combined population of around 700 million people in nearly 40 countries, soon to be one expansive free trade area, the region is primed to capitalise on the next economic upswing when it comes and position itself favourably in the predicted new world order, which sees the decline of US power and the rise of Asia and Russia.

In such a scenario it will be in the interests of all the countries in the Union that it does attain its objectives successfully as only then can many of the smaller countries it includes have any chance of getting their voices heard over the rumblings of those future behemoths.

Advertisements