Brussels, 7 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- This week (8-10 June) leaders of the seven largest industrialized democracies and Russia, the Group of Eight (G-8), gather in the U.S. state of Georgia for their annual summit.
High on the agenda was to be a controversial U.S. plan to promote democracy in the wider Middle East. The U.S. proposal -- the "Greater Middle East Initiative" -- was later scaled back after being widely criticized.
Now, the EU says it has proposed modifications to the original U.S. plan that make it more realistic and palatable to Middle Eastern societies.
EU officials have long maintained that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict remains crucial to resolving other problems in the region.
Stefano Sannino is a special adviser on G-8 matters to the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi. Speaking to the media in Brussels in the run-up to the G-8 summit, Sannino said the EU had made a considerable impact on the reform blueprint. "This started as an American initiative, but I think we have managed to shape it in a way which is very much in line with our own ideas concerning how to deal with the Middle Eastern region," he said.
Four EU countries are included among the G-8 -- France, Germany, Britain, and Italy. The others are the United States, Canada, Japan, and Russia.
Sannino said that while the "action plan" to be approved by G-8 leaders remains committed to reforms and enhancing freedom, it now does this having taken on board messages from various recent meetings of Arab and Muslim leaders. He said the project now refers to the "Broader Middle East and North Africa," instead of the "Greater Middle East," favored by the United States. However, in a give-and-take with Washington, the EU has had to accept that the plan also covers Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Sannino said the initiative would address all levels of Muslim societies, from governments to civil societies and businesses. He said the EU believes there is a widespread demand for reform in the region. But, he said, cooperation with the West must be based on "partnership and dialogue."
"Essentially, it's based on the idea of partnership and dialogue, on the need for long-term engagement, on the idea that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach; [instead there] will be a recognition of the unique character of all these countries," Sannino said.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among those said to have turned down an invitation for a dinner with G-8 leaders at the margins of the summit.
EU officials, however, are optimistic that Muslim governments can support the plan. In particular, they stress that at the EU's insistence, the G-8 summit document will recognize that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is "key" to the region's future. “[The declaration] also highlights the importance of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict as a core strategic priority, but also underlines the fact that progress -- or lack of progress -- on the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot become an obstacle for reform in the region itself," Sannino said.
EU officials have long maintained that a solution to the conflict remains crucial to resolving other problems in the region. They criticize the United States for downplaying the role played by the conflict.
Discussions on Iraq -- another strong point of disagreement between the United States and at least some EU states -- will also feature prominently at the summit.
The G-8 wider Middle East strategy will retain much of the initial U.S. approach. Sannino said it will still list goals like promoting good governance, democracy, the rule of law, respect of minority rights, the empowerment of women, and a strong emphasis on education. But, Sannino said, crucially for the EU, the plan fully recognizes the bloc's ongoing work in the region. In particular, it will build on the "Barcelona process" launched in 1995 and within the framework of which the EU has invested billions of euros in Mediterranean countries.
"An important element is also the recognition that this partnership will build on existing structures -- the 'Barcelona process' and the [new] neighborhood policy. I would say there is a clear recognition of the fact that the European Union [is] not starting today this process, but [that] we started many years ago with a very clear and strong involvement in the region, and these are really the building blocks on which to develop our plans," Sannino said.
One official, who asked not to be named, said that central to the EU's way of "doing business" in the region is to avoid "patronizing" the partner countries. He said the G-8 blueprint will recognize that goal and will not impose reforms from the outside. He said it will discuss possible solutions and offer "a menu of options to those willing to take them."