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EU: Brussels Preoccupied With East, Perceived As Neglecting Arab Neighbors

Criticism has surfaced that the European Union is so preoccupied with its plans for expansion into Central and Eastern Europe that it is neglecting its southern Mediterranean neighbors. Given that most of those neighbors are Arab, and that the area is politically volatile, that could be a costly mistake at a time when Islamic extremism and international terrorism present new threats.

Prague, 1 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's drive to expand eastward has consumed much of the bloc's time and energy over the last decade. The task of bringing 10 new members from Central and Eastern Europe into the union is certainly complicated, and it will continue for years.

But some analysts say this focus on expansion has caused the EU to neglect its neighbors around the Mediterranean rim -- a string of Islamic countries from Morocco to Turkey, often beset by poor economic conditions and in some cases by severe instability.

A senior analyst with the European Policy Center, Eberhard Rhein, says the quality of relations between the EU and the Mediterranean states does not bear comparison with the ties built up between the East and West Europeans. He told RFE/RL from Brussels: "Both sides have not been able -- for whatever reasons, which ought to be analyzed -- to establish the very deep and fundamental relations which we have established in the last 12 years with the [Eastern European] accession countries. The parallel movement with the Mediterranean countries has been disappointing, and it's been disappointing probably because we have to deal not with democracies, but with secretive states."

True, the European Union and the Mediterranean rim countries are linked through the EuroMed cooperative agreement signed in Barcelona in 1995. But this agreement, with its regular consultations, has largely failed to animate ties between the two sides.

Given the rise of Islamic extremism, and its connection to international terrorism, some say that's an omission that could cost the EU dearly. Analyst Rhein, for instance, notes a common element in the string of recent arrests in Europe for alleged involvement in terror-related activities: "It is only Mediterraneans that have been arrested, those who were trying to place a bomb in Strasbourg, and at the [U.S.] embassy in Paris. Who are they? Not Poles, not French, not Belgians. There was a Moroccan, a Palestinian, an Algerian, maybe there was a Saudi."

Rhein sees the Mediterranean countries as what he calls an arc of instability surrounding Europe. Apart from being a possible breeding ground for terrorism, he cites the threat of other criminal activities in the region, such as increased drug-smuggling and human-trafficking, plus illegal immigration on a mass scale.

Sharing some of the same concerns about EU relations with the Mediterranean is Cristina Muscardini, an Italian member of the European Parliament. She is calling for the EU to devote more attention to the region, including appointing more expert-level staff and using more of the funds already made available under the EuroMed agreement.

In a recent report to the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, Muscardini pointed out that three-quarters of the funds from the 1995 to 1999 budget under EuroMed have not yet been spent. That amounts to several billion dollars.

She also called for more of the present five-year budget -- amounting to some 45 billion -- to be disbursed. She said the "correct relationship" should be re-established between funding for Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region.

As to staffing levels in the European Commission, a recent report (European Voice, 17 October) says that only two out of five senior positions dealing with programs and policy development for the Mediterranean region are presently filled. By contrast, the enlargement process has an entire directorate-general devoted to it, under a separate commissioner, Guenter Verheugen.

However, an EU affairs specialist -- professor Emil Kirschner of Essex University in England -- is not alarmed at the overall situation. He tells RFE/RL that, "by definition," there needs to be a certain preoccupation by the EU with the expansion process: "The [European] Commission has a small staff relatively speaking -- some 20,000 people in total -- and it has to allocate its time in the most efficient way, and therefore there is a certain bias towards Central and Eastern Europe."

Kirschner says the Eastern candidates themselves are impatient to press on and do not want the EU to be distracted.

"By the nature of things, you have to say that the [Eastern] accession process has been going on for 10 years. These countries get very frustrated -- Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. They do expect some clearer signals, and we are basically now on the threshold of concluding the [membership] negotiations, and it would be a shame to sideline that."

Kirschner sees the EU's present links with the southern Mediterranean countries as sufficient to help keep the region stable. But he acknowledges there could be problems in the future and says the EU is moving to meet these: "There's absolutely no doubt that the EU will now swing behind American focuses, in terms of looking at the Middle East. I think everyone realizes that's where the cancer really started in 1947, and has festered. And unless we deal with that more constructively, we will have a long-term problem."

Analyst Rhein sees the way toward a successful future both in terms of economic development and in increased democratization in the region: "The basic problem is that these countries need to be developed. We cannot allow a rift between a $20,000 Europe [in terms of individual incomes] compared to a $3,000 south Mediterranean. These are problems. We have to help them overcome their problems. But the problems can only be overcome if they are willing to tackle their [system] of governance. That's the key."

Rhein says that, come what may, the European Union and the Islamic countries of the southern Mediterranean will remain neighbors and therefore cannot afford to ignore each others' interests.