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EU: Spain To Reinvigorate European Ties With Islamic Neighbors

The new presidency of the European Union says it is determined to better understand and help the Muslim and Arab countries that are the Union's neighbors along the southern Mediterranean. Spain, the incoming president, has plans to revitalize the existing "EuroMed" program to emphasize both economic development support and cultural links.

Prague, 21 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Spain, which on 1 January takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union, is setting as a priority the improvement of the Union's ties with the Islamic states around the southern Mediterranean.

Developing these relations has become more important since the international terrorist crisis broke upon the world on 11 September. That's because the states strung across the top of Africa -- from Morocco in the west to Egypt in the east and on northward through Lebanon -- are perceived as a zone of potentially growing instability, whose problems are already impacting Europe.

Populations in the region are exploding, economies are mostly in poor shape, and illegal emigration to Europe is becoming a tidal wave. Crime is also a factor, in the form of drugs transport and human trafficking.

Counselor Fidel Sentagorta of the Spanish Diplomatic Mission in Brussels explains that his country is working to enhance both economic and cultural links within the existing "EuroMed" cooperative framework. As to culture, he says, "After 11 September, we felt there is more need to know each other better, to have better perceptions of one another, so we want to work also on that side, because we feel there is also a deficit of understanding between the Western world and Islam."

One of the states in the region, Algeria, has suffered from an ongoing Islamic insurgency, in which thousands have died in almost a decade of conflict. Despite that, the EU and Algeria on 19 December initialed an agreement liberalizing trade and increasing cooperation on political and security issues, including terrorism. Algeria will join countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan -- and, prospectively, Lebanon -- in having such an agreement with Brussels. The agreements commit signatories to respect democratic norms.

Sentagorta says the so-called association agreements are a key part of the EU's economic development strategy for the region. But he adds that there are other elements as well.

"All these agreements establish the perspective of a free trade area with the Union in a certain time -- it depends on each country, but in seven, eight, 10 years' time. It's important that we are encouraging them to do more in south-south trade, because otherwise they will liberalize their trade with us, with the Union, but they are not creating a big market among themselves, which would be attractive for investors."

Sentagorta says that European investors up to now have preferred to take their money to almost any other region of the world, from Latin America to Russia, with less than 2 percent of investment going to the southern Mediterranean region. He says the Spanish presidency aims to make the region more attractive to investors, through south-south integration. In addition, Spain's Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has suggested the creation of a development bank for the Mediterranean, which would aim to finance the private sector.

A focal point of the Spanish EU presidency will be the EuroMed summit, to be held in the Spanish city of Valencia next April. It's hoped the summit will generate a new and more positive atmosphere between the two sides.

Eberhard Rhein, a senior analyst with the European Policy Center in Brussels, says the EU badly needs to overhaul its relations with the Mediterranean region, and to increase the level of assistance to it. "They have a dire need to get their economies and their social systems straight, and their governance straight -- because if you do not, you may find situations which are unpleasant, like the one you find now in Argentina, where [financial crisis] means the situation does not progress."

Rhein says relations between the Arab countries of the southern Mediterranean and the EU have long been stagnating, and he blames that in part on the Union's preoccupation with the coming eastward expansion.

"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] accession countries. The parallel movement with the Mediterranean countries has been disappointing." Rhein adds that there are many "incalculable" risks stemming from the region, and action is needed.

He says the timing of the Spanish presidency is fortunate, in that the Spanish, with their long exposure to the Muslim world and proximity to Africa, naturally bring more sensitivity about this region than could be expected, say, from the Scandinavians.