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EU: Euro-Med Dialogue An Attempt To Bridge Gulf

Spain, the current European Union president, is claiming this week's summit between the EU and the mainly Islamic countries of the southern Mediterranean region was a success. This is despite the fact that the Mideast conflict practically displaced the original agenda. An action plan was adopted that is designed to strengthen the economic and cultural ties between the EU and the southern Mediterranean. But can words be translated into deeds?

Prague, 25 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Geologists say the continents are drifting apart. Only very slowly, of course. It might take a million years before any noticeable movement occurs.

Political drift happens much faster, however. Take the gap between the countries of the European Union in the north and the mainly Islamic states south and east of the Mediterranean Sea.

Here, Christianity and Islam face each other across the Mediterranean's blue waters. But the two regions have never understood each other particularly well, and now economic disparities between the two are growing, bringing increased risks for instability that could eventually affect both sides.

This week's summit between the EU and the southern Mediterranean states in Valencia, Spain, was meant to give a new vitality to a dialogue that began in 1995 but which has largely languished. The summit was overwhelmed, however, by the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, and the original agenda received scant attention.

Current EU president Spain, with its historic links to the Arab world, had put a high priority on reviving the dialogue at the Valencia summit, and -- despite the distractions -- chief Foreign Ministry spokesman Julio Albi said a fresh start has, in fact, been made.

In particular, he notes that a 14-page action plan was adopted, which covers many aspects of relations, from improving methods of combating terrorism, to encouraging dialogue on human rights, to studying how to increase investment flows into the southern Mediterranean.

"The action plan in itself is a road map which will be implemented little by little, and we think of that as a starting point [on a new path]." Acknowledging that relations between the two regions had been left to drift, he says the EU will not be allowed to lose focus in the future. He describes the so-called Euro-Med process is an "essential part" of both EU and Spanish policy. He says his country intends to continue prioritizing the process, even after the Spanish EU presidency ends in June.

"We will be more than supportive. We will try to lead -- with the presidency of the moment -- whatever is being done in the Mediterranean area. For us, it is vital, for obvious reasons, and certainly we intend to keep working on it."

The new action plan is filled with good intentions. It consists mostly of the commissioning of studies to improve contacts between the two sides in commercial, financial, social, and cultural terms. But words, of course, don't equal actions. For political analyst Tarek Mahmoud of the Middle East News Agency, many of the issues raised in the action plan should have been settled long ago.

He says the Europeans have an "ambiguity" toward Islam and believes they have underestimated the complexity of the situation because they have failed to realize that there is not one but "several civilizations" in the southern Mediterranean. He also suggests the present European desire to help the region is linked to a new perception.

"For the first time, the countries of the European Union are realizing the risk that fundamentalists pose -- or [should I say] extremists -- because whether they represent Islam or Judaism or nationalism, they always constitute a risk for democracy." The action plan refers to a Euro-Med partnership in security matters to combat terrorism, and Mahmoud notes that since the 11 September attacks on the United States, the spirit of international cooperation has, in fact, grown.

"Now there is a much more fruitful judicial cooperation, and increased security cooperation, because security is indivisible. One cannot guard the security in one area to the detriment of other areas. That is just not the game. And 11 September, in my view, has demonstrated that."

Another view of the situation comes from Philippe Moreau de Farge, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations. He says the Euro-Med process, which also is known as the "Barcelona process," is basically flawed because of the conflicts in the region.

He says the necessary political stability is lacking that would allow economic development to take place. He mentions not only the Arab-Israeli conflict but also the violence in Algeria and tensions in Egypt. He says the necessary private investment flow from Europe to the southern Mediterranean will not take place while the region remains unstable. And he doubts the ability of the EU to achieve political stability in the region.

"The European Union is able to achieve many things in terms of economic development, but today it is [still] unable to do things in the basic field of conflict resolution. And the Barcelona process cannot take off unless the political conditions are fulfilled." Moreau de Farge says that in the case of Algeria and Egypt, they must act themselves to restore political stability. In the case of the larger Israeli-Arab conflict, he says, U.S. involvement is necessary.