European leaders attempt to regain initiative after being criticised for slow reaction to uprisings across Maghreb by debating whether to allow more imports of farm produce from North Africa to bolster the region's economy..
EU may open market to North African economies
BRUSSELS // The European Union is debating whether to allow more imports of farm produce from North Africa to bolster the troubled region's economy.
EU foreign ministers began talks in Brussels yesterday aimed at agreeing on aid for southern Mediterranean rim states. While Germany backs opening markets to agriculture products, France and southern EU members with large farming industries have reservations about such a move, said a diplomat from the 27-nation EU.
Shada Islam, an analyst at the Brussels-based Friends of Europe policy advisory group, said: "The first priority for North Africa is to get the economy going. The best move would be for the EU to open its markets. In theory, the EU is open to the region's agricultural goods but in practice they face tariff and non-tariff barriers."
The German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle s,aid in a commentary on February 17 in Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel newspaper: "Europe must open its markets for further products from the region."
EU ministers will agree on a package aimed at supporting the democratic transformation of the region, the diplomat said, adding that future payouts of European aid funds should be more closely linked to meeting terms set by the bloc.
Europe is sending its top diplomat to Egypt this week and reassessing aid priorities to avoid being seen as turning a blind eye to authoritarian regimes.
The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, travels to Cairo today to show support for Egypt's transition, becoming the first senior Western official to visit Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was ousted.
A European diplomat said: "The events in the region underline that EU assistance to the neighbourhood hasn't always delivered what we hoped it would, so the conclusion is how we make EU support to the region more conditional."
The Italian foreign minister ,Franco Frattini, wants Europe to draw up a development and stability pact for the region linked to commitments to improve governance, meet international obligations and respect individual rights.
"Europe must act quickly, or this 'arc of crisis' will lead to more illegal immigration, terrorism and Islamic radicalisation," warned Mr Frattini, whose country has struggled to cope with a flood of Tunisian migrants over the last two weeks.
Criticised for their support of authoritarian regimes as a bulwark against Islamic extremists, EU leaders signalled at a summit this month their intent to offer "more effective support" to countries "which are pursuing political and economic reforms."
Six EU Mediterranean countries - France, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Slovenia - sent a letter to Lady Ashton calling for a review of the way the bloc distributes aid through its European Neighbourhood Policy programme.
A mood is developing that could see more aid sent south and less to eastern, former Soviet neighbours.
The current EU chair, Hungary, has already had to cancel a summit with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine planned for May, and an eastern EU diplomat said that just maintaining their overall numbers would be a positive result now.
In a letter to Lady Ashton, Mr Westerwelle said the revolutions present Europe with a "unique opportunity right now" to promote democracy and human rights in its neighbourhood.
"What we are witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt, but not only there, is a turning point, a historic watershed. Nothing will be as it was before," he wrote.