x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Tense political rivalries may hinder plans of new union

Several obstacles stand in the way of getting the Mediterranean countries together to bring wealth and stability to the region.

Children fill buckets with water in the Temara shanty town in Morocco. Union for the Mediterranean has vowed for education in the region.
Children fill buckets with water in the Temara shanty town in Morocco. Union for the Mediterranean has vowed for education in the region.

TANGIER, MOROCCO // With barbarians at the gates of Rome, the last emperor abdicated in 476, and for 15 centuries a kaleidoscope of subsequent powers and potentates has struggled vainly to impose order on the Mediterranean world. Last week, dozens of leaders and intellectuals from Mediterranean countries gathered in Tangier for a three-day conference on prospects for the latest bid, a brainchild of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, called the Union for the Mediterranean. The idea is to use co-operation on trade and development among the 43 member states to bring wealth and stability to one of the world's most volatile regions. But several big obstacles stand in the way, notably tense relations between Morocco and Algeria, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Libya, whose leader, Moamer Qadafi, has criticised the project and held his country at observer status.

Meanwhile, ballooning membership, questions over funding and internal jockeying for influence also complicate the union, analysts said. Down the beach from the hotel where the conference was held, scenes of rain-lashed poverty evoked the divide separating the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. A few steps from the sea, working-class Moroccans idled in the cafes, gazing at Spanish headlands thrusting above the Strait of Gibraltar. From secluded beaches, young men desperate for jobs set off by night across the water in flimsy inflatable boats.

Morocco has experienced economic growth recently, but still struggles with about 14 per cent unemployment and is embroiled in political tensions with neighbouring Algeria that keep the countries' border closed, blocking trade. With political rivalries criss-crossing the region, the difficulties faced by the union go beyond the basic wealth gap between northern and southern countries, said Rory Miller, a senior lecturer in Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King's College London. "It's not Europe versus the southern Mediterranean - it's the Mediterranean versus the Mediterranean."

Mr Sarkozy has characterised his initiative as modelled partly on the European Union, where integration - first economic, then political - has helped bury old enmities and enable countries to prosper. "We will build peace in the Mediterranean together, like yesterday we built peace in Europe," he declared at the union's official launch in Paris in July. Topping the list is finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has frustrated would-be peacemakers for decades.

"The union extricates the Israelis and the Palestinians from the mental ghetto that is the conflict," said Schlomo Benami, a former Israeli foreign minister, who took part in last week's conference. "It's useful for them to meet in an Arab country - it gives a sense that things are possible." But Hassan Abderahmane, the Palestinian Authority's ambassador to Morocco, is looking for more than words. "We've over-negotiated," said Mr Abderahmane, who shared the platform with Mr Benami. "It's time for action."

Action of a kind is coming, said Bernardino Leon, the secretary general of the presidency of Spain, where the city of Barcelona will host the union's headquarters. "Practical co-operation will allow us to overcome political differences." So far, the union has vowed to fight pollution, promote solar energy, build land and sea highways, and co-operate on education. European countries would have to finance such projects, said Taji Eddine el Houssaini, an economics professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has said that up to US$20.6 billion (Dh75.7bn) in EU funds are available. But additional funding will have to come through private sector investment, Mr Houssaini said. That means southern countries must reform to attract more investors, he said. "They must fight corruption and bureaucracy, modernise their administrations and improve the credibility of their justice systems." The union itself risks becoming unwieldy as various players have scrambled for influence, Mr Miller said. When Mr Sarkozy first proposed the union during his 2007 presidential campaign, it included only countries with a Mediterranean coastline. Since then, the entire EU has climbed aboard and the Arab League has won a role in decision-making - moves to dilute French, then European influence, Mr Miller said. After further power-sharing compromises sealed last month, the previously lean governing structure now has two co-presidents, a secretary general, and five deputy secretary generals parcelled out among northern and southern members. Today the Union for the Mediterranean encompasses 43 countries, about 800 million inhabitants, and a geographical space stretching from Mauritania to Finland. The danger is that the project will go the way of the Barcelona Process, an EU-led programme of dialogue and economic co-operation with the southern shore of the Mediterranean launched in 1995 that has stalled on Arab-Israeli disputes, Mr Miller said. "There's nothing wrong with countries talking," Mr Miller said. "But this could become just another talking shop." jthorne@thenational.ae