Amid that flurry of activity, Fathallah Sijilmassi, the secretary-general of the Union for the Mediterranean, which organized both the Paris and Tunis conferences, spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat about his vision for the organization at a time when many of its members are experiencing political and economic crises.
While the Union is not primarily focused on resolving domestic political issues, the events of the past few years—notably the Arab Spring and the European economic crises—have forced its members to reimagine the Union and its function.
In the Southern Mediterranean in particular, the Arab Spring created unprecedented instability in countries like Egypt, creating obstacles to the economic development projects the Union is focused on implementing. Originally from Morocco, Sijilmassi stressed the need to create flexible programs that promote both infrastructure and social development, which have been his key interests since he became the head of the organization in 2012.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Given how many conferences and forums focus on employment, what new things has the Tunisian conference offered?
Fathallah Sijilmassi: The Tunisian conference offered an opportunity to launch the Mediterranean Initiative for Jobs, which the Union of the Mediterranean is sponsoring in order to create employment opportunities for youth and women, to bridge the existing gap between supply and demand, and to promote a culture of initiative and private-sector development. The initiative focuses on three essential points. The first is addressing training, meaning supplying the necessary knowledge and skills to those joining the job market, preparing them to meet the needs of the job market in the Mediterranean region.
The second essential point is benefiting from successful initiatives and experiences in the employment sector and reproducing and applying them to countries that could benefit from the exchange of expertise and programs. Most importantly, the agencies associated with the job market will have to adapt to playing an intermediary role between institutions and companies on the one hand, and those looking for work on the other. It should be noted that many companies are unaware of the potential available in the employment sector, while those looking for employment are unaware of available opportunities and assistance agencies.
The third essential point addresses how to help innovative youths achieve their goals. We didn’t want to address the issue from a theoretical perspective alone, so we launched a project we named “Injaz al-Arab.” Though headquartered in Jordan, it will cover all of the Arab Mediterranean nations: there is Injaz Morocco and Injaz Algeria. Soraya Salti runs the program from Amman.
Injaz al-Arab is an NGO working to create a relationship between heads of companies and institutions and young people looking to start their projects after graduating from college. Master’s students will receive special, practical training allowing them to start their projects once they have finished their studies.
Q: What agencies will be funding this project?
Through the conference, we completed a contract between Injaz and an Egyptian investment fund in order to help fund the project and move it forward. We at the Union for the Mediterranean hope to share expertise and provide funding. Today, we have a number of projects that have made considerable progress with agencies in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. We want to take the opportunity to call on the youth in Arab Mediterranean nations to submit their projects. If the projects meet specific criteria, they may be selected and put under the banner of the Union for the Mediterranean, which will enable them to get the necessary funding.
Through these initiatives, we hope to make the Union an agency for development in the Mediterranean. Our goal is to track economic and social development in the various countries with a focus on regional cooperation, promulgating successful initiatives, and setting goals. Of course, our role is to facilitate shared initiatives.
Q: Does this conference represent a new philosophy for the Union for the Mediterranean after the goals of the first phase proved difficult to achieve, given the political difficulties and unrest the Arab world is facing? Have massive infrastructure projects been abandoned in favor of a focus on social and humanitarian aspects?
Correct. There is a new direction reflecting both a political desire and the need to be more pragmatic. In the face of the undeniable obstacles and huge political difficulties in the region, we only have two choices. Either we can throw our hands up and do nothing, or we can be determined to continue and accomplish something. We must be pragmatic. Forty-three members decided to continue with the work the Union for the Mediterranean was doing. We were able to hold a ministers’ conference in Paris a few days ago on strengthening the role of women in Mediterranean societies. Then we held a conference in Tunisia on employment, and we will hold a ministers’ conference in Brussels on November 14 regarding transportation issues. Before the end of the year, on December 11, we will also hold a ministers’ conference in Brussels on energy, where we hope to adopt the Mediterranean Solar Plan. All of these conferences are a political indication of the collective desire to maintain the framework of regional cooperation in the Mediterranean.
What is meant by the pragmatic approach? How is it being practically applied?
The pragmatic approach is focused on three basic tenets. First is the focus on social, economic and humanitarian growth in order to advance as far as possible for the future. Second, we depend on the principle of “dynamic geography” in executing our projects in that we work in specific regions—Morocco, the Balkans. . . This important principle means that we don’t have to get all 43 nations together every time we want to launch a project, but all of the work is still done in the framework of the Union. The third tenet is making the Union for the Mediterranean the collective base for all institutions that want to work in the Mediterranean region, a framework for establishing what we call ‘building Mediterranean consensus.’ The Union has responded to the reality of the times with this new approach, which we hope to maintain and adapt.
Q: Is there a consensus regarding this approach?
Of course. I want to say that these principles enjoy complete support from the 43 member nations because they, in my opinion, have realized a number of valuable projects and prepared other programs. I can say that in 2012 and 2013, it was necessary to work under this model and put things on track. And 2014 will see larger projects to enrich the Union’s contribution in two sectors. First, in the heavy infrastructure sector—airports, ports, maritime routes—we are working on a number of projects like the desalination plant in Gaza, Morocco’s highways, and solar power. These projects need three factors to be realized: political desire, technical expertise for execution, and appropriate funding. This sector the base that I want the Union to stand upon.
The second sector involves the humanitarian interests that we hope to develop, which give priority to women and youth in civil society and students. In this sector we have projects that cost less than the infrastructure projects, but which are more pressing, have a real impact, and require less time to implement. I want to add that in the framework of my current job, I hope to focus on the second sector, as I think that the region is particularly in need of this type of work. This can increase the value of the Union without forsaking the infrastructure sector.
Q: How can the Union avoid the difficulties stemming from all the unrest seen in the south and east of the region and the economic crises in Europe?
We are an organization that, by its nature, deals primarily with governments, whatever they are. We are also a base for connecting the private and public sectors and civil society and NGOs. We are reasonable about what we hope to accomplish. Naturally, we are aware of the current developments in the region, but we are active in sectors that are not in dispute where solutions can be agreed upon by all. When we launch initiatives for the youth, employment, and helping create projects, I don’t see who has an interest in opposing that. We strive to achieve results, and therefore work with everyone and welcome anyone who wants to add his brick to the building. I think that we can make progress and help lighten the burden of the problems that the region is suffering from.
Q: Can those associated with the Union for the Mediterranean be certain that it will continue its work?
I think that this is the situation. I don’t want to speak for the 43 member nations, but my personal impression is that the Union for the Mediterranean is an important player in regional cooperation in the Mediterranean. This is the role it was created for.
Q: Do you have the means to continue playing this role?
Our means aren’t limitless, but I can say that we have the means to enable us to continue this work. My goal for the end of 2015 is to have strengthened the Union politically and financially. The Union deserves it. It can be a powerful force for development and growth in the region.