BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – Leaders of the EU nations, Israel and its neighbors open a summit Sunday at which Europe will push for a quantum leap in relations by linking billions of euros (dollars) in economic aid to sweeping democratic and other reforms on the Mediterranean”s southern and eastern rims.
On Saturday, senior officials met to finalize three statements the 35 Euro-Mediterranean leaders planned to issue, including one committing them to combat terrorism.
The summit starts two days after the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, marking the first time Palestinians will be in charge of an international border. The event has bolstered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas” message that independence can only be won through negotiations.
The European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel making her debut appearance at an international gathering, will likely use the opening of the Rafah border crossing to urge Israel and the Palestinians to stay the course toward a peaceful settlement of their conflict.
The EU will deploy scores of border monitors under a deal with Israel which ran the Rafah crossing before its withdrawal from the Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not expected to show up after his decision this week to abandon the right-wing Likud alliance and start a new party. Another no-show will be Syrian President Bashar Assad, who was disinvited for allegedly orchestrating the Feb. 14 murder of ex- Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in a Beirut truck bombing that killed 20 other people.
The Europeans look to their southern neighbors to jointly denounce terrorism and distance Islam from the notion that their religion condones the mindless, large-scale murder of innocent people.
The summit brings together the 25 EU leaders and those from Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. The EU is using the event to put its relations with Israel and its Arab neighbors on a new footing, linking EU economic and other aid to democratic and across the board other reforms in the Mediterranean basin.
Its goal, first set out in 1995, remains to help Israel and its neighbors make the Mideast a region of "peace, stability and prosperity" on the back of a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010.
This has not worked well in the past decade. The rise of Islamic terrorism, the Iraq war and the resistance of some Arab nations to enact democratic and economic reforms have left the vision of a peaceful, prosperous Middle East in shambles, despite ¤20 billion (US$23.6 billion) in grants and soft loans, mostly for Israel”s Arab neighbors.
From now on the EU wants Arab nations to show a much greater commitment to protecting human rights, launching good governance and sensible free-market economic policies. If they do so, the EU will open its market to their goods and services, and will provide economic and other aid in a broad range of such as trade, migration, justice, transport, energy, environment and education.
The EU now spends ¤3 billion (US$3.5 billion) a year in grants and soft loans on its southern neighbors. The Barcelona summit is to produce a five-year work program and a "Common Vision" statement that will recommit Euro-Mediterranean leaders to crafting a free trade zone by 2010.
Driving the EU bid for a shifting of gears is the fact that the past decade has not made the Middle East a safe place, despite efforts by the EU to spend billions to raise living standards.
Today, says Javier Solana, the EU security affairs chief, the region has become "a crossroads of all the perils of the modern world," including poverty, terrorism, undemocratic governments, uncontrolled migrations, disproportionate population growth, a proliferation of weapons and little trade among nations in the region.