The Mediterranean: A bridge-builder or a barrier?

Euro-Med relations: The framework is there, but not the will

Media reporting on the Arab spring and its aftermath suggests firstly that cooperation between Europe and the Arab states on the Mediterranean is something new, and secondly that there is a “we” and “they”.

Map of the Union for the Mediterranean (Libya observatory status)

The truth is that there is more cooperation between the Arab states and the European Union (EU) than is perceived.

Today the trade volume with the Arab states of the Mediterranean makes up to 10 % of the EU’s external trade (almost 225 billion Euro), according to the European Commission.

Politically, the “Barcelona Declaration” of 1995, signed by the ministers of Foreign Affairs of the then 15 EU members and 14 Mediterranean partners, set the framework for the bilateral relations. Just four years ago the “Union for the Mediterranean” (UfM) was established out of the Barcelona process. “The Mediterranean is a sea that joins” has been the UfM’s key guideline since 2008. Its aim: a Free Trade Area (FTA) across the sea that separates Arabs and Europeans. The visionary: France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy. He saw a shared judicial area and common institutions for the UfM. At the time of its foundation this new “Club Med”, as it was also labelled, was eagerly supported by Egypt and Israel.

On an academic level, there is a lot of research going on. The University of the Mediterranean (EMUNI) was inaugurated in 2008 in Slovenia and offers a number of postgraduate programmes, such as “De-pollution of the Mediterranean”, “Mediterranean Business Development” or “Maritime Land and Highways”. EMUNI also issues the “International Journal of Euro-Mediterranean Studies”.

Thus, there is a huge framework that has been built up for several years on many levels. But why is there still a sense of dichotomy, especially after the Arab spring? Shouldn’t both sides of the sea be more willing to cooperate? Will there ever be a Mediterranean Union modeled on the EU?

The MaG spoke to Almut Möller from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) about current developments in the Euro-Mediterranean area.

Almut Möller, Euro-Med Relations Expert, DGAP

The MaG: Hello Mrs. Möller. Thank you for the possibility to interview you. Could you in brief explain to our readers what the “Union for the Mediterranean” has achieved in the past five years?

A. Möller: Quite frankly I think expectations about the Mediterranean Union launched under the French EU Presidency were overrated from the beginning. Back in 2008, the French President wanted to come up with a new political initiative on the Mediterranean, underpinning France’s leadership ambitions in the EU’s southern neighbourhood. There were red carpets involved, and lots of declarations. The most obvious sign for me that the Union for the Mediterranean had not really gone beyond what had been put in place anyway with the Barcelona Process in the mid-nineties was that it was invisible during the Arab uprisings. Until today, it clearly has not become the nucleus of a new EU Mediterranean Policy.

The MaG: How is the Euro-Crisis affecting cross-Mediterranean relations?

A. Möller: Good question. My observation is that EU countries have gone largely introspective. The euro members have to put a lot of time and energy into finding ways out of the debt crisis. Apart from stabilising heavily indebted euro-zone countries, in the wider perspective it is about how to set up a competitive and yet sustainable economic model within the EU in a globalised world. Some solutions to this challenge might indeed lie in the EU’s neighbourhood, and opening up for the opportunities that can be found in the neighbouring countries might be beneficial for both sides. But I see more of a fortress mentality in Europe at the moment.

The MaG: Of course any relationship has its difficult moments. On the European side, we know that there are skills shortages in Germany. Why wasn’t this country willing to receive experienced migrants from Tunisia, but instead has let Libyan refugees in?

A. Möller: That is exactly what I mean. If you look at the recent EU documents (that are also supported by the EU’s governments), there is the promise of greater mobility for students or businesspeople made by the EU now. But in reality, the numbers are still small and there are a lot of hurdles for visa applicants. EU countries such as Germany have not come to terms yet domestically with the question of how to remain competitive while shrinking. There is no vision on how to transform European societies, and convince Europe’s citizens that opening up might be a good thing.

The MaG: The Arab side seems to perceive this reaction as lack of confidence. I’m thinking about members of American and European NGOs being held in Egypt at the moment. This could be perceived as a response to the “fortress mentatliy” you mentioned.  What to you think of this?

A. Möller: This is a time of transition, and hence, uncertainty, for both Arab countries and the EU. The latter has to understand the fundamental changes in its neighbourhood. And the EU has to realise that in many ways its Mediterranean policies were not successful. In such a time of uncertainty, it is important not to escalate, but to learn how to dialogue better. Europe and the Arab world will stay neighbours – this is a matter of geography. There will have to be some sort of living with each other, and better, ideally in a truly “neighbourly” spirit.

The MaG: Having the current political and financial situation in mind on both sides of the Mediterranean, how close are we to the establishment of the Euro-Mediterranean FTA?

A. Möller: I don’t see this happening any time soon. The EU members simply don’t have enough political will – and do the Arab neighbours want it?

The MaG: What about an Euro-Med Schengen? How long will it take to create an even greater freedom of movement?

A. Möller: I’d like to be optimistic and see the Mediterranean as a sea that facilitates exchange, like it was in ancient times, and not to be a barrier as it is now. But I don’t see it happening. The tendency we see in the EU is rather to close up than to build bridges, I am afraid.

The MaG: Well, let’s hope that the EU will see these chances soon. Thank you!

Text and interview: Josephine Landertinger Forero

Official logo of the Union for the Mediterranean


Further information on Euro-Med relations:

* Union for the Mediterranean

* University EMUNI

* Euro-Mediterranean Partnership

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