Mideast crisis threat to Euro-Med partnership

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Mideast crisis threat to Euro-Med partnership By Roula Khalaf in London Published: November 5 2000 19:45GMT | Last Updated: November 5 2000 21:51GMT

The Middle East crisis is threatening to derail the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, a European Union-inspired process to bring southern Mediterranean countries into a free trade area.

Syria and Lebanon indicated at the weekend they were considering a boycott of the 27-nation meeting of European and southern Mediterranean foreign ministers, set to open in Marseilles on November 15. The move would be in protest against the participation of Israel.

The Euro-Med partnership, referred to as the Barcelona process, has been a rare forum bringing together Arabs and Israelis. Started in 1995, it has sought to strengthen relations between the EU and southern Mediterranean countries through association agreements encouraging economic reforms with a view to setting up a Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010.

Although progress has been held hostage to the vicissitudes of the peace process as well as to bureaucratic hurdles in Brussels, countries such as Tunisia and Morocco see the Barcelona process as key to their integration in the world economy and to attracting much needed foreign direct investment.

In 1995, the EU committed a financial package worth more than $5bn to help its developing partners. A new programme of financial assistance is to be presented in Marseilles.

According to European officials, several states, including Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, have indicated their readiness to participate in the Marseilles meeting in spite of a call by an emergency Arab summit last month to sever multilateral discussions with Israel.

But Farouq al-Shara, Syrian foreign minister, said Damascus was thinking about a boycott and reminded his Arab neighbours of the recommendations of the Arab summit. Diplomats said Lebanon, where Syria is the power broker, was also against attending while the Palestinian Authority has raised doubts about the conference.

Mr Shara said a meeting of Arab foreign ministers on November 8 would discuss the matter.

With Arab public opinion enraged by Israeli killings of Palestinians in recent weeks, a Syrian insistence on a boycott could be embarrassing for more moderate Arab states.

Although Arab governments have considered Barcelona to be a separate track from the peace process, several lower-level meetings have been cancelled in recent years as the Middle East peace process has faltered.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 06, 2000

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