The Arab World Demands Coherence

Since 1995, the Barcelona Process has been the EU's grand opening strategy towards Northern Africa and the Middle East. Assia Bensalah Alaoui, a Moroccan law professor and development expert, assessed the EU's policy in an interview with Hans Dembowski.

photo: EU Website
Assia Bensalah Alaoui and Romano Prodi

​​For the Barcelona Process, three policy goals are essential: it is meant to make and safeguard peace, to enhance trade and to strengthen civil society. As results, so far, remain unconvincing, the issues deserve more commitment, says Assia Bensalah Alaoui.

What benefits have countries on the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean reaped from the Barcelona Process?

Assia Bensalah Alaoui: So far, the results are mixed. The disappointments with the process are probably as big as the hopes it had generated when it was launched in 1995. Ambiguities and shortcomings inherent to the very initiative, bureaucratic procedures, slow implementation and other things have prevented the whole process from meeting the expectations. However, the process has the merit to exist.

It seriously needs to be revisited to allow the members take full advantage of the opportunities it offers and to meet the challenges it implies. On the positive side, I see it as a strong incentive for political and economic reforms. The necessary upgrading in all domains to meet the progressive Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone requirements – improving the competitive capacity of our countries at large – has been considerably underestimated.

The Barcelona Process harbours ambitions for three important issues: peace, trade and civil society. Which is the most important from an Arab point of view?

Alaoui: There is a largely shared feeling that the Barcelona Process is security driven to meet European perceptions and concerns. However, there should be a strong interaction among the three baskets. Particularly, the link between security and development is often underestimated. That is why for us, in the Arab world, the priorities are the socio-economic aspects.

Accompanying measures were supposed to make sure that the liberalisation shock does not further weaken social fabrics, already under strain after two decades of structural adjustment. But these hopes have not been met.

Theoretically, development issues play a key role in European security strategies. What relevance does that have for the Arab public – is it regarded as mere rhetoric or as credible policy?

Alaoui: Development is the vital base for sustainable security and for long term stability because it provides the populations concerned with genuine stakes in their respective societies. For all its rhetoric, the EU does not seriously follow this assertion.

One could add in this respect, that the so-called "Arab street" tends to blame Europe for its rhetoric – Europe is perceived to defend, above all, its interests and those of the "rich". For all their benefits and shortcomings, the Barcelona Process mechanisms in support of socio-economic development are not well known by the large public.

On the other hand, Europe is still blamed for its historic responsibility in the fragmentation of the Arab world in general, and for the Palestinian tragedy in particular. At worst, Europe is still considered to be guilty for the creation of Israel and its perceived complacency towards this state. At best, it is guilty for its incapacity to bring about a solution to the situation it has created.

How do strife in Israel/Palestine and international terrorism affect the future of the Barcelona Process?

Alaoui: The Israel/Palestine conflict has to be solved and the Palestinian question must be addressed with the necessary fairness and equity, far from the double standards and the selective implementation of international law and of human rights, which, so far, prevail.

Even after September 11, 2001, terrorism remains context-specific. Each case must be analysed to devise the whole range of appropriate responses. It seems to me, that the global war against terrorism as conducted by a supposedly "traumatised" superpower is counterproductive and further feeds terrorism.

It is certainly the wrong heading for the war against Iraq. The invasion of Iraq, on the contrary, opened the Pandora's box. Beyond the resistance to occupation and the chaos it triggered, the invasion of Iraq offered to Al Qaida (which was absent from Iraq) a new and fertile battleground, along with the tremendous power of US media attention. American soldiers – otherwise unreachable – are offered as "iconic" targets to every kind of resentment against the USA.

Concerning Iraq, the EU was – and still is – split. Some governments support the US-led occupation with troops, others do not.

Alaoui: To gain efficiency and vigour, the Barcelona Process needs political will and commitment on behalf of a strong Europe, with a coherent common exterior and security policy. The very credibility of the EU is at stake. Obviously, the USA has a different approach to and a different project for what it calls the "Greater Middle East", to suit its particular interests and vision.

It is imperative for the EU, some members of which agreed, in June 2004 on the G8 Summit watered-down version for the "Broader Middle East and North Africa", to distinguish itself from the US approach. With its colonial past, it needs to reassure and not threaten. With its geographic proximity and energy dependency, it is in need of a prosperous and stable Mediterranean.

Despite the deadlock, perhaps the time has come for the EU to become an actor in the Middle East, and not only the payer. It should endeavour to promote, with the USA and the concerned states a global exit strategy from the Iraq quagmire and the deadly Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

A genuine revitalisation of the Barcelona Process could help create a new dynamic, as well as a strong incentive for the badly needed reforms for the region, on a much safer base. The EU has to become more genuinely committed to the Euro-Med partnership.

So the EU is not doing enough to safeguard peace?

Alaoui: We insist that the roots of instability and insecurity must be properly addressed, along with the factors of tension between the two rims of the Mediterranean. A cooperative security regime or framework to meet common traditional threats and the new security agenda challenges, and efficient conflict prevention tools have still to be elaborated, since the Charter for peace and stability failed to be adopted, in Marseille, in November 2000.

Dialogue is a must. But it must be full-fledged and requires reliable channels, and rapid mechanisms, which seem to be missing in the present scheme. That became evident in the Perejil/Leila Island crisis in July 2002, between Morocco and Spain. The solution came thanks to mediation by the USA rather than through application of the partnership tools.

Did the Barcelona Process succeed in strengthening civil society?

Alaoui: This is certainly the weakest basket of the Barcelona Process, with culture being the real poor cousin. The gloomy global context does require a genuine cross-cultural dialogue, and a wide range of actions, as was recommended in the report of "The High Level Advisory Group on Dialogue between Peoples and Cultures in the Euro-Mediterranean Area", which was initiated by Romano Prodi in January 2003, and which I co-chaired.

I do hope that all the stake holders and civil society organisations in particular, will seriously consider these challenges and recommendations.

Who do you consider as the most helpful partners in Europe?

Alaoui: France certainly, Italy as well. Spain was very active behind the launching of the process, even if its action and its strategic vision in the matter are sometimes hampered by its overactive special interest lobbies – concerning, for instance agriculture, fishing and textiles. While it is seeking a bigger role in the Mediterranean, Spain tends to perceive some of the Mediterranean partners as pure competitors. The new administration will hopefully have a more balanced approach.

Some EU members have tried to foster the partnership during their presidencies.

Unfortunately, the particular conjunction of a Mediterranean President of the Commission Romano Prodi and successive Mediterranean presidencies of the EU – France, Spain, Greece, and Italy – did not generate the revitalisation of the process expected and hoped for. Both an adverse international context and the EU integration and enlargement questions left no real priority for Euro-Med concerns.

Have northern EU members been helpful?

Alaoui: The UK has tried to promote investment in this area and Germany shows a particular interest in enhancing the cooperation with the Arab world. It is very promising to see the Scandinavian states express a similar interest, particularly Sweden, and also Finland.

All in all, the various EU institutions do complete each other. The Commission, which makes most of the proposals, certainly has a prominent role. The European Parliament, on the other hand, plays a significant role in the promotion of civil rights and societies of the southern shore.

But is EU policy sufficiently coherent?

Alaoui: The answer is certainly no. The lack of a real common exterior and security policy, among other things, stands seriously in the way of coherence, preventing the EU from making its long-term interests and a strategic vision prevail over immediate gains and interests, which necessarily diverge.

There is a huge gap between the EU's rhetoric and the actual behaviour of both the EU and its member States. Agriculture and migration do illustrate this lack of coherence. How can you stabilise the southern front and have a protectionist policy vis-à-vis farm exports? Agriculture is at the core of the socio-economic and even political stability of developing countries. In the case of Morocco, the importance of agriculture stands beyond the 15 percent it contributes to our country's GDP!

You have also mentioned migration…

Alaoui: To address the various stakes – economic and social issues, questions of culture and identity et cetera – there is a crucial need for a global common approach, far from the sole restrictive European states' migration policies. A vigorous and comprehensive policy in this domain is necessary to meet the interests of an ageing Europe, which needs new blood to maintain its prosperity and pay its pensions, and of a South, which faces the risks of all transitions and is in danger of loosing its best trained human resources.

Selective immigration, which is the new trend, encourages and expands the brain drain. In the absence of a coherent and comprehensive approach, the knowledge gap will deepen and perpetuate the prosperity gap and the vicious circle of poverty.

The EU is a giant market but no political force. Do you see it developing a political and diplomatic identity of its own that might lead to a greater role in international politics?

Alaoui: For a number of reasons, I do hope it will. However, recent developments – September 11, the wars against Afghanistan and against Iraq – show a trend towards the "re-nationalisation" of the respective European foreign policies. This further hampers the already difficult emergence of the Common European Security Policy.

Since September 11, the international system has moved away from the reign of International law – albeit selective and rather weak in its implementation under the multilateral framework of the UN – to a world governed by the interests and vision of a sole superpower and its pre-emptive war. International politics do need checks and balances, to make sure that adventurous unilateralism does not lead to general chaos. The EU could represent one credible pole. Does it have the will to do so? Certainly, its split over Iraq does blur the picture.

Interview by Hans Dembowski

© Development and Cooperation 2004

This article was previously published in Development and Cooperation 11/2004

Prof. Dr. Assia Bensalah Alaoui teaches international law at the University Mohammed V in Rabat. She is a member of the Club of Rome. On behalf of EU-Commission President Romano Prodi, she co-chaired the "High Level Advisory Group on Dialogue between Peoples and Cultures in the Euro-Mediterranean Area".

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