Talk of the Mediterranean
examines the agenda of upcoming Egyptian-European talks
Tomorrow, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano is scheduled to arrive in Cairo for a four-day visit during which he will hold talks with President Hosni Mubarak. Thereafter, on Wednesday, Mubarak will arrive in Paris for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. During talks with both European/Mediterranean leaders, Mubarak is expected to consult over a wide range of regional issues but emphasis is likely to be put on two main items: the fate of the Union for the Mediterranean that Egypt jointly chairs with France, and the accession of Egypt to the G8 Outreach Group.
Originally the brainchild of Sarkozy, for which the French president arduously extracted some European support, the Union for the Mediterranean was launched in Paris 13 July, amid considerable scepticism, in pursuit of a multi-faceted Mediterranean cooperation that the Barcelona Process failed to deliver since its launch in 1995 -- in part due to the many shadows cast by endless deadlocks in the Arab-Israeli peace process. It was launched to promote joint projects among some, and not necessarily all, its 40 plus member states, especially in areas of environment and migration regulations. It was also expected to help foster cultural, if not political, dialogue among countries of the Mediterranean.
Practically, three months later the nascent "union" is facing many complications that could render it shelved. First, no financial resources were allocated for the launch of the cooperation projects that were projected in Paris in July. European diplomats -- excluding the French -- in Cairo who spoke privately to Al-Ahram Weekly admit to serious difficulties in fund raising for projects of the new union. They admit that it was "always" going to be difficult to earmark sufficient funds, and "now with the financial crisis it is more difficult if not impossible".
Worse, the objectives of the union remain somewhat blurred. "The Union for the Mediterranean would do good to promote cooperation among the countries of the region, but it cannot overlook the political struggles in the region unless it wants to suffocate, and it cannot be a forum for normalisation [between Arabs and Israelis]" said Ambassador Ali Maher, a prominent Egyptian diplomat.
Speaking in Amman last week before a wide diplomatic and intellectual audience at a European Commission funded conference that examined the future of the union, Maher stressed the need for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli struggle as a crucial condition to promoting solid and sustainable cooperation around the Mediterranean. Maher argued that the failure of the Barcelona Process could be largely attributed to the attempt to divert the region towards cooperation in the absence of a just peace.
Yet according to Shlomo Avineri, professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, "Arab-Israeli discussions shouldn't monopolise the discussion of the Union for the Mediterranean, although it remains unavoidable to have this debate for as long as there is a conflict." He added that Arabs and Israelis could discuss "culture and education issues" irrespective of the current status of peace talks. "If we aim too high [by setting political targets] for the Union for the Mediterranean our results would not be good but if we aim lower [by focussing on the cultural and the economic] then we may achieve [our aims]," Avineri argued.
Lily Habash, a senior advisor to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, argued that it would be a direct reward for the Israeli occupation if the Union for the Mediterranean was to offer Israel full cooperation with Arabs in the absence of a fair resolution to the Arab-Israeli struggle.
In his statements in Paris in July, President Mubarak argued the need for a peaceful resolution to make the union a worthwhile and long-term engagement. In his upcoming talks with Napolitano and Sarkozy, Mubarak is going to reiterate this stance. Mubarak is also expected to bring up another issue of Arab concern: the participation of the Arab League in all levels of meetings of the union, agreed in Paris despite subsequent Israeli protests.
"[A] difficulty that we [have so far been] unable to resolve, even with the Union for the Mediterranean, is that we have not defined our geopolitical space," said Hisham Youssef, chief of cabinet of the Arab League secretary-general. Speaking to a conference hosted by Malta to examine the Mediterranean and new Euro-Mediterranean perspectives, Youssef argued that it is almost inconceivable to pursue energy cooperation around the Mediterranean away from the inclusion of the Arab Gulf Countries and Iraq.
What Youssef did not say in the Nicosia meeting is that the Arab League is not willing to accept that its inclusion or exclusion in the union be decided by Israel. For Cairo it is particularly embarrassing that the participation of the Arab League should be decided by Israel when Egypt, the host of the headquarters of the Arab organisation, is co-chairing the union concerned.
In the analysis of many an Arab and Cairo-based European diplomat, the situation has become a mess that is likely to attribute to the aggravation of Arab-Israeli tension and for that matter worsen Arab-European relations.
During his talks with Napolitano, Mubarak is likely to stress that the European Union should not tolerate the Israeli attempt to exclude or to limit the participation of the Arab League. Italian Ambassador to Cairo Caludio Pacifico stressed that Rome will try to prompt a resolution in order to allow the union to evolve into a fruitful grouping.
"Sometimes it is difficult to secure maximum cooperation, but we are trying all we can to resolve all the problems that hamper cooperation within the Union for the Mediterranean," Pacifico said during a press briefing Sunday.
If Italy cannot guarantee the Arab League full participation in the meetings of the Union for the Mediterranean, it can and will, according to Pacifico, guarantee the participation of Egypt in the G8 Outreach Group -- a formula to bring together countries with growing economies. So far China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa have joined this group.
Egypt, Pacifico announced, will be the sixth member starting 2009 when Italy takes over the rotating presidency of the G8. "[Italy] will also call for the formulation of an African Outreach Group for key African states to discuss African problems, and Egypt will also be present in this group," Pacifico said.
"And so will be the Arab League," he promptly added.