Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 September 2010
Issue No. 1016
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Wrestling with Barcelona

Ahmed Masadeh, secretary-general of the Union for the Mediterranean, tells Al-Ahram Weekly that he hopes the union will improve on its humble public image, reports Dina Ezzat

The Union for the Mediterranean (UFM) is a forum for dialogue and partnership between member states of the European Union and African and Middle Eastern countries in the Mediterranean Basin, with the aim of strengthening relations among them. It was created as a re-launched Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the so-called Barcelona Process) in 2008. The re-launch was celebrated in the French capital with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Hosni Mubarak acting as joint chairs of the nascent organisation.

Members of the UFM are all 27 EU member states and 16 states from around the Mediterranean: Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey, along with the Palestinian Authority.

This is the official overview. However, as Mediterranean diplomats acknowledge, the UFM is a shaky organisation that aims to pursue economic, environmental and other forms of cooperation among some or all of its member states but that cannot do so either because the political context in the region does not allow it or because its member states cannot generate the required funds.

In Cairo late last week for talks with Egyptian and Arab officials gathered at the Arab League for a foreign ministers' meeting, newly appointed UFM Secretary-General Ahmed Masadeh said he hoped his organisation would move out of the shadows soon. And perhaps there is some hope. The political scene in the region seems to be positively changing with the resumption of Palestinian negotiations, while Barcelona has become the "driver of Mediterranean unity" with the recent establishment of UFM's secretariat there, Masadeh told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Speaking as Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams were leaving Sharm El-Sheikh for Jerusalem in the second phase of direct talks, Masadeh acknowledged that events in the Middle East peace process were bound to affect the UFM despite his insistence that serious projects of economic and environmental cooperation are being examined among some UFM member states.

"Today we see the beginnings of the resumption of negotiations and we think that this is a step in the right direction," Masadeh said. He added that while working to help the advancement of peace talks, the countries of the UFM should work in parallel with the new secretariat to launch cooperative projects away from the direct influence of political developments. "The UFM has created enough mechanisms that should help its members to pursue cooperation on the economic and social fronts, away from political preconditions," Masadeh said.

The new UFM secretary general was present in a UFM meeting on water cooperation hosted by France earlier this year and was witness to the failure of the meeting as Palestinian and Israeli delegations disagreed on the allocation and management of water resources in the occupied Palestinian territories. A little later, the UFM failed to host a scheduled summit due to Arab-Israeli differences, including over the participation of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose presence was all but collectively rejected by Arab countries of the UFM.

Still, Masadeh is hoping there is enough awareness around the Mediterranean that "working for the interests of people around the Mediterranean" is a good cause and should be pursued. "It will take a very long time to create a better reality for all around the Mediterranean but we can start by making some progress now," he said.

The UFM is inspired by the joint wish of its members to work together to make the Mediterranean a place of peace, development and cultural dialogue, Masadeh added. He said that the six priority projects of the organisation are environmental clean up of the Mediterranean, maritime and overland highways, civil protection, alternative energies and producing a Mediterranean Solar Energy Plan, the creation of the Euro-Mediterranean University and the development of business in the region.

Currently, Masadeh said, the UFM secretariat is ready to examine projects to be suggested by member states. These could be projects among southern member states whose relations are well established. "Obviously, if the political context becomes right the UFM would bloom," he stated.

Currently, Spain is working with France and Egypt to convene the delayed UFM summit in November in Barcelona. Masadeh is hoping that the peace process will be pushed forward while the UFM secretariat will be able to present the summit with good suggestions for cooperation in tourism and agriculture.

Should the Barcelona summit fail, would the UFM meet the same sad fate of the Barcelona Process, defeated by harsh political realities and limited financial commitment? Masadeh says he is convinced that the UFM will work, despite hurdles along the road, simply because it is in the interest of all its member states to make it work.

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