- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

TUNIS, Tunisia — The European Union’s approaching expansion has caused Arab concern that one of the results could be the neglect of North Africa.

All but one of these coastal countries west of Egypt are former colonies or protectorates of France, and regard Paris as a commercial and political partner whose language and culture have become deeply embedded in their own.

Assurances that no “fortress Europe” is envisaged have not dissipated the unease among the five countries forming the Union of Arab Maghreb — Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. They fear that the EU, expanding from 15 to 25 countries next May, will become preoccupied with the new members and their problems rather than with those of its African partners.

Both the European countries and those of the Maghreb union hope to lessen the effect of the EU’s absorption of additional members, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe. The problem will be debated next month at a summit meeting in Tunis of five countries representing the more prosperous north shore of the Mediterranean Sea — Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Malta, the latter joining the EU May 1.

For the time being, the most vocal assurance for the south has come from Alain Juppe, former prime minister of France and now head of its ruling party, the Union for a Popular Movement, who said the European club is planning “a generous Europe, open to the world.”

“While adding new members to the Union, there is no reason to cut ourselves off from our partners in the south,” Mr. Juppe told an international conference in Tunis that set the stage for the December summit. “In fact, it is an opportunity to review our relations.”

The conference on “challenges and opportunities” of the EU’s expansion was called by Tunisia’s ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, to review the situation around the western part of the Mediterranean — known in antiquity as “Mare Nostrum” (“Our Sea”) and once the center of the Roman Empire.

The Tunisian hosts attempted to show that the area, where several civilizations were born, can actively participate in Europe’s development despite the current economic and cultural gap between the Mediterranean’s two shores.

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali called for closer integration among the five Maghreb countries with the five predominantly Roman Catholic countries along the northern shore.

Some North African officials believe that more intense cooperation between what is becoming known as “the 5 plus 5” can enhance the dialogue between Christians and Muslims and attenuate religious differences, often exploited by extremists.

Their future relations, Mr. Ben Ali said, “should be carried out in such a way that certain nations are not left behind in the course of progress, threatened by exclusion and marginalization, which could give rise to the scourge of extremism and instability — for them and for the region as a whole.”

“The aim is to ensure that the peoples of the south do not perceive Europe as a fortress withdrawn to itself,” Mr. Ben Ali went on, cautioning the expanding EU against creating “a paradox consisting of opening borders for goods and capital and closing them to the movement of people and services.”

The conference was held Nov. 1 and 2 at Gammarth, one of the modern seaside suburbs of the Tunisian capital, lined with new marble and glass hotels. Nearby, elegant white-walled villas covered with purple bougainvillea and surrounded by palm trees testified to the prosperity of the country’s growing middle class.

The capital itself was decked with slogans urging “a Euro-Mediterranean area founded on common interest and comprehensive and balanced cooperation.”

Statements by Arab delegates at the conference showed they see advantages in associating with the new power bloc of 453 million inhabitants whose territory will stretch from the Baltic to less than 100 miles from Tunisia’s north coast.

Speakers also pointed out the difference of approaches, culture and religions among the countries sharing the western Mediterranean. There were Arab complaints about growing racism in Western European countries, discrimination at work and in housing, and restrictive immigration policies.

Many felt that the gap between the rich and poor countries is growing, that Arab countries don’t take part in major international decision-making, and that conflicts such as the Iraq invasion “offend international law, breeding instability.”

Ahmed Ousmane, a former prime minister of Morocco, said the five Arab countries along the Mediterranean are divided regarding Europe’s approaching expansion.

Mr. Ousmane pointed to the economic and technological disparity between the two shores and their different priorities. He charged that Europe has “an excessive security concept, to the detriment of other concepts.”

The political systems of the five Maghreb countries vary. They include the dictatorship of Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, a former Italian colony; Tunisia’s “presidential democracy”; the army-backed republic in Algeria; and traditionalist monarchy in Morocco. Only Libya and Algeria have substantial oil reserves.

Asked Sadok Chaabane, Tunisia’s minister of higher education and scientific research, said the countries of the southern shore want to determine “what new equilibrium will be generated in our region.”

“What new geopolitical situation will be created?” he asked. “What new challenges will face the construction of a Mediterranean space? What opportunities will the EU offer?”

Mr. Chaabane warned that “our world changes at an increasingly growing pace.”

“Alliances are multiplying, the United States reinforces its role of the ‘indispensable nation,’ while other regional powers are emerging,” he said.

Mr. Juppe, representing France, said that the new Europe — with its large population and trillions of dollars of gross domestic product — “will have an unprecedented impact and weight.”

Addressing the meeting and a subsequent press conference, he stressed that the EU “has no intention of abandoning the Mediterranean countries en route,” and will pursue “a new policy of good neighborhood.”

He agreed that the concerns of the Arab countries are “legitimate,” particularly the fear of competition from Central and Eastern Europe for Europe’s attention. But he said immigration from poorer countries should be organized and “uncontrolled immigration is unacceptable.”

When asked what the EU intended to do for the Maghreb, he cited the French proverb: “Help yourself and God will help you.”

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