ECONOMY

Euro-Med summit suffers from low leader turnout

BARCELONA – A low turnout of Arab leaders at the first Euro-Mediterranean summit yesterday highlighted the difficulties of strengthening the European Union’s decade-old partnership with its southern neighbors. The EU called the ambitious summit hoping to revitalize ties with Near Eastern and North African neighbors and extend cooperation to fighting terrorism and illegal migration, as well as promoting economic and political reforms. But while nearly all 25 EU leaders attended, only two of the 10 Mediterranean partners – Turkey and the Palestinian Authority – sent their top leaders to the two-day conference. European statesmen put a brave face on the poor turnout by partners absent due to domestic problems or ill health. «There are obviously various reasons why some of the leaders have not been able to come, but I think we’ll have a good conference anyway,» said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, co-hosting the summit because London holds the EU presidency. But one European official said privately the Mediterranean partners had missed a rare opportunity to win more attention and support from Europe. An enlarged EU had tried to turn the focus south from its eastern neighbors «and the south has not responded at the level it deserved,» the official said. Last-minute negotiations dragged on over a code of conduct to fight terrorism, and a common vision statement, with familiar differences over the definition of terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict holding up agreement. Syria and other Arab partners want the EU to distinguish between terrorism and the right to resist occupation, while the Europeans and Israel oppose any qualification of terrorism. On the streets of Barcelona, several thousand anti-summit demonstrators staged two marches under the banner «No to the Mediterranean of capital and war.» One organizer told the Europa Press news agency the summit was a «meeting of hypocrites» and said the neo-liberal reforms the EU advocated would worsen economic and social problems. The summit was set to reaffirm the goal of creating a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010, established at the founding Barcelona conference in 1995. The EU has agreed to open talks on trade in agriculture and services next year after opening its markets to industrial goods from the south. The EU plans to maintain an annual 1 billion euros of grants and 2 billion euros in loans to the Mediterranean states but to focus the aid more on countries that make political and economic reforms through a new «governance facility.»