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Foreign ministers to tackle a troubled union

Text by AFP

Latest update : 2008-11-02

A multinational forum that was the brainchild of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Mediterranean Union, will convene Nov. 3-4 to tackle problems that have plagued the body since its inception last July.

Mediterranean-rim nations will try on Monday and Tuesday to overcome divergences that have plagued the 43-nation union since its birth three months ago.

Launched with great fanfare in Paris on July 13, the Union for the Mediterranean -- brainchild of French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- is set to meet in Marseille, France, at the level of foreign ministers on November 3-4.

The new forum brings together the 27 countries of the European Union with states from north Africa, the Balkans and Arab nations with Israel to foster cooperation in one of the world's most volatile regions.

The meeting will decide the makeup and powers of a secretariat to supervise projects undertaken by the union, successor to the EU's 13-year-old Barcelona Process, a forum undermined by disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

"Secretariat is certainly not an easy question," said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. "There are some candidates, but we do hope we can find a solution."

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos has lobbied hard for the secretariat to be located in Barcelona, which he has described as "a city with an unquestionable Mediterranean vocation."

However, some countries on the southern rim of the Mediterranean insist that the forum would have a better north-south balance if the secretariat were located on their side of the sea.

The so-called "Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean" is largely inspired from the platform launched in Barcelona in 1995 to boost ties around the sea, but which foundered largely due to the Middle East conflict.

France had hoped that the new union based on modest regional projects -- like cleaning up pollution in the Mediterranean -- rather than grand political aims would have been able to sidestep the trap of regional disputes.

Despite having the backing of the French presidency, Tunisia gave up its bid on Friday after a visit from a Spanish minister.

A diplomat close to the discussions said that Egypt and Jordan had voiced interest in hosting the secretariat this week.

The other sticking point for ministers is a difference of interpretation between Israel and the Arab members on the observer status given to the Arab League when the body was launched.

Traditionally, the Arab League participated in the meetings of foreign ministers in the Barcelona process, but it and the Arab countries now want more, much to the regret of Israel.

The European Union's current French presidency "has made compromise proposals," a diplomat close to the negotiations said. "However, I am sceptical, the Arab League won't back down."

"There are some difficulties that cannot go away from one day to the next unfortunately. We would have loved to see that," said Ferrero-Waldner.

Before the meeting starts on Monday evening, EU foreign ministers will have an informal lunch to discuss relations with the United States ahead of the presidential election and the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Date created : 2008-11-02