EU seeks leap in ties with Israel, Arab neighbours

BARCELONA (AP) — Leaders of the EU nations, Israel and its neighbours open a summit Sunday at which Europe will push for a leap in relations by linking billions of euros in economic aid to sweeping democratic and other reforms on the Mediterranean’s southern and eastern rims.
On Saturday, as officials were finalising three summit statements, diplomats reported a widening list of no-shows.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not expected after his decision this week to abandon the right-wing Likud alliance and start a new party.

Also staying away was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with EU diplomats blaming his absence on the violence in Saturday’s parliamentary runoff elections in Egypt.

Others who would not attend included the leaders of Lebanon, Morocco and Jordan.

Syrian President Bashar Assad had already been barred for allegedly being behind the February 14 murder of ex- Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a Beirut truck bombing that killed 20 other people.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has weighed heavily on relations across the region and has long hampered the full development of the partnership between the EU and Mediterranean countries.

Also — unlike in its work in eastern Europe — the bloc cannot offer the prospect of eventual EU membership to lure north African and Middle Eastern countries into far-reaching economic and political reform.

The initial strategy was to encourage economic development, believing that political changes would automatically follow. This year however, the EU is trying to force through political reform even before all of its economic aid and trade initiatives have started to bear fruit.

The summit starts two days after the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, marking the first time Palestinians will be in charge of an international border. The event has bolstered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ message that independence can only be won through negotiations.

The European leaders — including German Chancellor Angela Merkel making her debut appearance at an international gathering — will likely use the opening of the Rafah border crossing to urge Israel and the Palestinians to stay the course towards a peaceful settlement of their conflict.

The Euro-Mediterranean leaders were to reaffirm their “determination to achieve a lasting and comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict,” according to a draft summit statement seen by the Associated Press.

The EU will deploy scores of border monitors under a deal with Israel, which ran the Rafah crossing before its withdrawal from the Gaza.

The Europeans look to their southern neighbours to jointly denounce terrorism and distance Islam from the notion that their religion condones the mindless, large-scale murder of innocent people.

The summit brings together the 25 EU leaders and those from Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey.

The EU is eager to put its relations with Israel and its Arab neighbours on a new footing, linking EU economic and other aid to democratic and across the board other reforms in the Mediterranean basin.

Its goal — first set out in 1995 — remains to help Israel and its neighbours make the Middle East a region of “peace, stability and prosperity” on the back of a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010.

On the summit’s eve, the global anti-poverty organisation Oxfam cautioned Europe against seeking rapid free trade in agriculture. In a report it said 68 million people in the Middle East and North Africa survive “on less than $2 a day, compared with 50 million people in 1990. The EU should … speed up its rural development projects” across the region to help farmers capitalise on trading opportunities.

The past decade saw the rise of terrorism, the start of a war in Iraq and some Arab nations failing to enact democratic and economic reforms have left the vision of a peaceful, prosperous Middle East in shambles, despite 20 billion euros ($23.6 billion) in grants and soft loans, mostly for Israel’s Arab neighbours.

Europe wants Arab nations to do more to protect human rights, launching good governance and sensible free-market economic policies. If they do, the EU will open its market to their goods and services, and will provide economic and other aid in a broad range of such as trade, migration, justice, transport, energy, environment and education.

The EU now spends 3 billion euros ($3.5 billion) a year in grants and soft loans on its southern neighbours.

Yet, says Javier Solana, the EU security affairs chief, the region has become “a crossroads of all the perils of the modern world,” including poverty, terrorism, undemocratic governments, uncontrolled migrations, disproportionate population growth, a proliferation of weapons and little trade among nations in the region.

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