Tunisia is hosting a “Friends of Syria” conference in a bid to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria. This comes on the heels of a call in Rome from 10 core countries of the Union for the Mediterranean for the multilateral partnership to be reinvigorated.
French Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppé said: “I was happy to see there was a consensus – unanimity – around the table to relaunch the Union for the Mediterranean around concrete projects.”
The full union encompasses 43 countries: the European Union member states and 16 partner countries from North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. Its priorities include fighting terrorism and organised crime, and working for development and legal migration, but also food and energy security, the environment and higher education.
Brakes on progress have included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more recently the Arab Spring uprisings.
In Rome, Juppé said: “We discussed Syria a lot, in preparation for the meeting in Tunis. We agree to support the Arab League plan to stop the violence in Syria as swiftly as possible, not only the repression exercised by the regime – also to engage a political exit strategy. We are unanimously behind the Arab League plan.”
Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem said there had also been agreement on the need to avoid “an Iraqi scenario” and preserve Syria’s integrity. Tunisia hosted a first international conference on Syria in December and broke off ties with Damascus earlier this month. Abdessalem highlighted differences between his country’s Arab Spring experience and that of the Syrians.
Abdessalem said: “Of course, we are in a democratic process, democratic transition, in Tunisia, just in the beginning of the process. Things are going well. This does not mean that we are living in paradise. We have some difficulties. We are just in the second phase of the democratic transition. The first one was a peaceful revolution. We succeeded in stabilising the country. For the second stage we have had a democratic election, on 23 October, and I think the country is moving in the right direction.”
Abdessalem was taking part in the first meeting of the “5+5” states — Algeria, France, Italy, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Portugal, Spain and Tunisia — since a wave of revolts began sweeping the Arab world last year.
euronews asked Luigi Spinola, a journalist and foreign policy analyst, for his take on the broad-reaching dialogue.
Monica Pinna, euronews: The Mediterranean forum at the recent Rome meeting reiterated its capacity to act as a flexible and faithful interlocutor with the countries along the southern shores of the Sea. What role can these the Mediterranean countries have in the Arab Spring states?
Luigi Spinola: On the northern side of the Mediterranean, there’s a fear that the social and economic crisis could in some way derail the political transition and generate a new phase o instability. In tangible terms, work is aimed at relaunching the economy, which includes increasing the resources the European Union offers the countries to the south, within the Mediterranean neighbourhood policy. As for balancing within the EU, this means that Italy and France, first of all, will have to continue to work towards convincing the countries most in the north, which have different interests; theirs are more directed eastward. They need to be persuaded to pay more attention and offer more resources to the countries in the south.
euronews: Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Giulio Terzi has talked about needing concrete action. Is this possible on the part of the Mediterranean countries, since China and Russia used their vetoes in the UN Security Council over Syria?
Spinola: Naturally, there needs to be a lot of optimism. The Mediterranean club of countries has something special about it: its members and their make-up. On the southern shore we see countries like Tunisia and Libya that support change in Syria. But there are others, such as Algeria, that are a lot more sceptical, and against all forms of interference in political questions for other Arab countries. That could become an obstacle to putting more pressure on Damascus. But it can also, I repeat, if we make an effort to be very optimistic, become an opportunity, if there is an effort to hold negotiations between the parties involved.
euronews: The new equilibrium in the states on the Mediterranean’s southern shore also has a bearing on new economic openings, especially in energy. The only country involved in the Arab Spring that can really contribute to supplying oil and gas is Libya, but the market is slow to open up. Why is that, and what are the prospects?
Spinola: Obviously, the possibility of Libya guaranteeing energy security depends first of all on the stabilisation process that is unfolding. From this point of view, we’re not hearing good news coming out of Tripoli, because the central authority is having a lot of problems, especially in controlling what the soldiers are doing. In the long term, cooperation among the European Mediterranean countries could also become a competition to grab new contracts which are pulled out of a hat by the Libyan.
euronews: How will Europe place itself in the replacing game and competition?
Spinola: Europe is going to have to work hard in this context, as, evidently, when it comes to strategic influence and economic integration, there is growing competition from some very enterprising countries. Qatar is one of them, and recently Turkey. They have very good relations with the new Arab leadership. On the other hand, Europe, yet again, in the same way as during the early phase of the war in Libya, will have a hard time finding a common policy and ensuring various national interests. For example, those of Italy and France come before the general interest.