Mediterranean nations wrangle over trade deal

ELIZABETH NASH

Barcelona

Ministers from European and Mediterranean nations, working to defuse tensions threatening the continent's exposed southern flank, found the unresolved disputes of the Middle East blocking agreement yesterday.

Foreign ministers from the 15 EU members and from 12 nations bordering the Mediterranean, excluding Libya and Albania, assembled for the first time in Barcelona to approve a policy declaration and action plan for regular future meetings. They aim to create what Spain's Foreign Minster, Javier Solana, who is chairing the conference, called "a Euro-Mediterranean partnership equipped with effective instruments and sufficient means".

The declaration to be agreed today cements a regional partnership promising a Euro-Mediterranean free-trade area by 2010 and co-operation on energy, water, immigration and against terrorism and drug trafficking. The draft sidesteps some points of conflict, such as Islamic fundamentalism. "Islam isn't just fundamentalism any more than Christianity was the Inquisition," said the deputy president of the European Commission, Manuel Marin.

North African immigration into southern Europe was a sticking point resolved at the last minute. Some 5 million Muslims, mostly from the Maghreb, live in Southern Europe, and illegal immigration from North Africa, prompted by economic hardship, is increasing. Under Moroccan insistence the declaration softens reference to countries' "obligation" to return illegal immigrants to countries of origin in favour of their "responsibility" to do so.

"Fighting terrorism will have to be a priority ... and consideration will be given to stepping up exchanges of information and improving extradition procedures," says the action plan. But Lebanon, Syria and Palestine want the definition of terrorism to exclude the fight against occupying forces, a point resisted by Israel.

Another clause unpalatable to Israel, calling for the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, was expected to be softened and not given a time limit for implementation. And Egypt, worried that its agriculture would suffer in a free-trade zone, accepted reference to freeing agricultural trade through reciprocal preferential access, again without a deadline.

Britain, seizing upon trade and investment opportunities, wants a study to be made on overcoming obstacles to investment in the region and proposes a conference next year in London to mobilise capital flows. "The goal of a free trade area will more than anything else transform the face of the region," British officials said.

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