Mediterranean trade deal clinched

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The Independent Online
European and Mediterranean nations agreed an unprecedented common programme for peace and prosperity yesterday, promising to defuse conflict and promote trade throughout the region.

It remains unclear, however, to what extent these somewhat vague promises can be redeemed, especially the pledges to remove most trade barriers within 15 years.

Twenty-seven foreign ministers from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East ended the Euro-Mediterranean conference with an action plan promising a regional free-trade area by 2010 and co-operation on energy, water, immigration and drugs trafficking

The Barcelona declaration fell short of what some nations had hoped for, but it marks an advance in uncharted diplomatic and commercial territory. It was being compared yesterday to the dialogue on security and co-operation which was established between former Cold War countries by the Helsinki agreement.

The Spanish Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, who chaired the conference, had rarely looked so relieved, even euphoric, when he announced, more than an hour later than planned, that unanimous agreement had been achieved at the last moment. The negotiations had been "tense and difficult", he said, but no subject under discussion had been withdrawn or remained unresolved. "It was the first time countries in dispute had sat together and unanimously approved a common document."

The Algerian Foreign Minister, Mohamed Salah Dembri, speaking for the Arab countries of the southern Mediterranean, hailed the declaration as a "great project that established co-operation on the basis of parity necessary for development". But the poorer countries on Europe's southern flank have effectively accepted the rules of the game imposed by their richer northern neighbours as the price for expected economic growth and stability.

The core of the pact is the proposed free-trade zone, intended to promote prosperity as the only effective curb on illegal immigration from North Africa to southern Europe, which is overwhelmingly economically motivated. Agreements are planned between Europe and the Mediterranean but also "horizontally" among Mediterranean countries.

The Mediterranean countries will lower their barriers to European trade and investment in return for what the declaration calls "a substantial increase in the European Union's contribution to its partners": $1.2bn (pounds 800m) in aid and credits over four years.

The conference is the start of a process of regular meetings and initiatives, and it is on these that its success will be judged. More meetings are planned next year, and another assembly of foreign ministers is envisaged for 1997, probably in a non-European capital.

Yesterday's declaration hedged around the question of terrorism and the scope of nuclear non-proliferation, matters of dispute between Israel and Syria that neither sought to resolve in Barcelona. The conference will also be remembered as the occasion for the first ever public, and relatively positive, face-to-face exchanges between Syria and Israel. An Israeli spokesman said that the conference "could be a cornerstone to a new peace process".

The countries bordering the southern Mediterranean are the EU's third trading partner and supply 27 per cent of its energy. Europe represents two-thirds of the Mediterranean countries' trade.