Europe rethinks policy on southern Mediterranean rim

Europe rethinks relations with its southern Mediterranean rim this week, sending its top diplomat to Egypt and reassessing aid priorities to avoid being seen as turning a blind eye to authoritarian regimes.

After pro-democracy revolts toppled the Western-backed leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, reform fever is now sweeping across Europe's Arab backyard, spreading to Bahrain, Libya, Jordan or Yemen.

European Union foreign ministers, criticised for reacting more slowly than the United States to the popular pressure that drove Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak to quit, want to regain the initiative and deliver a new type of partnership.

They start the ball rolling over dinner on Sunday in Brussels, debating over two days how to tie future economic assistance to democratic reforms, human rights progress and good governance standards.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton then travels to Cairo on Monday evening to show support for Egypt's transition -- becoming the first senior Western official to visit Egypt since Mubarak was ousted after 30 years in power.

"The rapidity and the impact of the domino from Tunisia took a lot of people by surprise," a European diplomat said.

"The events in the region underline that EU assistance to the neighbourhood hasn't always delivered what we hoped it would, so the conclusion is, how do we make EU support to the region more conditional."

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini wants Europe to draw up a development and stability pact for the region linked to commitments to improve governance, meet international obligations and respect individual rights.

"Human traffickers, criminals and terrorists stand ready to exploit chaos stemming from the collapse of the old order," he wrote in The Financial Times, calling for a "Marshall Plan" for the region, a reference to the US-led rebuilding of Europe after World War II.

"Europe must act quickly, or this 'arc of crisis' will lead to more illegal immigration, terrorism and Islamic radicalisation," warned Frattini, whose country has struggled to cope with a flood of Tunisian migrants over the last 10 days.

Criticised for their support of authoritarian regimes as a bulwark against Islamic extremists, EU leaders signalled at a summit this month their intent to offer "more effective support" to countries "which are pursuing political and economic reforms."

Six EU Mediterranean countries -- France, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Slovenia -- sent a letter to Ashton calling for a review of the way the bloc distributes aid through its European Neighbourhood Policy programme.

A mood is developing that could see more aid funneled south and less to eastern, former Soviet neighbours.

Current EU chair Hungary has already had to cancel a summit with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine planned for May, and an eastern EU diplomat says just maintaining their overall numbers would be a positive result now.

"This aid should be reviewed in light of the events" in the Middle East, the submission from the Mediterranean EU states said, noting that Egypt receives 1.8 euros per person and Tunisia seven euros per person, compared to 25 euros per person for Moldova.

They see the tumultuous events of the New Year as a means through which to kickstart a long-stalled project for a Union of the Mediterranean, northern and southern rims alike.

The aid programme to the likes of Egypt contains the possibility of suspending assistance in case of human rights violations but the threat has never been carried out.

In a letter to Ashton, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle calls for the EU to "sanction backward steps," saying the revolutions in the Arab world present Europe with a "unique opportunity right now" to promote democracy and human rights in its neighbourhood.

"What we are witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt, but not only there, is a turning point, a historic watershed. Nothing will be as it was before," he wrote.

Source: AFP

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