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North Africa enhances Mediterranean cooperation with Europe

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afrol News, 15 June - The so-called "Barcelona Process" of regional cooperation across the Mediterranean Sea is currently being emphasized by the European Union, at the same time as the EU is expanding eastwards. The EU's External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten is to visit Morocco and Tunisia this weekend to discuss the cooperation. Morocco and Tunisia are associated to the EU through the Barcelona Process, while treaties with Egypt and Algeria are on their way.

According to a written EU statement, Patten will visit Morocco on 18 June and Tunisia on 19 June. These visits "are designed to show the EU's continuing support for the region in the light of the reinvigorated Barcelona Process." During his visit to Morocco Commissioner Patten will hold meetings with King Mohammed VI and several ministers. In Tunisia Commissioner Patten will meet with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, among others.

The Barcelona Process, brought to life by the 1995 Barcelona Declaration, had been designed to integrate the Mediterranean countries in North Africa and the Middle East into to EU's free trade and economic development zone. So far, however, only bilateral association treaties with Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine and Israel have been signed and ratified. A treaty signed with Jordan 3 years ago still awaits ratification. Now, however, the EU is "driving to reinvigorate the Barcelona Process."

A new Association Treaty with Egypt has been prepared and is to be signed later in June. Further, the EU currently is negotiating association treaties with Algeria, Lebanon and Syria. The goal is to reach a Mediterranean Free Trade Zone by 2010, after signing association treaties with those countries not members of the EU or not on "the waiting list" to enter.

As part of this new drive, Commissioner Patten's visit to Morocco and Tunisia "will encourage the implementation of the decisions reached at the Euro-Mediterranean foreign ministers meeting in Marseilles in November 2000. Commissioner Patten's visit will be followed by Commissioner Lamy's visit at the end of June, and Commissioner Vitorino will visit Morocco in the next few months," the EU states. 

Chris Patten is also expected to congratulate to Tunisia and Morocco on the recent agreement finalised in Agadir between Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, which provides for closer regional integration. "This is precisely the sort of strengthened co-operation which the Commission had called for in its communication on 'Reinvigoration of Barcelona'," Patten says. Mr Patten will offer aid in the form of technical assistance to this process. 

The meetings in Morocco will cover areas of mutual interest to both the EU and Morocco including Morocco's EU Association Agreement and the Barcelona Process. The EU has welcomed the calls by King Mohamed VI for 'more than association, less than accession'. "The Barcelona Process and on the basis of the existing Association Agreement with Morocco should provide a framework a further deepening of EU-Moroccan relations. Morocco's implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU will help Morocco meet the challenges of free trade," the EU states. 

Mr Patten's visit to Tunisia will give him "an opportunity to underline the excellent relations between Tunisia and the EU," the statement goes. Tunisia was the first country in the Mediterranean to sign an Association Agreement and put in place a programme of dismantling tariff barriers. 

Mr Patten is expected to encourage Tunisia to continue its economic reforms and acknowledge its role as a key supporter of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. However, "progress still has to be made on the issues of human rights and political liberalisation," the EU states. "European public opinion and the European Parliament in particular are acutely aware of these issues which affect Tunisia's standing in the world and influence its bilateral relations with the EU." 

The EU Commissioner for agriculture, Dr. Franz Fischler, equally emphasized on the Barcelona Process in a recent speech made at EU conference in Strasbourg. The 1995 Barcelona Declaration also had called for an EU aid in modernising and restructuring the agricultural sector of the EU's neighbouring Mediterranean countries. 

The trade in agricultural products has however so far been a sector "with special limits," Fischler admitted. "The developments during the last decades however have shown us that protectionism is the wrong way to assure a distribution of food articles that everybody can afford."

Fischler opened for a careful integration of agricultural products within the trade liberation in the Mediterranean zone - key products in North Africa. "Because agriculture is a particularly sensitive part of our economy and society, we must move carefully when opening for trade with agricultural products. Farmers must plan on a long term, and therefore we cannot liberalise the agrarian trade suddenly. However, the developments so far in the agrarian trade between the Mediterranean countries and the EU demonstrates that we probably have acted too carefully in earlier Treaties of Association," Fischler admitted.

While the exports of agricultural products had risen by 31 percent on a worldwide basis between 1995 and 2000, they had only risen by 20 percent to the neighbouring Mediterranean countries. Also imports from the Mediterranean countries had increased less than from other EU trade partners. Fischler thus promised to lower or even abandon protectionist import taxes on agricultural products from the Mediterranean Free Trade Zone by 2010. 

Some products would experience a quick abolition of import taxes while "sensitive products like tomatoes, oranges and olive oil" needed a slower adaptation as "a sudden liberalisation would lead to great disturbances of the [EU's internal] market." North African countries produce great amounts of the products mentioned by Fischler to prices significantly lower than Mediterranean countries within the EU, such as Spain, Italy and Greece 

Sources: Based on EU sources and afrol archives

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