- During a current North African roundtrip, German Foreign Minister Frank Steinmeier is aiming at deepening and broadening ties with Maghreb countries before Germany's presidency of the European Union (EU) in the first half of 2007. Mr Steinmeier is touring Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania.
The Maghreb roundtrip of the German Foreign Minister almost headed into an embarrassing start on Tuesday, as Mr Steinmeier arrived Libya's second city Benghazi and the Tripoli government still had not confirmed whether Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi would bother to meet him.
Mr Ghaddafi reportedly was not amused by the German's choice of location. Benghazi is the site of the last major conflict between Europe and Libya, due to the continued arrest and death penalty threat against five nurses from fellow EU member Bulgaria and one Palestinian doctor, all accused of wilfully spreading HIV among Libyan children.
At the last moment, however, Mr Ghaddafi turned up in Benghazi to talk to the German Minister. Mr Steinmeier not surprisingly used the occasion to urge the Libyan leader to release the Bulgarian nurses and donated euro 100,000 to an infectious illnesses health centre in Benghazi. The EU and Bulgaria have indicated they will be generous with Libyan health installations when the nurses have been released.
The German Foreign Minister knew he would stumble into controversial questions in each and every country he is visiting. In both Libya and Tunisia, Germany as part of the EU is pressuring authorities to at least respect the most basic human rights so that economic ties can be deepened without popular protests at home. In Morocco and Algeria, both the Western Sahara question and migration are hot potatoes, while Mauritanian authorities will ask why the EU is not seriously assisting the country when it faces hunger or political reforms.
But Mr Steinmeier's trip is not all about the many controversies in EU-Maghreb ties - it is mostly about speeding up the slow "Barcelona Process", an initiative that was set up to create a free trade zone on both sides of the Mediterranean already in 1995 but has seen little progress in contrast to US initiatives in the EU's backyard. Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco by now have signed association agreements with the EU, while Libya and Mauritania still only have observer status in the Barcelona Process.
According to the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Steinmeier is to "hold political talks with high-level government representatives in each of the countries, covering bilateral, European and international topics. The Minister will advocate the protection of human rights and the rule of law, address issues of intercultural dialogue and meet representatives of civil society and political and cultural life," a Ministry statement said.
But he is also strongly promoting business ties between Maghreb countries and Germany, the largest European economy. The Minister, being accompanied by a high-level German business delegation, in Benghazi opened a German-Libyan Business Forum, an event attended by a large number of representatives of German companies and intended to further intensify German-Libyan business relations.
Yesterday, the German Minister arrived in Algiers, where he met with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci and Energy Minister Chakib Khelil and signed the agreement for Algeria's early debt prepayment. Today, Algeria's national oil company Sonatrach and the German energy group EON's gas subsidiary "Eon Rhurgas" signed a memorandum of understanding on energy cooperation. Ministers Steinmeier and Khelil witnessed the signing.
The next leg of the German Minister's will be Tunisia, where he is scheduled to meet President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali tomorrow. On Saturday, Mr Steinmeier goes on to Morocco and Mauritania - just one day before Mauritanians go to the polls to elect their first democratic parliament in decades. The German Minister has signalled that migration will be the most important issue on his journey's last leg.
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