The lessons of Europe’s ill-fated attempt to forge a Mediterranean political and economic grouping need to be studied carefully, says Josep Borrell. He points to a more modest strategy for the latest plan, the Union for the Mediterranean
Also known as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the Barcelona Process began life in 1995, but by 2005 was largely considered a failure, or at least a disappointment. Its critics claimed that it did not fulfil its promises, and so could hardly deliver on the expectations placed in it. So was this harsh judgement right? To a large extent the answer has to be ‘yes’, but then the Barcelona process was born on the wave of optimism regarding the Middle East created by the Oslo peace accords. Their subsequent failure was also one of the main reasons for the failure to realise the most ambitious aims of the Barcelona Process.
Looking back on the preparatory work for the Barcelona Process that I was at the time involved in as a Spanish Minster, there was even then a yawning gap between the ambitious aims of the project and the immense difficulties and obstacles that stood in the way of reaching them. And as the Barcelona Process got under way, the intensifying level of conflict between Israel and Palestine, together with the Iraq war and the more general confrontation between the western and Muslim worlds, rendered the workings of the Barcelona Process almost impossible.
This became particularly clear to me personally as the then Speaker of the Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly. The episode Danish press cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed brought home the reality of how difficult it was to achieve even a minimum of understanding. On top of that, there was the near-impossibility of getting the Assembly to accept the presence of Israeli representatives at the time when there were air attacks on Lebanon. In this atmosphere, one so different to the Oslo period when the Barcelona Process was launched, it became clear that the initiative stood no chance of fulfilling its aims.
Europe was at this time in any case looking eastwards rather than southwards. The EU enlargement process had consumed much of the political energy and financial resources of Union. The time and energy invested by the EU on Poland in a single year was greater than the total amount invested in all the North African countries since the beginnings of the Barcelona Process.
So perhaps it would be true to say that the Barcelona Process was “mission impossible” from the outset; certainly the underpinnings on which it had been founded vanished almost immediately after it saw the light of day. Perhaps the project’s greatest achievement was the fact of its setting-up of it and the formulation of its agenda. To bring all the various parties together – above all Israel and the Palestinian authority – and to agree on a declaration and the principles on which to base the new regional relationship was without doubt in itself a major diplomatic achievement. By agreeing on the Barcelona Declaration, all the actors involved and above all the very pro-active then Spanish foreign minister Javier Solana set ambitious targets of democratisation, security and economic growth for the Mediterranean countries.
Focusing on the three ‘baskets’ of political, economic and cultural relations was a constructive first step toward strengthening relations with them. Yet the steps that were to follow in the ensuring years were largely disappointing, so the whole process was in the end relatively ineffective. Now overshadowed by the Union for the Mediterranean, which aims to build on the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, the balance sheet since 1995 is scanty. And it’s a perception shame by all the actors involved. In short, the upshot has been widespread frustration in diplomatic circles of all the countries concerned.
Yet there were some successes too. A broader outcome of the Barcelona Process has been that bi-lateral relations between the EU and a number of Mediterranean countries have been deepened. And there have been achievements in some economic areas, as well as significant progress at a cultural level.
But the most important and also time-sensitive basket was the one which focused on security, human rights, democracy, political values and governance. The deterioration of the Middle East peace process can be blamed for the lack of progress, but it was nevertheless very disappointing that the Barcelona Process failed to foster political change in the authoritarian regimes of many of the Mediterranean countries. It was able neither to encourage a model for Arab reform and political modernisation nor to build EU partnership based on political reform. Our declared goal of strengthening the foundations of political change was clearly not met, and I now believe that the lesson to be learnt from this disappointing outcome is that the EU’s Mediterranean policy focus should be more modest, setting our sights a bit lower instead of striving for over-ambitious goals.
Another major obstacle that stood in the way of the Barcelona Process was the obvious lack of common identity and shared goals among all the different countries involved. Of course there are different political cultures and even policy divergences among EU member states, but the conflicting interests and goals of the non-EU countries were and remain much greater, ranging from those who strive for EU accession to those that have completely rejected not just of free elections but also free trade. These fundamental differences together with the absence of a common identity make coherent negotiations impossible. This absence of any “regional will” is a structural problem, but equally serious are the in-built limitations of any sort of “union” between the EU and the Mediterranean countries, because of the two groupings, one of them cannot possibly act as a single entity. These Arab countries clearly have common interests in certain projects, but these shared interests do not constitute a strong enough glue to create unity. The real interest of these non-EU Mediterranean countries is their own bi-lateral relationship with the EU.
It remains to be seen what the impact of the Union for the Mediterranean will turn out to be. Regardless of all the justifiable criticism levelled at the Barcelona Process, it has to be borne in mind that it was conceived as a long-term process. Its very complexity made it hard to draw useful conclusions even after a decade, the point at which it was being widely written-off as a failure. As to its successor, the UfM, there too we will only be able to pass judgement after many years.
The EU’s Mediterranean policies deal, therefore, with very ambitious aims in a very difficult setting. And even though I agree that overall the Barcelona Process was the disappointment its critics claim, at the same time I believe there is still hope for the future. The experience gained from the Barcelona Process warns us that unrealistic aims like the idea of a major Mediterranean free-trade area must be avoided. Instead, the focus should be on providing a more general framework that concentrates on specific projects like the fight against pollution, energy policy, migration and agriculture. This is to some extent what has now been done with the UfM’s six priority projects.
Focusing on more realistic aims also means putting into their proper perspective over-ambitious aims, like making peace in the Middle East, and also the Barcelona Process’ initial aim of promoting democracy and good governance. It’s equally important to acknowledge the lack of unity and divergent interests of the countries around the Mediterranean, because that is even more the case for the Union for the Mediterranean with 43 members countries than it was for the Barcelona Process, with 38. Only bearing this firmly in mind, and by being realistic about the fact that each of these Mediterranean governments prefers to develop its own relationship with the EU, will we be able to move forward.
Josep Borrell Fontelles is President of the European University Institute and was formerly the President of the European Parliament