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Europe’s Forgotten Neighbours: Union for the Mediterranean

, by Frank Maxwell

A distinction is often made between European Neighbours and neighbours of Europe within the EU. The former shares a much greater cultural proximity and, behind closed doors, represents candidates for membership. The latter is a purely geographic label. A two-tier Neighbourhood Policy has emerged out of this polarized vision, which has largely neglected Europe’s Southern neighbours.

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The Mediterranean holds considerable geopolitical and economic significance for Europe and deserves more attention.

Although somewhat neglected by the media since its inception in 2008, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) has been busily working in the shadows, and today stands poised to take on a more visible role in Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. The UfM brings together 43 countries (representing the 28 member states of the EU and 15 Mediterranean partner countries), which aim to promote stability and prosperity throughout the Mediterranean region. Unlike other initiatives, which work in parallel with Europe’s Neighbourhood Policy, UfM has been endowed with unique institutions and animated by a pragmatic philosophy focused on concrete cooperation projects.

The narrative woven by the media does not reflect reality. In the Middle East, the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has caused deadlock in the negotiations concerning some UfM projects. Further complicating cooperation in the region, the Euro-crisis has put political and economic stress on the Mediterranean’s northern shores and the wave of popular uprisings that began in Tunisia in 2011 has brought considerable political upheaval to the region. Despite the less than propitious political and economic context, the UfM is operating at full capacity.

While the political context has hindered high-level meetings since 2008, it has not blocked the development of UfM’s actions, which are organised in six priority areas laid out in the 2008 Paris Declaration. Several sectorial ministerial meetings have been conducted and three new sectors of cooperation will be integrated in 2013, including women, transport and energy.

The UfM Secretariat mobilises over 50 people to oversee the management of a diverse portfolio of projects and is quickly becoming a centre of excellence for cross-border project management in the region. It has followed a pragmatic strategy of building cooperation and trust through concrete projects that are driven by the member states themselves. The project portfolio includes actions ranging from micro-projects to large-scale infrastructure and mega-projects such as the Trans-Maghreb Motor Highway or the Mediterranean Solar Plan.

The UfM Secretariat has also strategically placed itself as a hub connecting a multitude of actors in government, the private sector and civil society across the Mediterranean region. It has done this through working with project promoters and financial actors to identify regional priorities, but also actively facilitating existing sub-regional political and economic forums. One example of this type of partnership is the Western Mediterranean Forum, commonly referred to as 5+5 Dialogue, which will hold its economic forum on October 26. This informal sub-regional forum, launched in 1990, brings together like-minded countries situated on the western rim of the Mediterranean.

One of UfM’s greatest assets is the shared sense of ownership. While the European Neighbourhood Policy largely follows a top-down, one-way model, the UfM’s unique institutions and focus on concrete cooperation have fostered a more organic approach in the Mediterranean. One of the most unique aspects of the organisation’s institutional architecture is the North-South co-presidency. The European Commission occupies the Northern presidency allowing for maximum synergies with the EU’s own regional policy.

One of the main goals of Europe’s Neighbourhood Policy is to prevent the emergence of new dividing lines between EU Member States and their neighbours. The tumultuous political and economic situations in many areas of North Africa and the Middle East risk further widening the income gap between North and South. The Mediterranean basin is also one of the least integrated world regions. Aside from the moral dimension of supporting prosperity and stability on Europe’s borders, the current situation could translate into serious security and immigration problems for the EU if not addressed. A prosperous and stable region will require long-term investment and a credible policy framework to help break down barriers in this fragmented region. Despite a difficult political and economic environment, the UfM is proving to be just that.

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