E.U. Ups the Ante in "Neighbourhood" Expansion: With the European Union's Frontiers Expanding Both East and South in Recent Months, Brussels Has Now Moved into Position as a Potential Major Middle Eastern Player. Jon Gorvett Reports from Istanbul

Article excerpt

WITH CYPRUS AND MALTA joining the EU last year, North Africa and the Levant have become far more part of the EU's neighbourhood than before, a fact now crystalised in the EU's Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).

Under its remit, European commissioners have been travelling throughout the Arab world pushing trade agreements and political and economic reform agendas, behind which are major opportunities for those on the edge of the EU to boost ties and take advantage of the world's richest market.

Yet the ENP's origins lie far removed from the Arab world. The policy was initially developed to try to provide an answer to the tricky question of what to do about Ukraine, not Palestine, and many EU countries remain more concerned with Georgia than Jordan. Indeed, many in the Arab world are asking just what the price of the ENP might be, if their states sign up to it.

The policy consists of two different elements. On the one hand an agenda to encourage political reform, while on the other a move towards free trade. In terms of the Mediterranean, the ENP is therefore a follow up, if not a successor, to the Barcelona Process.

Launched 10 years ago in the Catalan capital, the Barcelona Process began a move towards a series of Association Agreements between the EU and individual North African and Middle Eastern countries. At the time, Algeria and Libya were excluded, although Algeria has since joined up and Libya seems likely to come on board soon.

The Association Agreements involved an opening up of trade between the EU and the non-EU Barcelona Process countries, alongside an opening up of trade between the individual members of the latter grouping. The eventual target was to create a single, Mediterranean free trade zone, while also committing the signatories to a series of initiatives on the environment and political reform.

Ten years on, out of the original Barcelona countries only Syrian progress has stalled. An Association Agreement was initialled between Damascus and Brussels, but is in abeyance awaiting ratification by the EU Council of Ministers and the Syrian government. In the current climate over Syria and Lebanon, it seems unlikely it will be ratified until the political situation becomes clearer.

Meanwhile, the EU has expanded dramatically since 1995. The accession of the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in particular raised the question of how far east the EU's boundaries should go. The regime change in Ukraine then put the question more sharply, as did changes in Georgia.

The ENP thus stumbled onto the stage, offering agreements with the eastern countries that resembled in many ways those of the Barcelona Process. The policy masterstroke was for the EU to then bring its Mediterranean policy under the same umbrella.

This had the effect of unifying and evolving an embryonic EU foreign policy. The way it worked from then on was, for example, that while Spain might not be much interested in Ukraine, it is highly concerned with Morocco. With the reverse being the case for a country such as Estonia, the policy meant that EU countries would have to make deals with each other across Europe, from one frontier to another, in order to get their view heard. Spain thus becomes a concerned party in Kiev, Estonia in Rabat.

The ENP works through a series of typically EU steps. In negotiation with the concerned country, a Country Report followed by a draft Action Plan is drawn up. Implementing this devolves to nine different joint sub-committees, covering areas from human rights to industrial development. Currently, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have these committees, while Lebanon and Egypt have agreements but have not yet progressed to the committee stage. …