If the results of the Barcelona process are disappointing overall, each of the Southern Mediterranean countries are trying to get the best they can out of it. In Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, economic growth does not necessarily mean increased human rights.
Prosperity out of reach for Egypt
Economic growth has returned to Egypt and the EU remains Cairo’s principal business partner. However, poverty levels are not falling and the problem still affects more than 30% of the population, according to the United Nations. The country’s economy is weak and debt repayments account for more and more of the national GDP, representing 41.5% in 2004.
Trade barriers continue to block Egypt from Europe’s markets, and it is only manufactured products (for which the countries of the southern Mediterranean have no competitive advantage) that are currently covered by the free trade agreement. The Director-General of the Economic Research Forum in Cairo, Samir Radwan, believes EU subsidies for its agricultural sector – a question which has been dodged around for 10 years – are “the number 1 problem we should be looking at, both in Egypt and in other countries in the region”. According to him, modernisation of industry – in which European aid in the country plays a major role – is also “indispensable”. Furthermore, he underlines the importance of favouring the movement of people because “human mobility is the best way to fight against religious radicalism”. However, Europe is still lacking a legal framework that can deal with the migration of workers. On the contrary, the issue of security has been further prioritised with the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration. The launch, this April in Alexandria, of the Anna Lindh centre for the dialogue of cultures is an encouraging move, but one which is still only in its beginning stages.
Political instability in Syria
Following eight years of negotiation, on October 19, 2005, Syria was the last country on the southern bank of the Mediterranean basin to sign the association agreement with the European Union. Since 1995, Syria has profited from European Union economic support via the MEDA II programme that subsidises non-EU Mediterranean countries in their economic and social reforms. In these countries, the promotion of propitious stability is favoured over the creation of a free exchange zone. 138.5 million euros have been allocated in this way for operations of economic transition and for the reform of administrative structures. Syria, however, did not sign the Framework Convention until July 2000, as up until then the government had been reticent towards any liberalisation.
Europe is Syria’s main provider, with European goods accounting for 27% of Syria’s imports, and she is also its first client, accounting for 75% if its exports (mainly oil). Two priorities have been added to the horizon in 2005-2006 concerning the promotion of civil society and human rights, which had previously been blocked by the government’s institutions. The Euromed Heritage initiative is dedicated to conserving the heritage of the Euro-Mediterranean region. However, today, Damascus is in the line of fire more than ever before: in light of the calls from the international community to cooperate over the investigation into the assassination of the former Lebanese president, doesn’t the defiant attitude of President Bachar threaten to make a dent in a partnership that is still yet young and fragile?
Economic growth but poor human rights in Tunisia
With an unemployment rate of 14% but a strong economy growth of 5.6% per annum, Tunisia aspires to be an ambitious leader in the south Mediterranean area. It was one of the first countries to sign the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement with the EU in 1995 (the same year as joining the World Trade Organisation) and in 1996 the customs tariff barriers were lifted in order to create a free trade area in the Mediterranean. Economic liberalism is gradually increasing, whilst cooperation with the EU is being strengthened in regard to a large number of export routes.
Meanwhile, the government supports the emergence of new businesses and the investment of foreign companies in Tunisia. Tunisia is changing its target industry to that of the communication sector and the service industry, above all tourism. The Euromed Partnership insists on cultural, political, economic and social talks, but civil rights and internal politics are still painful topics, as revealed in the Amnesty International report on human rights violations on the eve of the world summit on today’s information society. The freedom of expression, association and access to information are still very limited by the Tunisian government.
This fact obscures the activities of local human rights organisations despite Tunisia’s adhesion to various international treaties on human rights. The prisons are full of political prisoners, but the international community seems to be unaware. The press, despite the promises of President Ben Ali, rests in his service and the laws regarding them are applied in a very restrictive manner.