Despite tensions among several of its member countries, an excellent atmosphere reigns in the secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean, an EU initiative for promoting stability and prosperity across the sea that divides Europe from Africa and Asia, Ilan Chet, the project's deputy secretary-general, told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
Ilan Chet is an Israeli microbiologist and has worked for many years as a professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He was recently appointed deputy secretary-general of the Union for the Mediterranean, and is based in its Barcelona secretariat.
Chet was speaking to Georgi Gotev, EurActiv's senior editor.
Professor Chet: you were recently appointed deputy secretary-general of the Union for the Mediterranean. This organisation was created in 2008 during the French EU Presidency, but it became operational only recently. Why do decisions take so long in this framework?
As you said, the Union for the Mediterranean was decided two years ago, but it took time for the European Union to decide on the regulation. In the beginning, it was meant to be an organisation of Mediterranean countries, then it was decided that it should include all EU countries.
[Editor's Note: Among the Union for the Mediterranean's members are the 27 EU countries and Mediterranean partner countries Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. Libya has observer status. The League of Arab States has associated status].
Today it includes 34 countries, and getting consensus among 34 countries takes time. But now the regulations are approved and things are going very smoothly.
Still, there are number of controversial issues. Normally summits should be held every two years and a summit should have taken place in a non-EU country over the last year. But nothing happened. First there was an attempt to move the summit to Barcelona under the Spanish EU Presidency, then even this did not materialise. The reason for this, by the way, was the state of relations between your country, Israel, and the Palestinians. It's difficult to say that things are going smoothly under such circumstances…
First of all, I am not exactly qualified to comment on the reasons for this, because I may not know all of them. Indeed, every time that there have been obstacles in the peace process talks, this has reflected on our framework and there have been postponements. We hope that in the near future things will move and that this will impact positively.
You are a university professor, responsible for higher education and scientific research in the framework of the Union for the Mediterranean. My question may therefore appear too political. There are at least three conflicts between members of the Union for the Mediterranean: the Middle East peace process, the Western Sahara conflict – which opposes two members, Algeria and Mauritania – and the Cyprus conflict, opposing that country, which is a member of the EU, and EU candidate Turkey, which doesn't recognise it. How do you expect to move forward against such a background?
The matter of fact, and this is amazing, is how well all of us are working together. My office is between the Palestinian and the Turkish representative, and we share a secretary together, and we are working in harmony. Before I arrived at our Barcelona headquarters, I had no idea how other people would accept me, and I was told they had the same doubts.
But as a matter of fact each one of us wants to help build some programmes related to the Mediterranean, for the benefit of the people there. It is not that we are not discussing politics from time to time, but we are doing it in a very good manner and a very good atmosphere, and we work together.
The atmosphere is really good in our secretariat, and I would say that if the same was true for the Middle East, we would have peace already.
On a personal basis I have been involved in international secretariats and I know what you mean. But you spoke about projects, and we have heard opinions from politicians that if we want the Union for the Mediterranean to fly, we need good working projects. Can you describe one such flagship project?
As you mentioned, I am in charge of higher education and research, but altogether six deputies are in charge also of urbanisation, transportation, social problems, financing, etc. Some projects are related to civil protection, it's about connecting several countries to help each other in situations of emergency.
Recently in Israel there was a big fire and all the countries around Israel, like Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Turkey, they all helped. That's one example.
In my situation, I would like to support higher education, a master thesis in Euro-Mediterranean studies, to promote exchange between universities, to upgrade the southern universities in a way which would give the students better mobility.
We have a EMUNI Euro-Mediterranean University set up in Slovenia, and we would like to set up partnerships in Northern Africa.
Another example could be solar energy, with a big project already ongoing in Morocco. But we are still in the building phase, as our budget was approved only in November. But each of the six deputies has in the pipeline several projects which will be operational very soon.
How important is it for Israel to be a member of the Union for the Mediterranean? It is perhaps more of a political tool than something that offers pragmatic advantages?
Indeed, Israel as a country will not gain so much from this initiative, because most of the programmes are directed to help the countries on our side of the Mediterranean. We share the same region, but we have fewer problems related to structure.
But Israel pays attention to the initiative at the highest level, because for us to be able to be involved in projects with Arab countries, with Turkey, this is very important, both politically and structurally.
Israel is one of the few countries of the region that is even contributing money for the Union for the Mediterranean secretariat.
How would you describe Israel-Turkey relations, which recently suffered a great deal from the Gaza flotilla episode?
There was tension. I am not a professional politician, but I can see a trend from both countries to reduce this tension and to go back to normal. Everyone I talk to from both sides is looking forward to bringing back the very good relations that were before.
Will the recent 'Jasmine revolution' in Tunisia impact positively in the regional framework, or do you expect a period of uncertainty?
It's a difficult question. The situation is so unstable that it could develop both ways, either with people willing to open to the world, or to the other extreme, with extremists unwilling to talk to Europe taking the lead. It's still too early to say.
How about the effect of contamination of the Tunisia revolution on other countries, like Algeria abd Egypt?
In very general terms, I thing that we need to let the countries establish their own political agendas. By the way, I don't think that the situation in Tunisia is similar to other countries, like Egypt, for example.
How would you describe your country's relations with the EU?
I think our relations develop well. This shows also in cooperation in hi-tech, in the presence of investors. Years ago, Israel was boycotted by European companies. Now many Israeli companies come to Israel to invest and may Israelis are investing in Europe. The relationship is developing well.
Well, there is also the Middle East peace process, where the EU is trying to mediate. What is the major obstacle for advancing in this process?
The obstacle is of course the role played by extremists.
But there are extremists on both sides. Some people would say that your country's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is an extremist…
In a way, he is.
You are comfortable saying this?
As I said, I am not a diplomat or a politician. But I am optimistic about the chances of finding a solution to the existing problems.