Mediterranean Union chief: We promote regional cooperation

Lake Bizerte in Tunisia is being cleaned thanks to a project organised by the Union for the Mediterranean. [Ghar El Melh Photo Citizen59/Flickr]

Following the recent political chaos in the Mediterranean region, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) group is now focussing on collaborative local projects rather than large-scale regional policy, Fathallah Sijilmassi told EURACTIV France.

The UfM has 43 members, including the 28 EU member states. It was launched in 2008 to prolong the Barcelona process, aimed at deepening cooperation between the European Union and Mediterranean countries. The 43 foreign affairs ministers of the UfM will meet in January next year to tackle the big issues facing the region.

Fathallah Sijilmassi is a Moroccan diplomat and secretary-general of the UfM.

Sijilmassi spoke to Aline Robert, euractiv.fr’s editor-in-chief.

What state is the Union for the Mediterranean in?

We decided to launch actions on several levels. On the political side, with ministerial meetings, notably the meetings of foreign affairs ministers in November 2015 and January 2017 in Barcelona. But we also deal with more operational thematics, such as the climate, the environment, women and young people. The UfM is not a body for negotiation, but for regional cooperation.

Are the countries that saw the Arab Spring revolutions involved in the Mediterranean Union?

Of course, with the exception of Syria, which pulled out of the process in 2011. Libya has observer status because the country was not able to join the organisation completely. Otherwise, all these countries are present.

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We have seen many different actors getting involved in refugee question, but not the Union for the Mediterranean itself. Why is this?

A distinction should be made between two levels: on one hand, the political dialogue between the UfM member states, which deals with all the political matters of the region, and on the other hand, the action of the Secretariat of the UfM, which is acting within the framework of a specific mandate to develop and operationalize regional cooperation initiatives. In this regard, our actions contribute directly to regional stability.

The UfM is a platform for bringing up all these questions, where we cooperate and have the opportunity to exchange. We structure our platforms openly, reaching out towards civil society, universities and local authorities. Inclusivity is vital if people are to take ownership of the UfM project.

Do political issues sometimes represent obstacles to cooperation?

The 43 UfM member countries reaffirm their will to reinforce their regional cooperation. No one ignores the political crisis and the conflicts in the region, but we have the vocation to make progress fostering the exchanges at regional level. Let’s take the example of the strategic project of the desalination plant in Gaza, which will alleviate the severe water shortage for 1.8 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.

So what does your action consist of, concretely?

We coordinate regional projects. We demonstrate that regional cooperation can benefit the situation in the region. The regional dimension helps to understand the complex issues, and our projects gain easier access to finance. In total, we currently have 47 regional projects up and running worth a total of €5 billion, such as the cleaning up of Lake Bizerte in Tunisia, for some €90 million.

‘Variable geometry’ to bind EU and Mediterranean countries

Faced with many challenges, from migration to terrorism, the EU and its Mediterranean partners must cooperate with pragmatism and variable geometry, the Secretary General of the Union for the Mediterranean, Fathallah Sijilmassi, said.

How are you funded?

We do not fund our projects directly, but we mobilise financial partners like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the EU itself. In the UfM secretariat, we concentrate on the political, technical and financial engineering.

We have experts and financial backers that ensure projects meet the eligibility requirements of the funders. Some representatives seconded from the EIB and the EBRD are working in the Secretariat of the UfM.

What benefit does the UfM bring, and to whom?

The UfM label is highly valued by investors, because there is no situation where the best response could be found at a strictly national or bilateral level.

Whatever the issue is. For example, a refugee that leaves from Asia or the Middle East for Sweden, Germany of the United Kingdom has to cross many borders. So a large number of countries are concerned by the subject.

And the same goes for climate change. It would be unrealistic to think that a single country could face the challenge of climate change alone. Actions at regional level make more sense than those at national level.

 

Further Reading

Background

Founded in 2008, the aim of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) is to foster closer cooperation between EU countries and their Mediterranean neighbours. But the political transition in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, as well as the war in Syria, have robbed the union of its initial momentum. For the last four years, the Union for the Mediterranean has been concentrating on concrete projects led by a co-presidency of the EU and North African countries, facilitating the EU's neighbourhood policy, and a southern co-presidency, currently occupied by Jordan. The seat of the UfM is in Barcelona.