The Union for the Mediterranean, founded 25 years ago, brings together 42 countries, including the entire EU, to cooperate on economic, social and climate issues. In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, General Secretary Nasser Kamel explains how the Union is taking action against the COVID crisis.
Nasser Kamel is the secretary-general of the Union for the Mediterranean. Before that, he served as Egyptian ambassador in London and Paris.
The Union for the Mediterranean celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. How has its role changed?
The organisation and Euro-Mediterranean cooperation came about against the backdrop of geopolitical realities at that time. The Berlin wall had fallen, and the occupation of Kuwait had ended. With that came renewed hope for a settlement Israeli-Arab conflict. Back then, the organisation’s focus was on security and stability as well as economic cooperation and cultural exchange.
In the last 25 years, our development followed the changing reality of today’s world. We identify ourselves strongly with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs. We focus on other issues, such as climate change, biodiversity youth and Women’s empowerment
Which COVID-challenges are specific to the Mediterranean?
COVID-19 by definition tends to affect those who have preexisting conditions, and the same applies to countries and economies. Some of the economies in the Mediterranean regions face extreme challenges, like in Southern Europe.
And there is another reality: Segments of society that are vulnerable, such as women and youth, who are more affected. Women are, because they work primarily in the service sector, they stand in the front line. A study showed that in the southern Mediterranean region, between 700,000 – 750,000 women will lose their job due to the pandemic.
What is the specific role of the Union in tackling these challenges?
We organised a conference on the pandemic’s impact on gender equality, discussing the economic impact on our women, the loss of jobs, and how to help women entrepreneurs in terms of training and skills.
Another example: With the help of the German ministry for development and with the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), we launched an employment scheme in the region with non-profit-organizations just months ago. Now we are going over 140 applications. It’s not a huge project, but a good tool, as it serves as an example to be followed by other governments.
How did this project come about?
Actually, we approached each other. First we came to the Germans, asked them for support in the region, and their reaction was extraordinary. At first, we tried to tackle structural issues: Easing trade barriers or relaxing rules of origin. Trade between the north and the south of the Mediterranean is three times more expensive than between EU member states. Then, after COVID-19 hit, we sat down with the Germans and developed this employment scheme.
Now, other states wish to follow suit: Sweden has always been very engaged in the region, we cooperate on questions of climate change and female empowerment. Norway does a lot to boost education. With Spain, we are close to reaching an agreement on employment and water policy. We are also in discussions with France and Italy.
From your experience as an ambassador: In tackling these challenges, are there any conflicting interests within the Union?
As a diplomat, I noticed that in the beginning of the crisis, countries reacted based on narrow national interests – not just in the Union for the Mediterranean, but around the world. But soon after, states understood that it is a regional and global issue, and concerted their efforts.
Within the Union, trade ministers recently held a big gathering for investment and employment. During these negotiations, I did not detect any tensions.
How do you foresee the Union’s role in the next 25 years? Which challenges are on the horizon?
We see ourselves as the regional chapter of the SDGs. They are our compass. Within that umbrella, five priorities will determine our work in the years to come. The first is climate change, not least because we are the second most affected region. Another is environmental protection. We must deal with pollution and plastic.
The third priority is employment, since it is an answer to so many problems, like migration or radicalisation. And finally, women and youth. Studies are showing that if women are fully integrated into the labour force, GDP would double then in the next ten years.