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Session 2007 - 08
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EU Document Com (2007) 598 relating to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Peter Atkinson
Crausby, Mr. David (Bolton, North-East) (Lab)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H. (Central Ayrshire) (Lab)
Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
Field, Mr. Mark (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
Fraser, Mr. Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Gauke, Mr. David (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh, South) (Lab)
Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Minister for the Middle East)
Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury) (Con)
Moffat, Anne (East Lothian) (Lab)
Newmark, Mr. Brooks (Braintree) (Con)
Spink, Bob (Castle Point) (Con)
Stoate, Dr. Howard (Dartford) (Lab)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Standing Committee

Tuesday 22 January 2008

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

EU Document Com (2007) 598 relating to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership

4.30 pm
The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): It is a pleasure to serve on this Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. It is also a pleasure to appear before this Committee.
I will throw out a health warning: hon. Members will need to ask the Minister for Europe about the finer points of the Lisbon reform treaty. I have had very little do with that, thank God. As the Minister responsible for the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, and having represented the United Kingdom at the Euro-Med Foreign Ministers meeting in November, I will be happy to take questions about the EU’s relations with the near east and north Africa and any other aspect of Euro-Med.
The Euro-Mediterranean partnership, or Barcelona process, was established in 1995 following the Madrid conference and in a climate of some optimism for the middle east peace process. Thirteen years on, we are still searching for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That is essential for security and stability in the region and remains one of our highest priorities.
The international conference in Annapolis in November was the best opportunity for progress in several years. We welcome the agreement that has come from the Annapolis conference, which has put the Israelis and the Palestinians on a path, we hope, to real negotiations in 2008. Those should lead to a final settlement of two states living side by side, in peace and security.
We are focusing on the road from Annapolis. Results will need to come quickly to maintain momentum. The Paris donors’ conference in December confirmed the commitment of international partners actively to foster the economic development of a future Palestinian state. Pledges exceeded $7 billion, with the United Kingdom promising up to £243 million over three years. The work of Tony Blair, the Quartet representative, will be one of the keys to delivering a future Palestinian state with strong institutions and a robust economy. As the Prime Minister announced, the United Kingdom will co-sponsor a conference to promote investment in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The Euro-Mediterranean partnership was never intended to resolve the middle east peace process, but it remains one of the few forums in which Israel and the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria sit around the same table. That is one good reason for continuing the partnership.
The motion before us is whether the Euro-Mediterranean partnership can help to deliver the Government’s objectives, provided it focuses more on outcomes than on process. I would like to mention some of the outcomes.
The 10th anniversary of the Euro-Med summit took place in 2005 during the United Kingdom presidency of the EU. It resulted in a five-year work programme focusing on reform in a region which is very much in need of it. It included concrete commitments on political, economic and social reform and to increase significantly funding on education. It agreed a code of conduct on countering terrorism in which, for the first time, Israel and the Arab countries agreed to counter terrorism in all its forms. It established a governance facility, now operational, to support those partners which make most progress in their political, economic and social reforms. The five-year work programme has also influenced Commission spending. Fifty per cent. of Commission spending in the region now goes towards supporting partners’ reforms.
A fundamental objective of the Barcelona process is the creation of an Euro-Med free trade area by 2010. It is unlikely to be fully in place by 2010, but significant progress has been made. Most industrial goods from countries in the south of the Mediterranean now enjoy duty free access to the EU. Mediterranean countries are progressively dismantling tariffs on imports of EU industrial goods. Progress has also been made towards south-south free trade agreements, for example the Agadir free trade agreement between Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Egypt. Therefore, Mediterranean countries have made progress in realising their part of the neighbourhood-wide free trade agreement, which the Foreign Secretary envisaged in his Bruges speech in November.
The United Kingdom has been active in getting Euro-Med to focus on global challenges, such as energy and climate change, migration, and countering extremism. Progress is being made on Euro-Med’s energy objectives. That includes the integration of electricity markets in north Africa and of gas markets in the Levant, the promotion of greater use of renewable energy, and better market regulation and transparency to achieve the long-term goal of a common Euro-Mediterranean energy market.
For the first time, Euro-Med is starting to focus on climate change. At Lisbon, Ministers called for more work to raise awareness, to support studies on the regional impact of climate change and to facilitate technical co-operation and exchange of expertise.
Portugal hosted the first Euro-Med ministerial meeting on migration in November. The ministerial declaration signals a strong commitment to further dialogue and joint practical action on migration.
I have already mentioned the Euro-Med code of conduct on countering terrorism. At Lisbon, I highlighted the need to be more proactive and imaginative in countering the so-called “single narrative” of al-Qaeda and its apologists and allies. There is a role here for the Anna Lindh Foundation, Euro-Med’s body for dialogue of cultures, particularly in the 2008 year of intercultural dialogue. That said, most would agree that Euro-Med has come nowhere near to realising its potential. There is too much emphasis on process and not enough on outcomes. The Lisbon conclusions are long and cumbersome, and a testament to the difficulty of agreeing anything in a forum of 37 countries—now 39, with the accession of Albania and Mauritania. But it is trying to sharpen its delivery. Ongoing work to improve Euro-Med’s working practices is intended to enhance a sense of co-ownership, to increase efficiency and to ensure visibility. That includes a road map—a hideous word, but I hope that you, Mr. Atkinson, will excuse it—to ensure that activities are focused on delivering priority objectives.
In conclusion, I believe that Euro-Med has the potential to help to deliver the Government’s objectives. It has made good progress towards a free trade area. With UK encouragement, it is addressing priorities such as promoting a low-carbon and high-growth global economy and countering terrorism and extremism, but it needs to focus much more on outcomes than on process. We have been working with others to steer it in that direction.
The Chairman: I thank the Minister for that. I am sure that Committee members know the form, but we have until half-past 5 for questions. I remind Members that questions should be asked one at a time. I am sure that there will be plenty of time for all the questions.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I am sure that the code of conduct on countering terrorism is a useful piece of paper, but can the Minister tell the Committee of any examples where the commitment of the parties to that code has led to practical changes in conduct that have been to the benefit of United Kingdom security policy?
Dr. Howells: Yes, indeed. We have begun to discuss the problems of what is now being called “al-Qaeda of the Maghreb”, especially with some of the countries most affected by terrorism, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, to a certain extent, and Egypt. For a long time, there have been discussions with the Governments of those countries about the worries that they have all expressed.
The Committee may be interested to know that three years ago, I began discussing the matter, first with the Algerians, and then with the Moroccans and others. Quite independent of each other, they expressed concerns that, when the conflict in Iraq is resolved—hopefully that will be sooner rather than later—some of the people who are called foreign fighters, the insurgents who have gone to Iraq with the aim of carrying out that jihad that they talk about so freely, might move into the Sahel, the great remote area of southern Libya, from the Nile across through Sudan to Mauritania in the west. They are very worried about that because they believe that there is good access through the people-trafficking routes into Europe.
We have taken the matter very seriously. The Spanish and the Italians have been particularly worried about that. The Spanish have had a very difficult time in their two enclaves in Morocco and have been working closely with the Moroccan authorities to try to stop not just illegal immigrants—they are also very worried about terrorists using those routes. The same goes for those who have escaped or come through countries such as Libya and have swamped little islands such as Malta, which is, of course, part of the Euro-Med process as a partner. The Maltese, too, have been worried about the transit of terrorists. I think that that has been a useful discussion.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure, Mr. Atkinson, to serve under your chairmanship today. This is my first European Standing Committee so I am sure you will put me right if I get any of the procedure wrong.
Given that the Euro-Mediterranean partnership has produced no end of five-year plans and reports of apparent progress being made, what does the Minister consider the most significant achievement of the Euro-Med partnership over the past 13 years?
Dr. Howells: The hon. Lady asks the most difficult question of all. Most probably it is the fact that it is one of the few venues where the Israelis and all of the Arab countries that are part of the partnership sit down and speak to each other. It has not always been a constructive discussion. Sometimes it has been destructive in terms of trying to get a dialogue going.
An extremely large sum of money has been allocated to try to address what most economists regard as the biggest step-change: the difference in income per capita between the north and south shores of the Mediterranean. Many of us, including John Major and his Government who had very high hopes, went into the process believing that it would be a way of channelling the wealth of the north into projects that would raise education and skills and people’s aspirations in the south and do something to persuade people to stay in their countries and to give them some hope to stay there. That has been the most important aim and in a sense it underpins everything that Euro-Med tries to do.
What has been most valuable is that there has been a spark of hope for discussion between the Israelis and the Arabs. It has not always produced a lot but at least it has been a hope.
Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I, too, pay my respects to you as Chairman, Mr. Atkinson, and this great Committee. I also declare that it is the first one I have been to and I am sure you will correct me. As the Minister is someone I have known for a long time, I am sure he will be favourable to me and the question I have.
Will the Minister tell the Committee what discussions have taken place with France, since as we know, it wishes to strengthen the Euro-Mediterranean partnership? Given France’s reluctance for Turkey to join the EU, is there a belief that strengthening the Euro-Med partnership would justify Turkey’s accession to the EU, but would draw out the process even more?
As far as Turkey is concerned, it is something that worries us because we have argued the case for Turkey’s accession to the EU as we believe that it is a good idea, but we know that France has a rather different attitude towards that, as do some other EU member states. It would be important to ensure that any discussion about Turkey’s role, both in Euro-Med and vis-Ã -vis its aspiration to become an EU member, ought to be discussed by all the members of the EU, and not just by a select few that happen to immediately border the Mediterranean.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I am keen to have the Minister’s observation on the following point. I note that he has tabled a motion, which he hopes will be passed today. It concerns effective delivery, rather than focusing simply on process, but is not that diametrically opposed to elements of the process to which he has referred? I am thinking of the positive aspects of a Euro-Med organisation with about 39 member states as diverse as Albania on the one hand and Finland and Sweden on the other, but also the issues that he referred to about getting everybody into a room and hopefully getting them to discuss matters in a fairly peaceable and civilised way. For the want of a better phrase, it would provide something of a talking shop. As we all know, talking shops have their place in political life. It could well be that on some of the key issues, such as energy security and peace throughout the region and the long-term concern of counter-terrorism, there will be a great benefit to having a talking shop of sorts to allow various diplomats, political figures and business people to have their say within the Euro-Med umbrella. However, does he not recognise that the actualitÃ(c) of what happened in Lisbon, and may well happen at future meetings, runs counter to the desire expressed in the motion that there should be an effective delivery?
Dr. Howells: Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman has cut to the chase. It is difficult to square this huge organisation of 39 countries with focusing on a particular programme of work. There are ways to address that. Ironically, in the light of what I said about the Mediterranean union, that probably involves certain countries being allocated certain tasks. I will explain what I mean.
In the first few meetings that I went to, I could never understand why so many of the Arab partners were obstructive; they were constantly on the defensive. One day the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Aboul Gheit, told me what the problem was. He is always ready to tell me things in forthright terms and I greatly value his opinion. The problem, he said, is that Europe decides the agenda and then says, “Here is the agenda. What do you think?”, instead of there being a process that begins with a sense of equality on both shores of the Mediterranean, or indeed all three shores. That has generated a sense of—obstructionism is the wrong word—but the process is not relished in the way it should be. They feel that there are too many barriers, and that the first of those is an assumption that Europe knows best.
In a way, because we are putting the money up, one can understand our aim for issues such as good governance. That, of course, is something that a lot of Arab countries reject. They say, “Your definition of good governance is not the same as ours.” Before the Committee started, the hon. Member for Aylesbury and I were talking about how countries cope with terrorism, and how they define democracy. There is no absolute paradigm; no model that is correct for all situations. That is something that we have not taken enough notice of. We have not been serious enough about addressing the issue. As a consequence, the talking shop, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster very accurately called it, has been the main focus of the work.
It took me a long time to discover that there are other Ministers involved in the Euro-Med process who are doing very specialist things. Shortly after the Lisbon meeting that I attended, there were meetings of Home Affairs Ministers and Ministers for the Interior who met in Portugal to discuss immigration, both legal and illegal. I understand that they made good process. Transport Ministers and Energy Ministers have also met. My perception has been distorted by attending meetings of Foreign Ministers where they feel that they can talk about anything and where discussion of the umbrella organisation means that we do not drill down to the individual projects. Such projects could make the best use of the funding that exists and benefit the people in those countries. It is a difficult matter and we have to address it, which is why I am interested in sharpening up the performance of the Euro-Med process, rather than concentrating on process itself.
Jo Swinson: Will the Minister expand on what he said about the Euro-Med’s climate change initiatives and the studies and co-operation that takes place? Across the EU, there are of course carbon reduction targets, but it strikes me that the Euro-Med could perhaps be a vehicle for influencing other countries, such as when we tried to reach agreement on carbon reduction targets post-Kyoto and post-Bali. I would be intrigued to hear what he thinks is the potential for influencing that issue at Euro-Med.
Dr. Howells: It has been fascinating. For the past three years—there have been three years that I know of anyway—we have made specific demands on Euro-Med to become the forum for discussing joint action on issues such as climate change. I do not know of many other forums apart from the UN where it is possible to bring together such countries. I suppose some of those issues might be discussed at Davos, although that forum will probably be preoccupied with the financial atmosphere at the moment.
At Euro-Med it is possible to talk to countries such as Algeria. Algeria and Egypt—along with Qatar and Norway, of course—are two of our most important suppliers of natural gas. I do not know many other forums where supplier countries get together with user countries in the way that happens at Euro-Med. I am not saying that that has resulted in the great trans-Mediterranean pipeline projects, but those matters have certainly been discussed at the meetings that I have attended. One can easily see how it is a subject in which both sides would be interested; they both have a financial interest and it is important to the economies of the Maghreb, Egypt and Europe.
When we first introduced the subject of climate change, there was a great reluctance at Euro-Med to discuss it. The reluctance emerged from very different countries. Germany was worried about its car industry and that targets it considered to be unreachable within the time scales might affect its production costs and sales. Fiercely independent countries, such as Algeria, said, “Hang on a minute. We need these gas sales to rebuild our economy. We don’t want any nonsense about countries not buying as much gas from us or urging us to keep it in the ground.” The dialogue to try to overcome those attitudes has been important, and we have made some progress on that subject—perhaps more than on any other.
Hard decisions need to be made and some serious implementation needs to take place over the next year or so, but a pretty solid foundation has been laid for the good work that Euro-Med could do. Some of the countries at Euro-Med are the world’s biggest suppliers of hydrocarbons and the European nations are some of the biggest users of those hydrocarbons. When we start to talk to each other about how to achieve conservation and more efficient use, it will be to the benefit of both sides and to the benefit of the world as far as climate change is concerned.
Mr. Lidington: Given the Minister’s acknowledgement of serious deficiencies in the way in which the Barcelona process has operated, will he say whether the Government are willing to take a lead in the European Union and start an argument to have this process reformed so that it focuses more on outcomes than on the amount that is spent each year? The Government should also take a lead on introducing formal processes of report and review so that we can see how effectively the money has been spent.
Dr. Howells: Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. In many ways, we have already started that process. I would go a little bit further than his question and ask whether it is true that the Euro-Med process will wither on the vine if those measures are not adopted—I think that it will.
If I may speak personally for a moment, Mr. Atkinson, this process troubles me enormously. That is partly because the potential is so great, but the reality is so frustrating. I tried to indicate earlier that it came as a surprise to me that there were other Ministers involved in the process.
One looks at the process and wonders how much it costs. Never mind the sum of money that is there for the European neighbourhood programmes, how much does it cost to stage the huge conferences and gatherings? It must cost an awful lot. I hope that we can agree measures that will sharpen up the focus, especially on the issue of reporting back that the hon. Gentleman raises. If we report back, I might be even more surprised than I already am that good works have been done. Reporting back could not only give EU countries, and European countries in general, a sense of achievement because we are heading somewhere, but highlight the weaknesses of the process, which we have to address.
Curiously, one of the developments that sharpened the Euro-Med process was the fact that European neighbourhood programme funding covered eastern Europe. I remember, three years ago, the southern Mediterranean partners of Euro-Med saying that that was not fair. They believed that those countries were ahead of them in many respects: they had been able to embrace the good governance criteria much more easily and their standard of technical education was much higher. The southern Mediterranean partners believed that they would be disadvantaged.
That situation has woken up those countries to the fundamental criterion, which says that there is a lot of money, but that people have to reform what is going on in their own countries if they want to get their hands on it. We want to help, but we need clear proof that things are changing. There has been animosity and rivalry, but there has been additional progress as a consequence.
Mr. Fraser: I concur with the point about talking shops. Having sat on the Council of Europe for some time, I know how things can get long-grassed very easily. However, a comprehensive set of actions was agreed on the role of women in society during the 2006 ministerial conference in Istanbul. Will the Minister be more specific about what the action plans entail?
Dr. Howells: Yes, indeed. Without looking at my crib notes, I can remember some of the action plans very well. They were very often to do with issues such as women’s literacy and the rights of women to vote, to take part in civic society and to have the opportunities that we assume women to have in the EU. That has manifested itself in some very interesting debates in which people like me, in a rather supercilious way, have asked, “How on earth can you hope to be a modern, competitive economy in an increasingly competitive world if half your population is not allowed to tap its own potential?” That has drawn some interesting responses.
I said to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire that I thought that we had probably made more progress on the question of climate change and energy co-ordination than on any other area. This is also an area on which there has been significant progress and on which we need to concentrate much harder. That is a sentiment held generally among EU members. I cannot speak as confidently about all the southern partners in the Euro-Med process, but I know that some of them feel strongly about this.
Jo Swinson: I welcome the Minister’s news about the action plan for women. Something else that caught my eye in the Commission communication was the ongoing discussion on elections, in particular the expectation that there will be a seminar on elections at expert level. Will the Minister confirm that the UK will attend that seminar to learn as well as preach, especially given the problems of the Scottish elections last year?
Dr. Howells: I can confirm that.
Mr. Field: May I return to my previous question, which I think was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury? I want to stress that when I used the phrase “talking shop”, it was not meant in a pejorative sense. Rather interestingly, the discussion has focused on delivery and outcome, yet the Minister, in reply to my earlier question, revealingly said that one of the biggest concerns—he became aware of it only after several meetings—was that a lot of the Arab nations had expressed concerns about the notion of an agenda being foisted upon them. They objected to that, which is something that might be regarded as a European, or just a northern European, way of doing everyday political business. Is there not a risk, however, that if we try to frame everything in relation to delivery and outcomes, we will have the self same problem? In many ways, some of the issues are important, and it might be a matter of focusing less on monies going into the organisation and more on the importance of the cultural tie-up and of having some sort of dialogue, given the high economic profile of energy security and counter-terrorism measures.
In many ways, we should not be too concerned about outcomes and delivery. I accept that there has to be a justification for the significant amounts of public money going into the organisation, but should we not perhaps lower the expectations of what we will get out of it in the longer term and see it for what it is? Given that in this part of the globe we have some specific problems, there is an opportunity to get not just European Union nations, but many other nations that are among the 39 members of Euro-Med—and presumably that membership is growing—to have a forum in a way that the UN, now with 195 members and rising, probably does not.
Dr. Howells: That is an astute observation. I would say—although I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept my answer—that in a way we have to do both. We have to hear what our southern neighbours say about how they think their economies could benefit much more, for example, from access to that money for specific projects. At the same time, we have to be able to encourage the Syrians, Lebanese, Israelis and Egyptians, for example, to talk to each other.
How do we do that? Earlier, I tried to give a description of a Euro-Med that would recognise that there were times when specific things must happen and other times when there must be the possibility of the kind of talking shop that the hon. Gentleman describes. Let us call it a talking shop for now—there is nothing wrong with talking shops.
It is possible to do both those things. Where the frustration has come is shown by my discussions with Ministers from Morocco, for example. They tell me that they have had some success in tapping the money and have managed to build some roads and other infrastructure projects, but they ask what we will do about the fact that Spanish, Italian and French farmers are up in arms whenever there is talk of exporting tomatoes or date palms to the EU. Those problems persist and if they are going to be addressed, they have to be addressed very specifically and not eclipse the rare opportunities for discussions about wider subjects such as the middle east peace process and counter-terrorism.
This is not going to be easy. We will have to construct a protocol or plan of action to enable us to address both issues much more efficiently than hitherto so that we do not lose the ability to talk to each other and retain the opportunities for change in respect of trade, infrastructure or climate change, which are vital.
Mr. Fraser: At the Euro-Med meeting in Lisbon in November, many current issues and initiatives were put forward. One outcome was that 2008 will see a focus on employment and social affairs. Does the Minister have a view on the social impact of migration as it affects the UK and does he have an action plan to deal with it?
Dr. Howells: Yes, indeed. We have been discussing this as a major point of focus for the Euro-Med process. It has been driven partly by the anxiety of the Maghreb countries about being seen as jumping-off points for Europe by an enormous number of African people who aspire to better lives. That is something that we can use to our own benefit. For example, the Libyans only have observer status in Euro-Med, but have come up with some very interesting ideas about projects in which Europe and the richer Maghreb countries could be involved to try to persuade young and aspirational people, in particular, to stay in their own countries. It would strengthen the capacity of those countries if they kept their own people there in gainful employment. To do that, we have not only to engage in a closely monitored transfer of funding, but to talk to them in a political dialogue in which they feel equal. That is something that Euro-Med could do, although I do not think that it has up to now. It has been much more concerned with policing the Mediterranean and how to stop tens of thousands of people crossing via Malta and other islands to the European mainland.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 15869/07, Commission Communication, The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership——Advancing Regional Co-operation to Support Peace, Progress and Inter-Cultural Dialogue; and agrees that the Barcelona Process may have potential to help promote UK objectives, provided it focuses not on process but on effective delivery through partnership.——[Dr. Howells.]
5.14 pm
Mr. Lidington: It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your impartial and courteous chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. As always, the Minister’s contribution was disarming. It is characteristic of the hon. Gentleman that he can give the Opposition the impression that he agrees with virtually every criticism that they choose to level.
Dr. Howells: I usually do.
Mr. Lidington: I am even more pleased to have the Minister’s sedentary comment on the record. When he departed from his script to say that he was about to speak personally, I could almost sense the palpitations of the Foreign Office officials listening to his remarks. I suspect that they are well used to him by now.
Our exchanges during questions were characterised by a recognition of both the importance of the dialogue and the multiplicity of contacts among European, Maghreb and eastern Mediterranean countries and also by a sense of frustration at the fact that, in a Euro-Mediterranean dialogue that has been ongoing since 1995, we can point to relatively few concrete achievements. The Minister was absolutely right to say, at the start of his remarks, that it is good that a forum exists within which the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Lebanese and others can sit down in the same room and hear one another’s points of view.
I know from talking to senior Members of the House from all political parties that they can recall a time early in the meetings of the British-Irish parliamentary bodies when the scars of history were still so raw that it was very hard to engage in a frank exchange of views that remained within the bounds of courtesy. The early meetings of such bodies were difficult, but led the way towards an understanding of one another’s point of view and eventually, over time, to more cordial and trusting political relationships. One hopes that that will be the same in this case.
I also agreed wholeheartedly with the Minister when he drew the Committee’s attention to the importance for Europe, including the United Kingdom, of dealing effectively with the interwoven problems of counter-terrorism, people trafficking, mass migration, and development policy in the Maghreb and Sahel regions of Africa. North African ambassadors have impressed strongly upon me when we have met, that that nexus of issues is at the top of their list of priorities at present.
We have to consider why the record of the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue has been so disappointing. I suggest two explanations. The first is simply that it has lost focus as a consequence of trying to do so much. I suspect that President Sarkozy’s recent call for the development of a Mediterranean union reflected, as the Minister acknowledged, the President of France’s frustration that Mediterranean issues of direct importance to the national interests of French people were not leading to productive, concrete results.
For example, would it be worth exploring the separation of the Euro-Med dialogue into one forum that dealt with the issues of the Levant and the relationships between Israel and her neighbours, and another dealing with relationships between Europe and north African countries relating to economic development, migration, and counter-terrorism? Would such a different structure help to provide a sharper focus to what Euro-Med is doing? However, such structural change will not work unless we have a serious review of the accountability of the entire process to Ministers. Several members of the Committee touched on how the money is spent and whether we get value for what is being spent on our behalf. The Minister, I am sure, will have exact figures available to him. My research showed that the MEDA programme is the second largest EU external assistance programme, second only to the PHARE programme to help countries applying to join the European Union, and that a total of nearly €12.25 billion has been spent through MEDA since the Euro-Med dialogue was initiated in 1995. On top of that, one must add a similar sum in loans from the European investment banks. In total, we are talking about €24 billion or €25 billion committed to the process since 1995.
We have to ask, and expect our Government on our behalf to ask, some searching questions about the apparent lack of value for the money that has been spent. My concern was increased when I started to flick through the Commission’s publication on the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument and its indicative programme for 2007 to 2010. I found, tucked away in annexe 1, on page 56, a record of the amount of MEDA expenditure that had actually been spent within the five-year allotted period. I found that the average disbursement ratio over a five-year period has never got to 100 per cent. or anything like it. In 1995, we were looking at commitments that, after five years, were spent only to the tune of 31 per cent. Even in more recent years, we again find that money has been committed but does not appear to have been spent, which leads us to ask what sort of work programme there has been. What sort of business plan has existed to mean that European taxpayers’ money has been committed in this way without productive results?
According to the Commission’s own figures, after the first five years of the Barcelona process, only 44 per cent. of the total MEDA I programme had been disbursed. Slightly better results for the MEDA II programme still only give a disbursement ratio of 61 per cent. I find that inexcusable. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues on the council will insist on holding the Commission and EU officials publicly to account as to what on earth has been going on with our money.
The matter is not only about getting value for the money spent by European taxpayers, but about seeing that our national and collective European interests are served by a real improvement in the productivity and living standards of the partner countries in the middle east and north Africa that the process is supposed to be helping. If we look again at the Commission’s regional strategy paper, we find on page 7 that, since the Barcelona declaration of 1995, economic growth in the region—of the partner countries—has been an average 3.9 per cent. a year. When that is set against average annual population growth of 2 per cent., it is admitted that it has led to relatively little in the way of improving living standards. The Commission states:
“Unemployment remained broadly unchanged over the period.”
A lot of slogans and papers have been produced stressing the importance of increased south-south trade, but the Commission’s paper says that south-south trade rose from a pitiful 4.4 per cent. in 1995 to only 5 per cent. by 2003, the latest figures available to them. Although the Minister rightly pointed to the Agadir agreement and the various bilateral free trade agreements, I think that one has to be critical. Ever since 1995, Ministers and successive commissioners have talked of 2010 as the date when there would be a fully fledged free trade area between the European Union and its Mediterranean partner countries, yet as the Minister indicated in his initial response to questions, that target now seems certain to be missed.
I welcome what the Minister said about the fact that tariffs are being eliminated on manufactured goods, but what is happening with agricultural produce? I suspect that the poorer countries of north Africa and the middle east would say that it is that type of product that will enable them to get the quickest improvement in living standards for their people. If Europe is serious about the development of those countries being right in principle and something that will help us deter people trafficking and deter desperate and poor people being tempted by the promises of extremists, Europe ought to be delivering on its promises. I believe that it is failing to do so at the moment.
Finally, much of what the Minister said seems to point ineluctably towards the fact that a Europe of 27 member states is so diverse that one size—one set of institutional arrangements—will not fit everybody equally well. It is clear that those European countries that border the Mediterranean will have a particular set of interests in this agenda which will not be true of Sweden, the Baltic states or even Germany. This points the way to the future of Europe for those of us who want a European Union that works well on behalf of its peoples. That is the Europe that my hon. Friends describe as a Europe of variable geometry and which the distinguished BBC journalist Andrew Marr always told me he preferred to call a Europe of consenting adults.
If the failures of the Euro-Med dialogue so far can persuade our Government and other European Governments both to effect the reforms needed in that process, and to look with an open mind at the need for Europe to give greater clarity and focus to its activities by accepting that there are going to be differences of sub-regional interest within Europe, that can only be for the good of us all.
5.28 pm
Jo Swinson: The Committee will be reassured to know that I do not intend to detain it long. We have had an interesting exploration of Euro-Med, the issues surrounding it, the progress that has been made and perhaps some of its shortcomings. On a personal note, this has been my first experience of a European Standing Committee and it is a good format for a proper discussion and, dare I say it, getting real answers to the questions too. That is a welcome change from some of the procedures in other parts of the House.
Clearly, as the Minister recognised, the achievement of getting this variety of countries round one table should not be underestimated. In itself it provides an important role for Euro-Med. The Minister expressed his personal frustration that this could be so much more of an opportunity and that it is not reaching its potential. We are not managing to take full advantage of it. It is disappointing not to have had more concrete progress to report back on.
5.30 pm
Dr. Howells: I thank Committee members for some very interesting and insightful contributions. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire is right that we must work to refine such approaches and the hon. Member for Aylesbury gave us some areas on which we can work. I wrote down his comment that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to that huge agenda, and I am sure that he will be glad to know that we have what we now call country strategy papers, which we pushed for over some time. The Commission has drawn up the papers, setting out specific Commission-funded projects and priorities with individual countries for the period 2007 to 2010, and we have lobbied the Commission to ensure that the CSPs for individual Mediterranean partner countries align with the commitments that were set out in the summit’s five-year work programme and the European neighbourhood programme action plans. As a result, there has been a shift in the allocation of expenditure, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome. I shall just go through some of it.
An additional £239 million is to be allocated to promote educational reform for the Euro-Med region from 2007 to 2010, compared with what we would have expected under the MEDA funding through which the hon. Gentleman took us. An additional £179 million will be allocated to promote good governance and political reform, compared with what we would have expected under MEDA; an additional £358 million will be allocated to promote private sector reform, again, compared with what we would have expected; more than 50 per cent. of future EU funding to the Euro-Med region will be allocated to promote political governance and private sector reform and education. Under MEDA, only 25 per cent. of EU funding to the region was allocated to those areas. However, I take entirely his critique about the need for greater transparency and a readout of what such funding actually achieves. That is the great problem.
I say to the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire and for Aylesbury that negotiations are ongoing about the further liberalisation of agriculture and fisheries, as well as services, especially with Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. Bilateral agreements have been signed with Turkey. We have not mentioned Turkey often, except right at the beginning of the debate, but it is an incredibly important player with an economy that is strengthening dramatically year on year. It is potentially a great bridge between the middle east and Europe.
Underpinning those moves, the EU is helping to strengthen business capacity. To dig out one example, in Morocco, the EU supports 110 professional training centres, involving 240 companies, which are expected to create 100,000 new jobs. We need such news of specific projects that could strengthen our view of what is going on and give it greater validation. I cannot think of many things that are more important in ensuring that Euro-Med has a proper future.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury made the important suggestion that we should consider sectioning work so that the political middle east peace process is treated differently from north-south trade or south-south trade. We must consider that. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster expressed the feeling, as I understood it, that we should be careful not to lose the ability to talk in a big venue, with all members present, whether Albania, Mauritania, Germany, Finland, Britain or Egypt. We must be able to exchange ideas among the whole membership. I take on board the suggestion of the hon. Member for Aylesbury, which is certainly a way of looking at it. We do not need to separate off functions, but it might be a good idea that the countries most involved could have as partners other countries that play leading roles in trying to bring peace to the middle east. Those countries could then be integral parts of the overall process. The suggestion is interesting, and I shall consider it.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 15869/07, Commission Communication, The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership——Advancing Regional Co-operation to Support Peace, Progress and Inter-Cultural Dialogue; and agrees that the Barcelona Process may have potential to help promote UK objectives, provided it focuses not on process but on effective delivery through partnership.
Committee rose at twenty-five minutes to Six o’clock.
 
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