EuroMed summit seeks to link aid, trade with democratic reforms

The European Union struggled Sunday to get Israel and its Arab partners to jointly back a broad anti-terrorism declaration as it sought to put relations with its volatile southern neighbors on a new footing by linking aid to democratic and other reforms.

Opening a two-day summit with their Mediterranean neighbors, the EU leaders looked for common ground on the fight against terrorism and progress on democratic reform in return for continued aid and increasing trade.

However, Arab delegates resisted a "Euro-Mediterranean Code of Conduct on Countering Terrorism" by insisting such a code must not hamper "the right of peoples under foreign occupation" to end that occupation, EU diplomats said.

They said the European leaders objected to language arguing terrorism was inexcusable under any circumstance and the fight against it must not be qualified.

Diplomats working behind the scenes faced a deadline of Monday noon to come up with common language.

"As always there will be negotiations until the end, but I am optimistic we will get an agreement," said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Diplomats said a "Common Vision" statement _ meant to crown a summit celebrating 10 years of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership _ was being downgraded to simply an anniversary statement.

The summit began badly when only two of the 10 leaders from outside the EU showed up.

"Obviously there are various reasons why some of the leaders have not been able to come but I am sure we shall have a good conference nonetheless," an upbeat British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the summit host, told reporters.

The absence of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and many Arab leaders gave center stage to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He held one-on-one meetings with Blair and with Germany's new German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He lauded the EU role in last week's opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt adding there will be more crossings soon.

Merkel told the summit Europe can only win the support of North African and Mideast nations in the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration "if we offer these countries an economic perspective." The summit, she said, must give a signal "that we need one another."

Leaders from Egypt, Algeria, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco all stayed away from the meeting, with reasons ranging from a medical problem for Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to political unrest at home for Egypt President Hosni Mubarak. Apart from Abbas, the only non-EU leader expected was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The initial EU strategy in the Mediterranean partnership was to encourage economic development in the belief that political changes would automatically follow. This year, however, the EU is trying to force through political reform even before all of its economic aid and trade initiatives have started to bear fruit.

The EU now spends Ђ3 billion (US$3.5 billion) a year in grants and soft loans on its southern neighbors. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership seeks to help Israel and its neighbors make the Middle East a region of "peace, stability and prosperity" on the back of a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010.

In the center of Barcelona, more than 2,000 demonstrators banging drums and blowing whistles decried the partnership as a failure, unable to alleviate poverty in northern Africa or bring peace to the Middle East.

"Here many declarations of intentions are made. But things simply don't change," said Spanish legislator Joan Herrera, AP reported. V.A.

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