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European-Mediterranean Summit Ends With a Murmur

November 29, 2005|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain — With most Muslim leaders staying away, a summit of European and Mediterranean nations floundered badly on the critical point of defining terrorism and instead concluded Monday with a watered-down "code of conduct" and a vague plan for the region's other urgent issue, immigration.

The two-day meeting convened delegations from 25 European nations, Israel and nine Muslim governments ringing the Mediterranean. Only two of the non-European invitees -- Turkey and the Palestinian Authority -- sent their top official.

The summit's inability to reach more meaningful agreement reflected the profound difficulties in bridging the gap between the two worlds that came together here.

Defining terrorism was the biggest hurdle. Arab countries wanted to exempt from condemnation resistance to "foreign occupation," a reference to the action of Palestinian militants. Israel and several European countries wanted an explicit statement that terrorism can never be justified by any cause. In the end, both sides had to drop their demands to salvage a statement at the last minute.

In the final document, delegates agreed to "condemn terrorism in all its manifestations" and to pledge their "determination to eradicate it," including through prevention of access to arms and money. But they did not go beyond that.

Spain, the host country, and Britain, the co-host because it currently holds the presidency of the European Union, sought to put the best face on Monday's results. As recent victims of bombing attacks by Islamic radicals, they wanted terrorism high on the summit's agenda.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said at a news conference that the final declaration was "as strong a statement as you could possibly have on a unified determination to fight terrorism in all its forms." Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the so-called Code of Conduct was energetic and unprecedented.

It was up to one of the smaller participants to give a more subdued assessment.

"The Euro-Mediterranean summit has been faced with the reality of the space in which it functions," Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa told his country's news agency. He said he was sorry to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict overshadow all other pressing issues.

The desperation of the summit hosts to achieve agreement, any agreement, was revealed during a break in deliberations. A microphone had been left on near Zapatero, and a top aide complained to him that the Israelis were intractable and that the other members were "ready to throw in the towel."

Zapatero responded: "We must close this! Any way possible!"

The decision of most non-European leaders to send lower-level delegations diminished what had been high hopes for the summit, which was intended to be the first gathering of top representatives of the Euro-Mediterranean group formed a decade ago with the goal of creating a free-trade zone by 2010. In that time, the EU has spent about $23 billion in aid, loans and other projects in neighboring nations to the south.

Absent leaders offered various reasons for staying home. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cited elections. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he had to attend to a political crisis triggered by his departure from the Likud Party.

But because the conference lasted barely 36 hours, and its location on the Mediterranean meant most leaders could have traveled here in a few hours, some observers said the excuses rang hollow.

Diplomats and analysts suggested instead that the Muslim leaders were not keen to hear European lectures on democratic reform, the need for elections and women's rights, all issues that were to be on the agenda. They wanted to see development issues at the top of the program, not terrorism.

The absences suggest that Europe, long seen as a greater ally to the Muslim world than the pro-Israel U.S., might be losing some of its influence.

Immigration is another issue that highlights the profound differences between the wealthy European nations, which receive the bulk of the region's illegal immigrants, and the poorer nations that send them. While Europe gives priority to policing to stop the flow, the countries to Europe's south want more economic aid to create jobs and improve conditions at home.

The final statement reflected none of the urgency that might have been expected given recent incidents in which mostly African immigrants have been killed scaling barbed-wire fences or braving the Mediterranean in rickety boats to reach Europe.

It calls for a five-year plan to reduce illegal immigration and crack down on human traffickers while "promoting legal immigration opportunities."

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