European Union pushed to give aid to North Africa

January 09, 1995|By Chicago Tribune

LONDON -- If Western Europeans look to the east, they see millions of people impoverished by almost a half-century of Communist rule, many of them ready to surge across frontiers in search of jobs and the good life in the West.

If they look south, across the Mediterranean, they see more millions of desperate Arabs, who cannot find work and often chafe at living under autocratic governments, also ready to invade European shores.

With 17 million Western Europeans out of work, more than 10 percent of the labor force, the prospect of a flood of migrants pouring in from either the east or the south is unsettling to all member states in the 15-nation European Union.

Until now, the union, prodded by Germany, has devoted most of its attention to Eastern Europe. Germany, the biggest and richest member, is a magnet for eastern immigrants, and it also has the most to gain from economic development in Eastern Europe, since it is the biggest trading partner of the countries there.

But Spain, France and Italy are challenging the German priorities. They have begun a drive to ensure that more help goes to the countries on the opposite rim of the Mediterranean as a means of stemming a possible tide of Arab immigrants from North Africa.

The EU plans to offer membership to the countries of Eastern Europe, something that will not be offered to the Arab countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Until the Eastern European countries are ready for membership, sometime after the turn of the century, the EU is committed to bringing both regions into the world's biggest free trade area.

The area could contain 40 countries and up to 800 million people, more than double the population of the parties to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States, Canada and Mexico.

But there is as yet no agreement on how to allocate European Union assistance to Eastern Europe and North Africa. Over the next 18 months there may be something of a tug of war between member countries whose interests are focused on the east and those looking to the south.

At a recent summit meeting in Essen, Germany, EU leaders agreed on a $6.7 billion aid package for Eastern Europe over the next five years, with the understanding that the amount might have to be raised later. The European Commission, the union's executive body, had recommended $8.5 billion.

France holds the presidency of the EU in the first six months of this year, to be followed by Spain in the second half and Italy at the start of 1996. This ensures that the problems of the neglected Mediterranean countries will come to the fore over the next 18 months, particularly at a conference of European Union and Mediterranean leaders in Spain later this year.

Spain's Manuel Marin, the EU's development commissioner, has said the conference, in addition to discussing economic aid, should consider ways Europe and North Africa can cooperate in dealing with terrorism, drugs, immigration and weapons of mass destruction.

But it is not at all clear whether the Arab countries will agree to clamp down on emigration and drug trafficking in return for aid, as the Europeans want. The EU also wants to use its economic influence to nudge the Arab states toward greater respect for human rights and democracy, but that is likely to prove difficult also.

Stephen Woolcock, an expert on Europe at the London School of Economics, said the recent hijacking of an Air France airliner by Islamic extremists in Algeria has pointed up the threat to European security from instability in North Africa. This is a worry particularly for France, which has 1.6 million people of North African origin within its territory and could have many more if the Algerian government collapses as a result of the civil war with the extremists.

"The hijacking may make some of the other European states sit up and pay more attention to the problems of this region," Mr. Woolcock said.

The European Commission is committed to giving both direct aid and wider market access in Europe to the Arabs. But among member states, these are controversial issues that will be difficult to resolve.

Germany and Britain are reluctant to give the Arabs substantial sums of money and would like to offer them mainly trade concessions.

Southern Europeans, by contrast, want to put the emphasis on aid. They fear their economies will be hurt if cheaper Arab textiles and agricultural products gain easier access to European markets.

There are also disputes about any aid program that is offered. Some European countries insist that aid for the Arabs must come from existing resources, but others believe additional funds will have to be raised.

If aid does come out of existing funds, the biggest losers will be Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland. They are the EU's poorest states, and so get the biggest share of the union's resources.

Mr. Marin of Spain says it will take at least 18 months to negotiate an economic and security pact with the Arab countries.

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