Econostrum | Economic News in the Mediterranean

Hatem Ben Salem: "We thought we were partners of the EU, but we are only neighbours"

Written by Frédéric Dubessy on Tuesday, March 15th 2022 à 14:55 | Read 284 times

In an exclusive interview granted to on the occasion of his intervention on "The Mediterranean question and the future of the partnership between the two shores" organised by the Euromed-IHEDN association, Hatem Ben Salem, lecturer at the Faculty of Legal Sciences of Tunis, confides in us about the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation The former Tunisian Minister of Education and Training, former Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in charge of European Affairs and Tunisian Ambassador to the UN, suggests that the partnership between the northern and southern shores should evolve.

Hatem Ben Salem advocates a new partnership between the EU and the southern shore (photo: F.Dubessy)
Hatem Ben Salem advocates a new partnership between the EU and the southern shore (photo: F.Dubessy) Why do you say that the Euro-Mediterranean is at a standstill?

Hatem Ben Salem: The Mediterranean area has not been a strategic choice for the European Union. If you add to this the state of political and social instability in the countries on the southern shore, you will have your answer on the lack of interest in the Euro-Mediterranean. This sea, which should bring the populations of the two shores closer together, is plunged into a crisis context that sends out alarming signals about cooperation. Yet the Mediterranean remains important because, whether we like it or not, it is a common heritage for humanity. The two shores of the Mediterranean must very quickly become aware of their common destiny.

Who could be the European Union's dialogue partner when the Arab League and the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) no longer make their voices heard?

H.B.S.: The Arab League has limited means. Just like the AMU, which initially showed a positive signal and is now a stillborn association. The 5+5 Dialogue is also at a standstill... the states no longer talk to each other and this does not encourage cooperation.

I think we should go back to the Arab League, the oldest regional organisation. It brings together all the Arab states. If it is dormant and no longer reacts to crises and partnerships, it is because it does not receive proposals. But if tomorrow there is a proposal for a Euro-Mediterranean partnership, this will also do the Arab League a great deal of good, perhaps enabling it to reform its foreign policy.

"The Euro-Mediterranean framework is no longer one of understanding"

I am surprised that you do not mention the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM). Is this voluntary?

H.B.S: Yes, it is voluntary... I think that unfortunately this project has disappointed. It has not succeeded and has remained at the level of bureaucracy. The UfM gives a less than stellar image of the potential of this Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. I am, as a matter of principle, against any bureaucratisation of this cooperation. The UfM is an organisation with extraordinary objectives, but with derisory means.

The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) has been overhauled, but you are still not satisfied with this?

H.B.S.: Of course it cannot satisfy us! First of all, because of the amount of money spent. For ten countries, including Israel, it amounts to €7 billion over almost six years. That's nothing at all! Tunisia alone can absorb these €7 billion very quickly. This is a lack of seriousness on the part of this neighbourhood policy. The means and instruments for implementing and releasing this funding are so complicated that we will certainly not see this money spent.

The European Union has expanded, but has not wanted to do so on the other side, even though Morocco was asking for it. We thought we were partners of the EU, but with the ENP we see that we are only neighbours. The EU has not lived up to the expected ambition, at least of the southern riparians. This has created a great misunderstanding and a trigger for several political forces, such as the Islamists, who have worked on opinions against the EU. This propaganda has led to tensions within the southern shore. The Euro-Mediterranean framework is therefore no longer one of understanding, but one of selfishness on both sides.

"The populations have been put aside", regrets the former Tunisian minister (photo: F.Dubessy)
"The populations have been put aside", regrets the former Tunisian minister (photo: F.Dubessy)

"we need to break the brussels bureaucracy"

What do you recommend to develop this partnership?

H.B.S.: The Pax Mediterranea that we wanted in 1995 with the Barcelona Declaration is an increasingly distant dream. I therefore call for a new approach, based on the human factor, to facilitate cooperation projects by breaking up - and I choose the term well - this Brussels bureaucracy. It is putting everything in place to hinder the implementation of real structuring and development projects. We need a zone of shared prosperity, guaranteeing stability and security. It should distance itself from the current partners and focus on people. People have been sidelined. The EU has come to the states and, at some point, to the regions. But never towards people.

Marseille hosted the Summit of the Two Shores in June 2019 and the Forum of Mediterranean Worlds a few weeks ago. So Euro-Mediterranean civil society does have a voice, contrary to what you claim?

H.B.S.: Unfortunately, these are shows that have no effect on the ground. We need to go beyond this kind of meeting and enter into a much more win-win reflection. I think that civil society has an essential role to play, but on condition that it is supported by projects that can be financed by Europe. We cannot let civil society decide on the objectives and funding projects. It is a complement to state action in projects.

"Funding should go to projects involving at least three countries," suggests Hatem Ben Salem (photo: F.Dubessy)
"Funding should go to projects involving at least three countries," suggests Hatem Ben Salem (photo: F.Dubessy)

"You will never be afraid of a man who has read Rousseau or Montesquieu"

You are against state-to-state projects. What do you suggest?

H.B.S.: Yes, I would prefer the European Union's next projects, including within the framework of this neighbourhood policy, to be structuring and integration projects for the states on the southern shore. I hope that in the future funding will go to those that bring together a minimum of three countries. As soon as synergies are created between States in areas such as education - you will never be afraid of a man who has read Rousseau or Montesquieu -, innovation, exports, tourism, health, etc., you can be sure that the benefits will be real. Not only for the populations, but also to encourage common projects, and therefore cooperation, within the southern shore of the Mediterranean.

How can we encourage this cooperation when it does not even exist between countries in the South?

H.B.S.: Quite simply by making the granting of funding conditional. I am against the principle of conditionality, for reasons that you understand, especially political ones. But I believe that from the moment that the condition of the project integrating at least three countries is set...

So three countries on the southern shore?

H.B.S.: Yes, from the South! It is essential that the project financed covers three countries of the South. This is how we can hope to harmonise education, health and other systems in the future. And that the southern states will be encouraged to come closer to each other.

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