Ashton to host global conference on north Africa

18.02.11 @ 18:44

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is to hold a high-level international conference in Brussels next week aiming to craft a global response to the upheaval in north Africa and the Middle East.

  • Egypt: upheaval in the region requires a co-ordinated global approach, says Brussels (Photo: hhesterr)

She is inviting senior officials from the United States, Japan, international financial institutions including the World Bank to the European capital, as well as from the region itself, to develop a co-ordinated global response to the historic changes in the region.

"It is essential that the whole of the international community comes together on a strategy. We're hoping for something very substantial," an EU official told EUobserver.

Officials stress that the meeting is more ambitious than a donors' conference. "It's international, not EU, on the initiative of the high representative. The meeting is to exchange information and co-ordinate a response," said an EU diplomat.

"It's clear that we can't just have the EU acting. In order to maximise support, instead of us each doing our own thing separately, we need to pull together," added the source close to discussions, who preferred not to be named.

The conference is unlikely to be at the ministerial level, but rather a meeting of senior civil servants, probably including, from Egypt, the director-general of the foreign ministry.

While the attendees are to discuss the response to what has happened across the region, the focus, according to the contact "will obviously be on Tunisia and Egypt because that's where there has been concrete developments and needs. There are new administrations to deal with, but of course we will see what happens between now and then."

"Obviously this can be broadened. We've seen protests in Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen."

EU assistance is focussed on five institutional areas Brussels feels is necessary for "deep democracy building": electoral reform, support for civil society, construction of an independent judiciary and a free press and media, and the fight against corruption.

Preparations of support for Tunisia are at the most advanced stage, with EU assistance to target impoverished areas in the centre and south of the country.

The idea is to develop a series of pilot projects for these regions modelled on the EU's own cohesion policies.

In discussion with Tunisian authorities, Europe is also looking to tighten economic governance over the longer term and support the recently established investigation committee on corruption and fraud.

The bloc is looking to strengthen the discourse on public financial management similar to efforts already underway as a part of ongoing trade liberalisation talks with Tunis.

The European Investment Bank has also opened a dialogue to increase the support ceiling for the region by an additional billion euros.

Tunisia could be a candidate for loans, but there are two conditions: The country must have to have a financing arrangement with the IMF, and begin to address its balance of payments financing gap.

Brussels is aware that opposition groups now entering government represent a mix of economic and ideological positions and that for many, the Western supported privatisation programmes of both regimes was seen as a source of corruption, and so the EU must carefully navigate these waters.

"But we cannot just give them these things. We have to have commitments from them in return," warned the source.

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