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24th Mar 2019

New EU-Mediterranean club opens in Barcelona

  • The royal residence is now seat of the Mediterranean Union and its regional assembly (Photo: EUobserver)

A new club of regional and local officials from European, North African and Middle Eastern countries - "Arlem" - was inaugurated on Thursday (21 January) in Barcelona, as part of a broader EU policy to build bridges with Maghreb and Mashreq people.

Hidden behind palm and eucalyptus trees full of green parrots, the new club's luxurious home - a former royal residence called the Palau Reial - buzzed with security and VIP cars on the day.

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One couple was upset after being refused permission – as is normal on weekdays - to visit its Pedralbes gardens:

"No badge, no entrance," the gatekeeper said implacably. The woman in the couple gazed at the banner and its cryptic title. "Arlem ...What is that?" she asked. But the guard declined to say anything else and the couple walked away.

The Association Regionale et Locale Euro-Mediteranee (Arlem) is a project designed to foster co-operation between local authorities on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea and to help members tap EU funds for environmental, energy and democracy-building projects.

It is part of the more grand Mediterranean Union, which was launched by France in 2008 during its chairmanship of the EU and also has its permanent home in the old Catalan palace.

Spain, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, is "enthusiastically promoting" the union's regional dimension, as embodied in the Arlem project.

"The Euro-Mediterranean Union is a great priority of the Spanish presidency. But if we want practical and tangible results, we must take into account regional and local authorities when constructing this space," Spanish secretary of state for foreign affairs Angel Torres-Quevedo said at Thursday's meeting.

Arlem membership is not limited to states bordering the Mediterranean Sea: Nordic countries such as Finland were also present at the event, as well as Great Britain and Slovenia.

Risto Ervela, from Sauvo in southern Finland, told this website that he is interested in taking part because his region is involved in the Baltic Sea strategy – another EU co-operation platform in the north - and wants to know what was happening in the south.

"My region, Turku, only has partners in the Baltic Sea area: Poland, Russia, northern Germany. Our most southerly partner is France. But now maybe we can find new partners. There are many topics that we share - pollution of the sea, employment," he said.

Out of Arlem's 40 European members, 30 people hail from the Committee of the Regions, a Brussels-based institution that gives advice on employment, environment and energy to EU policy makers. The majority of its North-African and Middle Eastern personnel has been appointed by national governments. Funding is provided from each member country, while the Committee of the Regions helps out with translation into the Arlem's three official languages - Arabic, English and French.

"Arlem is not a new institution, it is a network, a concept of working together, an open space for dialogue, without roof and without walls," Luc Van Den Brande, Arlem's freshly elected chairman, told press. A former premier of the Belgian region of Flanders, Mr Van Den Brande currently presides over the Committee of Regions, with his non-renewable mandate due to expire next month.

The leadership of the assembly also includes a Moroccan co-chairman and representatives from Algeria, France, Jordan, Hungary and Croatia.

Despite being domiciled in Spain, its general assembly is set to meet next time in Morocco in 2011 and, in the meantime, it is to look into practical ways of dealing with issues such as sea pollution and waste management, as well as more ambitious ideas such as "city diplomacy" - getting local leaders to help tackle international problems, such as the Turkish-Cypriot or the Israeli-Palestinian disputes.

The tranquility of Arlem's opening session was fractured by Yona Yahav, the mayor of the Israeli city of Haifa, who openly voiced dissatisfaction with what he called an attempt by Syrian and Lebanese envoys to sabotage his election to the governing board of the body.

"My expectations were that I was coming to a place which is open to new ideas. For the time being, I'm disappointed," he said.

Mr Yahav said he wanted the example of Haifa to be lifted up as a model of reconciliation between Muslims and Jews, having integrated both groups in the city's government. "Everything is on an equal basis, so that there is a feeling they are equal partners in the day-to-day shaping of the city," he said.

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