Just another acronym?

Friday, 22. January 2010     0 comment(s)
Timo Behr
Researcher - The European Union research programme

Earlier this week local and regional authorities from around the Mediterranean and Europe convened in Barcelona to inaugurate the Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly (ARLEM) to serve as the latest addition to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Set up on initiative of the EU Committee of the Regions (CoR), the new Assembly is meant to provide two functions: 1) to serve as a hub for regional and local authorities in their attempt to establish “decentralized” forms of cooperation – including projects on sustainable development, local water management and immigration; and 2) to function as a consultative organ to the flagging Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), slated to draw on local authorities as implementation partners for many of its projects.

To this end, the new Assembly has brought together 80 representatives from different cities and regions around the Euro-Med region – 40 from the EU and 40 from the non-EU member states in North Africa, the Levant and the Balkans. To underline the Euro-Mediterranean spirit of partnership and cooperation, the Assembly is headed by a Co-Presidency currently consisting of the President of the CoR and the President of the Taza-Al Hoceima region in Morocco. Unsurprisingly, the largest number of EU representatives hail from France, Italy and Spain, although one Finn – Risto Ervelä (Sauvo) – has also found his way into the new institution. On the other side, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco are strongly presented in the new institution and destined to play a prominent role.

Providing local and regional participants with greater oversight and input into Euro-Mediterranean affair is no doubt a sensible idea that is much in line with the spirit of Euro-Mediterranean cooperation and the prevailing European taste for multilevel governance. By granting these actors a bigger voice, ARLEM has the potential to promote greater ownership of common projects, contribute to capacity building at the local level, encourage dialogue and understanding as well as strengthen local democracy. At least this is how the theory goes. The reality might look a little different.

An earlier precedent for the new institution has been set by the Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly (EMPA) – in existence since 2004. Similarly to the new institution, EMPA brings together national MPs from across the Mediterranean to facilitate their input into the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and meet the people’s need for democratic legitimacy. However, while EMPA has been a useful tool to connect national parliaments with EU institutions, it can hardly claim to have contributed much to the progress of Euro-Mediterranean affairs; less to have served as a beacon of democracy. The reason is that many of the Mediterranean representatives have been undemocratically appointed and poorly chosen, doing little to dispel the notion of an elite-driven project.

Will ARLEM meet a similar fate? This seems difficult to tell given the general confusion over the future of Euro-Mediterranean relations. Despite a re-launch of the relationship in 2008 accompanied by the inauguration of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) – which was meant to serve as an engine of development in the region – the general mood has been grim. Intra-governmental disputes and last year’s Gaza War have meant that the relationship has remained very much in a limbo and the UfM continues to be institutionally deadlocked. Indeed, in many ways the setting up of ARLEM has been the first real success of the relationship for some time. Right now, the hope is that the Spanish EU Presidency and Catherine Ashton – the EU’s newly appointed foreign policy chief – will be able to put things back on track before there is a further loss of direction.

In all of this, ARLEM might be able to play a positive role by facilitating pragmatic cooperation on a local level without having to jump through the usual diplomatic loops. However, similar to its bigger brother, the new Assembly seems destined to fail when it comes to enhancing the legitimacy and ownership of the Euro-Mediterranean process, given that its representatives hail from a similar background. Whether this will mean that the new institution will turn into just another empty acronym to be added to the thick jungle of projects and organizations populating the Euro-Med portfolio, or whether it will be able to fill its new role with some meaning and content, only time will tell.

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