Kurt Sansone reporting from Palermo
Businessmen gathered in Palermo for the Mediterranean Economic Forum clamoured for the dismantling of trade barriers between Europe and the Arab world but according to Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, a new strategy is required to combat “extremists” because trade alone will not guarantee peace in the Mediterranean.
Addressing businessmen from around the Mediterranean basin on Monday, Fini cautioned that the Euro-Mediterranean free trade area initiated by the Barcellona process in 1995 is insufficient on its own to guarantee peace.
“Today’s circumstances require Europe to enter into a new phase. We not only have to combat poverty but more importantly ignorance that leads to extremism,” Fini said.
Taking the podium at the Palazzo dei Normanni, a relic of Sicily’s past cultural clash when King Roger the Norman was handed over the keys of Palermo’s gates by its Arab rulers, Fini emphasised what he described as the universal values of the three monotheistic religions born in the region: “We all believe in the centrality of the human being and respect towards that individual’s life.”
Berating those with a “closed mind”, Fini argued for more investment in education, culture and mutual respect. “Democracy is not only about holding an election but also the belief that no tradition or religion is superior to another,” he said.
The Italian foreign minister could have easily been referring to his now former cabinet colleague, Lega Nord functionary Roberto Calderoli, who on national TV sported a t-shirt with a print of one of the Mohammed cartoons.
The Mediterranean Economic Forum organised by Italy’s Confindustria was overshadowed by the Mohammed cartoon controversy and also came in the wake of violent protests in Benghazi outside the Italian consulate and Israel’s decision to block funds destined towards the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
The Maltese Federation of Industry was also present with a delegation of leading businesspersons.
Israelis and Palestinians, Libyans and Italians were present under the same roof discussing business issues and the difficulties created by trade barriers, instability and red-tape.
In the words of Confindustria President Luca de Montezemolo there was “no way that these tensions would disrupt businesses.”
“Entrepreneurs gathered here are united against extremists,” he said.
But Montezemolo’s upbeat attitude was betrayed during a closed meeting for the presidents of the industrial federations forming part of the Mediterranean forum (UMCE), where old political rivalries still seem to surface.
Talking during the committee meeting, FOI President Adrian Bajada stressed the importance of developing south-to-south trade rather than simply focussing on north-south trade.
Trade between the Arab Mediterranean states is still lingering at low levels and is partly due to the mistrust the different countries have towards each other. Lumping all the Arab states into one homogenous basket is as far removed from reality as Malta having its own space shuttle.
The Arab states remain saddled with corruption, bureaucracy and general instability over regulations governing business. A Lebanese delegate even called for Europe to focus more on human rights, freedom of the press and the fight against corruption rather than simply looking towards the Mediterranean as an economic basin.
Change does seem to be happening with various Arab states moving towards liberalisation and privatisation. Libya represents the epitome of radical change from a heavily public-sector driven economy to one that recognises the private sector as the main driving force. But private initiatives are still very much conditioned by the intricate politicking in the Arab world.
The head of the Libyan Businessmen Council (LBC), a grouping of private investors, Abdallah Fellah put in a good sales pitch during the conference for prospective investors into Libya. But the LBC’s participation as a full member of UMCE remains a big question mark since Libya is not yet part of the Barcellona process, a decision that needs to be taken at the political level by the Libyan authorities.
The potential for trade and investment to flourish between Mediterranean countries exists. There were more than 2,600 scheduled business-to-business meetings on day two of the conference that brought together more than 600 business organisations. The region can have an increasingly important role to play on the world stage. But the ‘can do’ attitude of most businesspersons is unfortunately stifled by that malaise called ‘mistrust’ fuelled by politicians jockeying for power.
Economic change can and will happen; what direction it takes is another issue altogether.
See also Adrian Bajada’s speech page 9