EU, US to push for Middle East reforms

The United States and the European Union have said they would increase efforts to push democratic reforms in the Middle East.

    Bush said forces will stay in Iraq 'as long as necessary'

    In a joint statement, issued at an EU-US summit, both sides said they had "expressed their determination" to push "modernisation" in countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

    "The people of that region are eager for reform and we are listening to their voices," US President George Bush said at a news conference after the meetings.

    "We believe that increased economic and political freedom can advance and change lives in the countries concerned," the statement said. "This task will require the sustained and increased support of the European Union and the United States."

    They suggested they might take different approaches, saying their actions would "build upon our respective policy ... instruments."

    Bush and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, discussed the Middle East during a three-hour summit at the Dromoland castle resort in western Ireland.

    They also touched on ongoing efforts to get the road map plan for peace between Palestinians and Israelis back on track.

    Ahern said a proposed Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would "provide a window of opportunity to move ahead with the implementation of the road map".
     
    Both sides said they wanted a "just, comprehensive and lasting settlement" of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They also called for "an end of all acts of violence and terrorism".

    Disagreement

    The EU has often disagreed with Washington's approach to the region, seeing its ally as too focused on providing military aid to countries like Egypt, Jordan and Israel, rather than offering financial and technical aid to promote reform.

    Talks also focused on an end to
    Palestinian-Israeli conflict

    On Iraq, Bush said the faster Iraqis take control of security in their war-battered country, the sooner US troops will be able to withdraw.

    "We will work to stand up an Iraqi security force and police force that is able to function ... we will stay as long as necessary and then we will leave," Bush said.
     
    Europeans cautiously welcomed Bush's new multimillion dollar plan for promoting democratic reform in the entire region. At the recent G8 leaders summit in the United States, EU leaders demanded the plan be tied to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    The US plan aims to spur democracy by providing support to grass-roots groups, training 100,000 new teachers over the next decade and providing loans to fledgling entrepreneurs.

    Bush has piggybacked his initiative on to programmes already being carried out by the EU in areas such as trade and economic reforms.

    Suspicion

    Arab countries have been suspicious of the US plan, seeing it as unwanted meddling.

    To quell such concerns, the EU and the US said that while they stood ready to help, in the end it was up to the countries themselves to push change through.

    "Our engagement must respond to local conditions and be based on local ownership," the statement said. "Each society will reach its own conclusions about the pace and scope of change. Yet distinctiveness, important as it is, must not be exploited to prevent reform."

    Europeans have long advocated a soft-touch aid-and-trade approach, making access to EU markets conditional on political and economic reforms.

    The EU already has aid-and-trade pacts with most Arab countries, and is currently pushing them to set up a regional trade group to promote economic growth.
     
    The EU spends about one billion euros ($1.22 billion) a year on economic and other aid for countries along the Mediterranean's southern and eastern rims. If grants and loans from the European Investment Bank are added, the total is nearly three billion euros ($3.65 billion) a year. 

    SOURCE: Agencies


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