Oxfam said on Saturday that Europe must not force Mediterranean countries to open their agricultural markets too fast under any Euro-Mediterranean free trade agreement but urged them to accept more goods from northern Africa and the Middle East.
The group staged a small protest in downtown Barcelona early on Saturday, depicting a scene in which a few activists dressed like African farmers are stopped by a European Union (EU) customs barrier.
In a report to the leaders of the 25 EU nations, Israel and its Arab neighbours - which open a two-day summit in Barcelona on Sunday - Oxfam said 68 million people in the Middle East and North Africa survive "on less than $2 a day, compared with 50 million people in 1990".
Three-quarters live in rural areas, making their living from agriculture, it added.
The two-day Barcelona summit is to reaffirm a goal, first set in 1995, to establish a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010.
Oxfam said any reciprocal farm trade liberalisation should be put on hold until a study was done assessing the impact of free trade. "The EU should ... speed up its rural development projects" across the region to help farmers capitalise on the trading opportunities, said Oxfam.
"Europe should not force Mediterranean countries to open their agricultural markets too fast as part of the Euro-Med agreement"
Oxfam's regional director for the Middle East
"Europe should not force Mediterranean countries to open their agricultural markets too fast as part of the Euro-Med agreement," said Oxfam's regional director for the Middle East, Adam Leach.
He added if southern Mediterranean nations cannot protect vulnerable sectors, particularly against imports that are heavily subsidised in Europe, "more people will be driven into poverty".
Oxfam's appeal came on the eve of a two-day meeting of the leaders of the 25 EU nations, Israel and its Arab neighbours at which Europe will push for a quantum leap in relations by linking billions of euros in economic aid to sweeping democratic and other reforms on the Mediterranean's southern and eastern rims.
The summit brings together the EU leaders and those from Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey.
The EU wants to revive a goal - first set out in 1995 - to turn the Middle East into a region of "peace, stability and prosperity" on the back of a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010.