By Aline Robert | | Translated By Samuel White

Date: 15/12/2016

Following the recent political chaos in the Mediterranean region, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) group is now focussing on collaborative local projects rather than large-scale regional policy, Fathallah Sijilmassi told EurActiv France.

The UfM has 44 members, including the 28 EU member states. It was launched in 2008 to prolong the Barcelona process, aimed at deepening cooperation between the European Union and Mediterranean countries. The 44 foreign affairs ministers of the UfM will meet in January next year to tackle the big issues facing the region.

Fathallah Sijilmassi is a Moroccan diplomat and secretary-general of the UfM.

Sijilmassi spoke to Aline Robert,’s editor-in-chief.

What state is the Union for the Mediterranean in?

We decided to launch actions on several levels. On the one hand it is political project, with ministerial meetings, notably the meetings of foreign affairs ministers in November 2015 and January 2017 in Barcelona. But we also deal with more technical questions: the climate, the environment, women and young people. The UfM is not a body for negotiation, but for regional cooperation.

Are the countries that saw the Arab Spring revolutions involved in the Mediterranean Union?

Of course, with the exception of Syria, which pulled out of the process in 2011. Libya has observer status because the country was legally unable to join the organisation. Otherwise, all these countries are present.

We have seen many different actors getting involved in refugee question, but not the Union for the Mediterranean itself. Why is this?

The UfM is a platform for bringing up these questions, where we cooperate and have the opportunity to exchange. But it is not the right place to manage these issues. We structure our platforms openly, reaching out towards civil society, universities and local authorities because inclusivity is vital if people are to take ownership of the UfM project.

Do political issues sometimes represent obstacles to cooperation?

If we are unable to solve the big political questions, such as conflicts, we can at least try to make progress with exchanges at local level. For example, we have many activities where both Palestinians and Israelis are present. The actors themselves are able to see beyond politics to tackle concrete issues. Because there are lots of areas where interests converge.

So what does your action consist of, concretely?

We coordinate regional projects. We need to demonstrate that regional cooperation can benefit the situation in the region. The regional dimension helps us to understand the issues, and then our projects gain easier access to finance. In total, we currently have 47 projects up and running worth a total of €5 billion, such as the cleaning up of Lake Bizerte in Tunisia, for some €90 million.

How are you funded?

We have no direct funding but we have financial partners like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the EU itself. In the UfM secretariat, we concentrate mostly on technical engineering.

For example, we have scientists, financial backers that ensure projects meet the eligibility requirements of the funders, but also in-house members of the EIB and EBRD. Then finally there is the question of policy engineering.

What benefit does the UfM bring, and to whom?

The UfM label is much sought-after by investors, because there is no situation where the best response could be found at a strictly national or bilateral level.

Whatever the issue is. For example, a refugee that leaves Iran for Sweden, Germany of the United Kingdom has to cross many borders. So a large number of countries are concerned by the subject.

And the same goes for climate change. It would be unrealistic to think that a single country could face the challenge of climate change alone. Actions at regional level make more sense than those at national level.