ALGIERS — IN the eyes of Algeria's leaders, Roland Dumas - the French attorney who defended Algerian liberation heros during the war for independence from France 30 years ago - is always welcome in their country.
The problem is that Mr. Dumas is now foreign minister of the former colonial power, so his visits to unflaggingly nationalist Algeria have become problematic.
Even though France is Algeria's most important supplier, its largest creditor, and one of its principal customers - and even though Parisians say France's future is `made in Bonn and in Algiers it took more than a year for the two countries to agree on a date earlier this month for a Dumas visit to Algiers.
This anecdote illustrates how difficult political relations can be between the two shores of the western Mediterranean. It also indicates why some observers say serious solutions will only be implemented when generations that knew neither colonialism nor, in Algeria's case, a tragic war for independence, are in power.
After a flurry of activity over the past two years to stimulate regular communication between the European Community (EC) and a new regional grouping of North African countries, officials from both shores of the Mediterranean say the dialogue has broken down. Relations have reverted to a traditional bilateral format, which they say could exacerbate difficulties.
"Until multilateral discussions can be reactivated, we will go forward bilaterally, but to remain on that basis indefinitely would be a grave mistake," says Juan-Miguel Moratinos, director of the Spanish Foreign Ministry's Institute for Cooperation with the Arab World.
"We risk falling back into the old perspective of the little Maghreb and neocolonialist thinking," overlooking the Maghreb as a regional force, he says.
Hope for a new direction in western Mediterranean dialogue was born with creation of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) in 1989, grouping Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania. High-level meetings between UMA and ministers of the EC's southern countries began, leading to creation of the so-called 5-plus-5 group: the UMA countries, EC countries (Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal), and Malta.
During Italy's EC presidency in late 1990, then-Foreign Minister Gianni de Michelis even proposed a Mediterranean-wide organization based on the principles of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Italian officials concede that Mr. de Michelis's idea was overly ambitious, trying to accomplish too much too fast, while important details were left unattended.
The 5-plus-5 format survived for a time before international events and diplomatic complications put the dialogue on hold and knocked out any early effectiveness of the UMA. These include the Persian Gulf war and Libya's ostracism after charges of its involvement in two terrorist airplane bombings. Political unrest in Algeria has also dampened the possibility for dialogue.
A year after Algeria's Army-backed regime cancelled multiparty elections and declared a state of emergency, the new leadership continues to battle with Islamic fundamentalists driven underground after the banning of their political party.
Libya's isolation and the political situation in Algeria have thwarted Maghreb cooperation. Last fall Algeria closed its borders to the transit of its neighbors' goods, infuriating adjacent countries and setting back the UMA dream of a free-trade zone.
Even though Dumas's recent visit to Algiers with a promise of fresh economic aid smoothed some feathers, Franco-Algerian relations remain touchy. The government hasn't forgotten French President Francois Mitterrand's public criticism of the cancellation of elections, while many Algerians remember Mr. Mitterrand as the interior minister who declared in the 1950s that Algeria would always belong to France.
Tunisia has fared better during this period, although Tunis accuses France and Britain of encouraging Islamic agitation by granting asylum to its outlawed Islamic political leaders. In addition, sensitivities remain ruffled after France's recent drug-trafficking conviction - in abstentia - of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's brother.
But Morocco, after a decade of difficult relations with Europe over human rights concerns and the standoff over the former Spanish colony, Western Sahara, is now the country that southern Europeans and the EC are focusing on to keep progress moving with the south.
Beginning in 1991, Morocco's King Hassan II began taking unilateral action to improve respect for human rights and remove it as an issue of contention. It was a clear sign that Hassan II wanted to join the European sphere.
Morocco was also winning high points from international financial institutions for the positive results of its 10-year-old structural adjustment program. The country began taking some tentative steps toward democracy, including last year's adoption of a new Constitution reinforcing democratic rights.
The EC last year proposed building a free-trade zone with the Maghreb, beginning with Morocco, and last month moved to negotiate a partnership treaty with Morocco similar to those it has with several East European countries. Some have dubbed the country "Europe's Mexico."
"A free-trade zone will be the nucleus of a new partnership between the Mediterranean's north and south," says Habib El Malki, a prominent Moroccan sociologist and director of the National Council for Youth and the Future. "Morocco is best prepared to begin in this direction, but that won't stop a gradual extension to other Maghreb countries."
Morocco's decision to move ahead with Europe alone is not universally well-recieved in the Maghreb. Algeria, whose economic policy and heavy industries make it a bigger problem than Morocco for free-trade, sees Morocco's move as divisive. But Tunisia, held back by its own protectionist concerns and the shadow of Libya to the east, is more willing to see Morocco go ahead as an experiment.
European officials argue that they want to keep the EC moving forward with the south, in part to disprove the widely held argument that Western Europe is more attentive to the East.
"We can't afford to wait for UMA to be stronger to take some action," says Thierry Bechet, chief of staff for EC Commissioner for Mediterranean Affairs Abel Matutes. "If we are pursuing the
idea of free-trade with Morocco first, it is because Morocco asked, and because their economic reforms probably make them the best prepared."
Still, many European officials insist that progress, including increased trans-Mediterranean dialogue, continues even while the region waits for better multilateral relations. Portuguese officials note that the EC summit they presided over in Lisbon last June included the first summit-level declaration on EC relations with the Maghreb. French officials point out that last year's annual Franco-Spanish seminar for diplomats and government officials focused on Maghreb ties. And Spain held a high-level confe rence with Maghreb countries in Andalusia last summer, in its ambition to make Andalusia - site of Western Europe's last Muslim kingdom - a meeting ground for Mediterranean dialogue.
Others say this is not enough. "We have lots of discussions, seminars, and writings," laments Algerian sociologist Nadji Safir. "What we lack is state action," in trade or development aid.
Adds Moroccan political scientist Khalid Naciri: "It may appear that dialogue is going on between the two shores, but it's often two dialogues that fail to meet. We have never talked so much about our relations as we have since the two sides began moving apart."