MADRID — AHMED stands nervously on a street corner in Madrid, peering around to see if any cops are bearing down. He holds a carton displaying two neat rows of packs of contraband Marlboros and Camels for sale.
"I work seven days a week and make about $500 a month," he says. "Yes it is illegal and I am illegal, but it is almost twice what I could make in Algeria. And life here is more tranquil."
Ahmed, and other North African immigrants like him, are a main reason the 15 nations of the European Union and a dozen of its southern neighbors are gathering for two days of talks beginning today in Barcelona at an event dubbed the Euro-Med conference.
Under discussion will be aid and trade designed to help countries from Morocco in the west to Turkey in the east put their houses in order and forestall unrest or economic collapse.
"The Europeans are worried," says Guido Brunner, a former member of the European Commission and a former German ambassador to Spain. "Across the Mediterranean they see rising fundamentalism, political instability, booming population growth, deepening poverty, and most of all, a surge in immigration to their southern shores."
It is appropriate that Spain is hosting the conference during its six months as rotating European Union president. For centuries, the Spaniards have been uncomfortable with their southern neighbors whom they still refer to as moros, or Moors.
King Ferdinand of Spain and Queen Isabella are famed here more for their role in kicking the Muslims out of Spain than for staking Columbus. Even today, most Spanish air force bases and other major military installations are arrayed across the country's southern reaches within easy striking distance of the Maghreb, as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya are collectively known. This same region also supplies Spain's oil and gas.
Spain, which is separated from Morocco only by a 10-mile sliver of the Mediterranean Sea, tried to alert its partners to instability in the south.
The northern Europeans had other problems, however. After the Berlin Wall fell, former Soviet bloc nations began knocking at the EU's door in search of handouts and eventual membership.
But over the past two years, the Spaniards have persuaded the northern EU nations to address immigration, and a rise in extremist Islam along Europe's border. Some recent events have added force to their arguments:
* In Algeria, an estimated 50,000 people have died in a four-year conflict between radical Muslims and security forces. In France, eight people have lost their lives in a wave of bomb attacks linked to the conflict.
* Turkey, a NATO member and aspirant to EU membership, is involved in a nasty little war with its own Kurdish separatists as the pro-Islamic Welfare Party wins elections.
* The government of pro-Western Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is fighting to subdue Islamic radicals who have now apparently taken the battle abroad to strike at Egyptian diplomats.
* The population of Morocco, as well as of other Maghreb countries, is exploding. In terms of gross domestic product, the region is 10 times poorer than southern Europe, but it has triple the birth rate. Few jobs are available; many youths are heading for Europe.
The EU has earmarked $6 billion to be spent over the next five years on development projects in the region and pledged to set up a European-Mediterranean free-trade zone by 2010.
"Our strategy is to anchor the Mediterranean region to the European Union over the next 10 to 15 years," Manuel Marin, the Spaniard who is in charge of the EU's Mediterranean policy, told the European Parliament this year. "We know very well that the only way we have of controlling intolerance and immigration so as to maintain political stability in southern Europe is economic cooperation."