AS formal efforts toward cooperation in Europe break down the East-West divide, the countries of southern Europe hope to apply the same approach in the Mediterranean basin. The foreign ministers of France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain meet in Rome today with their counterparts from the North African countries of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. No formal agreement is expected.
``This is just our first meeting,'' says French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas. ``We're going to throw out on the table what we all have in our heads.'' Other officials, the most enthusiastic of whom is Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis, see today's meeting as the start of a process that could result in a security-building organization for the broader Mediterranean community from Iran to Mauritania.
Mr. De Michelis likes to call it the ``CSCM'' (Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean), based on the idea of the 34-nation CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe).
Speaking last month at the United Nations, French President Fran,cois Mitterrand referred to the eventual development of a security and cooperation agreement ``from Iran to Morocco.'' Yet the French for now are promoting a less ambitious vision of regional cooperation that would begin with the western Mediterranean.
``The CSCE process got going at a time of falling tensions in Europe, when a developing d'etente paved the way for it to happen,'' notes an official at the French Foreign Ministry. ``But that is hardly the case in the Mediterranean, especially in the east.''
With many conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean - for example, between Turkey and Greece, Egypt and Libya, and within Cyprus and Lebanon - making a broad cooperative effort problematic, the French say they prefer to concentrate initially among ``countries that are closest and know each other best.''
For the southern Europeans, the major motivations for increased cooperation are economic and demographic. Many analysts compare the western Mediterranean to the United States-Mexico border: Both boundaries artificially separate high unemployment and a huge under-25 population to the south from general prosperity and an aging population to the north.
Officials in Italy and Spain point out an essential difference, however: The Mediterranean separates different religious cultures. The increasing strength of Islamic fundamentalism in several North African countries is sending shivers through southern Europe.
For De Michelis and Spanish Foreign Minister Francisco Fern'andez-Ord'onez, the choice is either to aid the southern Mediterranean countries by invigorating their economies, bringing down unemployment, and lowering birth rates - or leave emigration to Europe as the only safety valve. That, the leaders say, would mean increased tensions between differing cultures.