A French plan for Mediterranean unity

President Sarkozy's launches his project Sunday of building a 44-state union in the region.

By , Staff writer

A summit on Sunday to launch French President Nicolas Sarkozy's vision of North African-European harmony, called the "Union of the Mediterranean," promises to be a colorful show: Some 40 leaders from states around a sea that borders three continents will be in Paris to talk about integrating a vast and diverse region better known for clashing and squabbling.

But whether Mr. Sarkozy's grand notion – at first, doing projects in solar energy, disaster relief, water, and agriculture – can find a solid institutional identity and surmount funding hurdles, not to mention German and Spanish pique at initially being left out, is hardly clear.

Still, under the translucent dome of the Grand Palais, France will host elected heads of state, Maghreb autocrats, Arabs and Israelis, Christians and Muslims, Moroccan and Balkan diplomats – in pursuit of a north-south stability that is viewed with a fair share of skepticism by most participants, who feel they need to be there anyway.

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It's quite a cast, with a long history of grievance and dispute: Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Syria's Bashar al-Assad will attend along with Israel's Ehud Olmert. Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who doesn't want to participate in lieu of Turkish EU membership, finally agreed this week to come. Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, warning of colonial put-downs from Europe and of Israeli normalization of relations with the EU, is the lone holdout. Tellingly, perhaps, there are no plans for a final photograph.

Sarkozy wants the Union to energize the "Barcelona process" – a slightly moribund EU effort to coordinate Europe and North Africa relations ranging from culture and immigration to trade and politics. How the French-led Union will relate to Barcelona, which is controlled by the European Commission, a body that has steadily forced changes to the French plan, is central to its success, experts say.

"We need to see whether the Union can be effective and autonomous, or will simply become an agency attached to the Barcelona process," says Leila Vignal, at St. Anthony's College, Oxford. "There are a lot of hurdles for an idea that was already unrealistic."

Still, the Union offers a number of things that Barcelona doesn't. Rather than a vacuous effort to address disparate "issues," the Union is taking on a concrete set of small actionable projects designed to do a few things well.

Importantly, also, it will operate under a north-south co-presidency. This allows shared decisionmaking and counters fears that former colonial powers, or a purse-waving bureaucracy in Brussels, is trying to control North Africa. Egypt, and at first France, will hold those presidencies. A "secretariat" headquarters will be announced Sunday, with cities from Tunis to Barcelona, Marseilles, and Brussels lobbying for the prize.

"The new union activates the principle of joint ownership, which existed only in theory in the Barcelona process," Egyptian foreign minister Abuld Gheit told reporters in Cairo this week. He added that the co-presidency, "means a country from the north and a country from the south are jointly running the new union. I would like to place the emphasis on the world jointly," he said.

A grand regional grouping born in Paris that may one day offer a modest alternative to the rising economies of Russia and China is just the sort of idea Sarkozy prizes as a way to restore French and European leadership. It comes as France takes over the six-month EU presidency. But its formation has been marked by just the sort of cavalier, Francocentric behavior that irks other EU members, particularly Germany, whose leaders point out that its taxpayers will be financing this as well.

Indeed, Sarkozy's initial vision, articulated in Toulouse when he was still a presidential candidate, was positively interstellar in scale. France would gain good grace in its old sphere of influence and earnestly shape a new world of cooperation and commercial exchange ranging from banking and universities to the environment and trade, common energy, and antiterrorism. It would be a new paradise connecting Paris and the Maghreb.

But the initiative has been scaled way back to make it palatable to everyone involved. Thorny issues like immigration have given way to projects such as a student exchange program, developing solar energy, and cleaning up the Mediterranean, all of which are expected to be discussed on Sunday.

Also, the Sarkozy Mediterranean union initially seemed to have no role for European states not bordering the blue Mediterranean. There was no consultation with Germany, little with the EU or even with Spain, which has profound issues of immigration, hosted the 1995 Barcelona process start-up, and certainly has a coastline.

Yet the constantly evolving plan would use EU funds and require support from the other 26 EU countries. Sources say this caused difficulty for French diplomats as they encountered raised eyebrows and downward pointing thumbs from their counterparts across the continent, especially in Berlin.

In recent months, France and Germany have patched things up, at least in principle. Sarkozy Mediterranean architect and advisor, Henri Guaino, told reporters this week that the Sturm und Drang with Germany was ultimately helpful in focusing attention on the Mediterranean.

"There was a lively debate, a very intense, stormy discussion ... and so what?" Mr. Guaino told the Financial Times. "Was this debate really pointless? Not as pointless as all that, because it led to a Franco-German agreement."

The two main back stories to all this were, first, an appeal by Sarkozy the candidate to limit immigration to France from Africa. He called for more "selective immigration" to be "decided together, organized together, controlled together." Secondly, the union would serve as a halfway house for Turkey, a sop short of membership in the EU, which Sarkozy bluntly and brazenly opposed last year. "Europe cannot spread indefinitely," he said in Toulon.

Turkey, by dint of its size, geographic centrality, and its changing secular and political status, is a state crucial to the union idea. The French have spent a year backing off Sarkozy's blunt statements to block Turkish EU accession, with frequent trips to Ankara designed to delink the question. France now advocates a "special partnership" for Turkey inside the EU, but Erdogan wants a statement in Paris that Turkey is an EU member candidate.

Most Maghreb states have not sought a union-style "regional grouping" in relations to Europe, experts say, but want deep bilateral ties with the EU countries. This could create a problem of political will and may be a challenge in working together. "Israel and the Arabs and Turkey don't expect a lot out of this," says Vignal. "It's a divided place. They've not wanted regional cooperation, but bilateral ties with the EU."

But for many of the North Africa states, the elephant in the room is Israel. The concern of a grouping that deepens Israeli ties to the EU may not be stated publicly as bluntly as Qadaffi has. But it is a constant refrain in the Arab press. Sarkozy, who has Jewish antecedents, is a frequent traveler and open supporter of Israel – a fundamental break with the traditional French leaning toward the Arabs.

Mohamed Sayed Said, editor of Al Badeel newspaper in Cairo, states that the only difference between the Barcelona process and the Union of the Mediterranean is the presence of Israel, which he described as "premature" for most of the Arab states.

"Unless there is a major breakthrough in terms of Palestinian national rights, few of them are going to be very enthusiastic about joining this forum," Mr. Said said, adding that "I think the problem is with Morocco and Algeria. They have a bigger problem with Israeli membership in the Union."

The participants are invited by Sarkozy to stay on July 14 to attend France's annual Bastille Day celebrations, which recalls the French Revolution. One Paris scholar thought it "weird that we'll have a dozen dictators going to that."

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