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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 / July 12, 2008


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.

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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.

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.