Sarkozy pushes Mediterranean Union

The French president sees support for plans that would group nations as diverse as Libya and Spain

The deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea connect three continents and 21 countries with a combined population of more than 400 million. But can this vast and diverse region – with Christians, Muslims, and Jews; Africans, Europeans, and Arabs – operate as a coherent political entity?

That's the idea that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been touting in his first three months in office. Launching his presidency with big ideas, he's proposed the creation of a "Mediterranean Union" to address common regional issues such as immigration, terrorism, environmental degradation, and economic development. Despite its hazy outlines, the plan appears to be gathering momentum on opposite sides of the sea.

But many observers familiar with the nuts and bolts of Euro-Mediterranean relations are skeptical that such a grouping could function on the grand scale Sarkozy seems to be suggesting.

"It's been floated around as a general idea without anybody giving very careful thought to what it really means," says Richard Youngs, director of the democratization program at FRIDE, a Madrid-based think thank. "If this does reflect a genuine desire on the part of the new French government to reengage itself in Mediterranean issues, that's welcome. But it requires some careful thought."

The Mediterranean basin, analysts point out, includes countries as diverse as Spain and Libya, Israel and Algeria, with dramatically different political systems and levels of development. Northern European states like Germany are also chilly on the idea, which they fear may exclude them and could undermine European Union (EU) projects for the region – although many analysts say that such projects have had little success in bringing about promised goals such as a free trade area.

For European countries like France and Spain – which are increasingly feeling the effects of North African poverty and political insecurity – the idea of a new regional grouping for the Mediterranean is attractive precisely because it may offer a forum for tackling the diverse region's many problems. Egypt, Tunisia, and Spain have attached at least tentative support to the idea in recent months, despite the absence of any concrete suggestions from France as to how exactly such an entity would work.

Indeed, for many political analysts in the region, Sarkozy's nascent idea creates more questions than answers: Would it be a supranational organization like the EU with the power to set national laws or merely an institutionalized forum for discussion? And how would it interact with the existing regional organizations – such as the EU, African Union, and Union of the Arab Maghreb – to which its potential members already belong?

"The risk," says Dr. Youngs, "is of simply adding another initiative that merely confuses the picture even more."

The idea of a Mediterranean Union has been around for at least a decade. But the energetic French president has breathed new life into the concept as he's jetted around the region meeting with area leaders in what many analysts see as an attempt to boost France's role as a leader in international relations.

Sarkozy discussed it during meetings with his counterparts in Tunisia and Algeria in a July tour of the Maghreb, talked it up during a working dinner in Slovenia with foreign ministers of EU Mediterranean states, and advertised it during a joint press conference earlier this month with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.

Spain's foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, has now proffered his own plan in an article published earlier this month in the Spanish daily El Pais. He suggested a new union that would have institutions along the lines of the EU such as a council of heads of state, a permanent commission, and even its own bank.

Initially, many observers saw Sarkozy's proposal as a political gambit, aimed at Turkey, whose bid to enter the EU the French leader has vocally opposed. A leading role in a new Mediterranean Union, he suggested, could be a consolation prize for the majority Muslim country.

During his campaign earlier this year, Sarkozy described the "special relationship" that Turkey should have with the EU – not within it. "We must see Europe's relations with Turkey through this Mediterranean Union," Sarkozy said. "If Europe wants to have an identity it must have borders and, therefore, limits."

The Turkish government rejected that idea, and European supporters of a Mediterranean Union have been quick to assure the country that they do not see any new body as an alternative to the EU for Turkey.

Still, the idea of a Mediterranean Union has received a lukewarm reception in Turkey, which has embarked on a painful process of democratic and political reform in an attempt to reach its dream of EU membership.

"Frankly, it looks quite unserious," says Cengiz Aktar, director of the European Union Centre at Bahcesehir University.

Dorothée Schmid, a researcher on Mediterranean issues at the French Institute for International Relations, says French diplomats are working to formulate a more concrete proposal that is likely to be made public sometime in the fall. A Mediterranean project, she suggested, may be a centerpiece of France's presidency of the EU in the second half of 2008.

But she warned that the political climate in the region now may be less conducive to cooperation than in the past, due to increased security issues and heightened international tensions between the Arab world and the West.

Ultimately, too, she says, states must ask themselves whether the Mediterranean is itself a region, or a meeting point between them.

"Is the Mediterranean a region in economic terms, in cultural terms – in any way except for the geographical aspect?" asks Ms. Schmid. "The legitimacy of a Mediterranean frame is quite dubious, I think. Especially on political grounds."

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